Jackson State University is one of the largest historically black colleges and universities in the United States. Today, the university is recognized for integrating cutting-edge technology and research into all aspects of its curriculum. It all started with its renowned meteorology department.
The rigorous program paved the way for hundreds of black meteorologists and continues to shape the next generation of meteorologists, but the struggle to bring the program to school began with a man known as the pioneer of the JSU meteorology program.
At 95, the life of John A. Peoples Jr. is an incredible story of hard work and tenacity spanning violent racism, segregation and the civil rights movement, which ultimately achieved the most significant breakthrough in legislation on equal rights for African Americans since the Reconstruction period.
Peoples, proud of his storied college career, served as the sixth president of Jackson State University and was the only student from the college to serve in the position. After graduating first in his class in 1950, he moved to Chicago to work on a doctorate in philosophy. He became a teacher and principal before being called back to his home state of Mississippi for a professorship at JSU. He told AccuWeather that at first he was hesitant to return.
“At that time, things were pretty bad in Mississippi… It wasn’t a good place to go, you know,” he said, shaking his head slowly as he recalled the violence that was unfolding. in parts of the southern United States at the time. “They were burning churches and killing people. All kinds of crazy things are happening. But, he explained, this is what made him decide to return home. “It’s a place to go because they need me there.”
Peoples was named president of what was then called the Jackson College for Negro Teachers in 1967 and launched what he called a “crusade” to improve the school’s curriculum and ensure that JSU would become an institution. competitive creating scholars who can find jobs anywhere.
“I would say we had an evolution and a revolution to get Jackson State to where it is now. It was not easy because there was opposition to Jackson State’s transformation from a third-rate teachers’ college to a modern university.
The school dates back to 1877 in Natchez, Mississippi. Founded by the Baptist Society as Natchez Seminary, JSU was originally established as a religious school “for the moral, religious, and intellectual improvement of Christian leaders of the colored people of Mississippi and adjoining states”, depending on the university.
A few years later the school was moved to Jackson where it became a full state university. In 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, the Baptist Society withdrew its financial support and the school became a state-supported institution known as the Mississippi Negro Training School.
“It was common to call black schools training schools,” Peoples explained. “In fact, my high school was the Oktibbeha County Training School. ‘Training’ meant that black people could be trained like animals but could not be taught. So there were a lot of training schools.
Three years after returning to the state to become a professor of mathematics, Peoples was named vice president and then president in 1967 when the university was known as Jackson State College.
Throughout his tenure as president, Peoples said, he faced racism in the form of opposition to his efforts to bring new programs to the school.
“It was controversial,” he recalls. “When I went to college boards, they were like, ‘What do you want, Dr Peoples? I would say ‘I want the same thing you all white people have.’ He stopped and chuckled mischievously. “I didn’t say it like that, of course. But it was my crusade to improve Jackson State’s curriculum.
He explained that the Mississippi State College Board, better known as the Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL), refused to provide him with additional funds for the programs he offered. Peoples has therefore worked hard to identify other sources of funding. In one case documented by Black Agenda Report, it partnered with a local convent to hire nuns with doctorates to teach classes, allowing those programs to receive accreditation. The school’s famous meteorology program originated much the same way.
“I offered meteorology and they didn’t object because they thought I could never do it,” Peoples told AccuWeather. He visited a meteorology unit at the Jackson airport and asked them for help getting the program started, and credits the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with getting the weather department off the ground. Jackson State Meteorology by sending a full-time teacher to the school and paying the salary for that position.
In 1975, a year after the school was renamed Jackson State University, it became the first HBCU to offer a bachelor of science degree in meteorology and the only one to do so until 2008.
The program was a game changer. One in four black meteorologists in the United States graduates from Jackson State, associate professor Loren White, who taught meteorology at the university for more than 23 years, told AccuWeather’s Emmy Victor.
“Generally, the culture has always been that HBCUs have been known to be influential in law school and medical school and some of the classic fields to influence your communities,” White continued. “And the sciences hadn’t been seen in there, at least the Earth sciences, in particular.”
The rigorous four-year program, which includes science and math courses, has graduated more than 1,000 students, many of whom have gone on to forecast the weather across the United States.
During Peoples’ 17-year tenure as president, the university experienced dramatic growth unparalleled at any time in its history. The academic program has developed from baccalaureate to doctorate. According to Black Agenda Report, 80% of what is now known as JSU was developed under Peoples, including the School of Liberal Studies, School of Education, School of Science and Technology, School of Business and Economics and the Graduate School. Eleven new buildings were erected during Peoples’ tenure, the number of faculty tripled, and student enrollment rose from 2,200 to 7,800.
“Jackson State is now a major and comprehensive university. But it wasn’t easy to fight the powers that be,” Peoples said, reflecting on the trip.
Despite all the hard work and impressive list of accomplishments, Peoples, who retired in 1984, remains modest about his role in transforming Jackson State into what it is today.
“I can be proud to have been part of it,” he nodded, a twinkle in his eye. “But I wasn’t everything. There were many other people who helped to move things along.
Reporting by Emmy Victor.
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Edited by Kristen Butler