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Academics, Science and Technology

Passion for culture drives career in anthropology

Antoinette Jackson interviewing a descendant in Nicodemus, Kan. to learn more about the people buried at the Washington Cemetery. Photo provided by Antoinette Jackson

Antoinette Jackson left her job in Corporate America behind to pursue something more rewarding: a job in researching and preserving culture.

Now, Jackson has several grants to research such historical events and places as the Underground Railroad in Florida and the Gullah/Geechee communities along coastal North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Jackson teaches the graduate seminar called Issues in Heritage Tourism every fall at the University of South Florida.

“My passion really started when I took a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, and Hilton Head, South Carolina, and toured the Gullah/Geechee community,” Jackson said. “I became fascinated by the stories they were telling me about the culture and the people in the region who were descendants of enslaved Africans.”

The Gullah/Geechee community still employs the Creole language and skills sewing sweet-grass baskets created by its ancestors.

From there, anthropology became Jackson’s hobby. While living in Chicago, she took journalism classes at Northwestern University and wrote stories about her research. She soon took a trip to Egypt and became fascinated with the culture and civilization of ancient Egyptians.

“All of the comforts that we have today, they had thousands of years ago,” Jackson said. “I realized at that point I really didn’t want to stay in corporate.”

While researching those cultures on the side, Jackson considered pursuing a doctorate in business. But, something about business didn’t sit right with her. If she was going to devote so much of her time to one program, it would have to be something she loved.

“When getting a doctorate, you need to have passion for the subject,” Jackson said. “And that’s when I thought about my research.”

Jackson chose to earn a doctorate in anthropology, which became the most rewarding thing for her. Working in that area allows Jackson to utilize all of her skills, such as business, writing and computer science skills.

“I get paid to research and write,” Jackson said. “And to watch my students become motivated with the projects that they are working on.”

Graduate student Margaret Allsopp, who is earning her doctorate in anthropology, described Jackson as a great mentor.

“She has impacted my life enormously,” Allsopp said. “I am honored to work with her.”

Allsopp said Jackson welcomed her into the graduate program when she signed up for Jackson’s undergraduate cultural anthropology class. Three years into her doctoral program, Allsopp has completed most of the required graduate courses and several research projects with Jackson. With a background in technology, Allsopp videotaped research and captured oral histories from projects in the Tampa neighborhood of Sulphur Springs and in Nicodemus, Kansas.

Today, Jackson juggles teaching and working on several projects. On one grant project, Jackson is working in coordination with the National Park Service to preserve and protect the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a federally designated national heritage area and associated communities.

“We are in the process of setting up educational programs for the community to not only preserve it, but to also help it flourish,” Jackson said.

In the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom project, Jackson works with Rosalyn Howard from the University of Central Florida to gather history of the Underground Railroad in Florida. Descendants of enslaved Africans who escaped on the Underground Railroad through Florida to the Bahamas will gather at a St. Augustine conference in June 2012 to tell their stories that Jackson and Howard will gather into an educational program for the public.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly limited the scope of the Gullah-Geechee communities to one state. It also inaccurately placed Charleston, S.C., in the wrong state and inaccurately referred to Sulphur Springs, a Tampa neighborhood, as Silver Springs, a location in Marion County.


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