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Faculty Focus: Call of Justice Leads Anthropologist Nancy Fairley to Alter Her Retirement Plans

Nancy Fairley
Fairley was a regular speaker at campus forums.

After 21 years teaching anthropology at Davidson, Professor Nancy J. Fairley knew exactly what she wanted to do with her retirement years. She would teach for a year at Fourah Bay College in Liberia for a year to help fill that country's desperate need for instructors. She would then return to the bungalow she owns in her beloved Ghana, and spend several months catching up on her research and writing about that country.

As a graduate student and later founder of Davidson's summer study abroad program in Ghana, she had visited the country many times and gathered data for a number of academic papers. But somehow her plans to write up the research always ended up on the back burner behind classroom teaching, counseling students on matters academic and soulful, and working on college initiatives to recruit and retain minority students.

On January 21 those plans abruptly changed.

That day she sat in Duke Family Performance Hall listening to the Martin Luther King Day talk by former NAACP President Benjamin Jealous. In a stirring address, Jealous condemned social injustice and testified that "only regular people change the world."

As Fairley heard it, he was calling her name. Within a week she had joined the NAACP and volunteered to help full-time with its voter registration drives until the upcoming November election. "I guess you could say I had an epiphany!" she said. "I'm bothered by North Carolina legislative action that can potentially restrict minority voting rights. I can't sit back and watch this happen. I want to do this. I have to do this."


The issue hits home for Fairley. She grew up as the fifth of eight children in the small tri-racial rural town of Maxton, N.C. In that era prior to mandated integration, the town was divided into sections for schools, churches, and business districts for its Lumbee, white and black residents.

Nancy Fairley and student
Fairley and student researcher Eddison Wilkinson at a poster fair.

The Jim Crow laws of the day that separated the races also prevented non-whites from voting. That changed with passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Fairley clearly remembers the pride her parents took in casting their first ballots in the 1968 election. Listening to Jealous, she promised herself she would do all she could to make sure poor and minority citizens today would be able to vote unhindered as well.

Fairley grew up in a happy, stable home. Her father was a long-distance trucker and her mother cared for the children. All hands contributed to working the family farm, and dad assigned each child a small plot to work on their own as an exercise in character building.

In her all-black schools Fairley earned straight-A's and developed a deep admiration for teachers. She received a scholarship offer from Clark College in Atlanta and enrolled there in part to finally see the world beyond Robeson County, and to contribute to the civil rights movement.


At Clark, she became more active in the protests against arcane college rules than the national civil rights struggle. She and other students tested administrative boundaries on issues such as the dress code and dorm curfews. She also tested her parents' boundaries by cutting off her styled hair in favor of a natural.

Given the political tone of the times, she considered majoring in political science. But she became more interested in African studies and anthropology. She realized that anthropology provided an enticing window for the study of everything related to people-their culture, politics, language and history. She furthered that interest through an undergraduate research project in a topic she knew well-the "root workers" of her sandhills North Carolina region.

These spiritual advisors had struck fear into Fairley and her playmates as children because of their alleged magical powers. Through her studies, however, Fairley learned about their African heritage as important members of the community who could find and administer natural medicinal herbs for the sick, and render personal advice to the worried and love-lorn.

The research sparked her academic interest in Africa. But Clark had no African Studies program, so Fairley transferred to City University of New York. During her undergraduate studies there she visited Africa for the first time, spending time in Ghana studying its Fante, Ashanti, and Ga civilizations.


She developed an intense interest in pre-colonial Africa. So after receiving her bachelor's degree in 1972 she decided to pursue a Ph.D., and write her dissertation on the 19th century political history of the small Zaireian kingdom of Basonge. For 18 months in 1976 and 1977 she lived in a Basonge village. She slowly learned the language, and traveled the countryside interviewing "grios," those members of the Kisonge community charged with maintaining the oral history of their people. "I spent a lot of time being quiet and smiling," Fairley recalled. "When I did speak, they teased my dialect and said I sounded like the Belgians."

It was an extraordinary experience through which she made many friends, and earned her doctoral degree. She later named her daughter "Malu," the same name as the son of a close Zaireian friend.

Fairley received her Ph.D. in May 1978 and began seeking a job in academe. Her first collegiate teaching experiences were at Lake Forest College near Chicago and the University of Cincinnati. After three years she joined the faculty at CUNY as an assistant professor of Africana Studies, and taught there from 1982 to 1992.

As her father's health began to fail she felt a tug toward home and family in North Carolina. In 1991 she got a phone call from the late Davidson professor Janet Shannon inviting her to apply for a position at Davidson. Fairley was attracted by the prospect of teaching small classes, and the college's interest in establishing an ethnic studies program and a study abroad program in Africa.


Soon after joining the Davidson faculty in 1993, the college soon asked her to lead a delegation of 10 faculty, students and staff to investigate possible sites in West Africa for a study abroad program. The group visited several countries, but Fairley's familiarity with Ghana and contacts there helped tip the scales. The delegation recommended a program based at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, which promised an authentic cultural and academic program.

Nancy Fairley
Fairley (r) at a Martin Luther King Day symposium.

The program now runs on an every-other-year basis during six weeks of the summer, and Fairley has directed it four times. She also received a Fulbright Fellowship in 1999-2000 to extend her directorship of the program to conduct research on African Americans who repatriated to Ghana.

Fairley was careful to establish logistics so that the Ghana program could operate with other faculty members serving as resident director. Those faculty colleagues who have answered the call so far are Brenda Flanagan, Donna Molinek, Helen Cho and Fuji Lozada. Michael Guasco will head up next summer's group, and Cho has agreed to replace Fairley as overall director of the program.

The more she has studied African culture, the more Fairley has recognized the influence of African slaves on her own Southern American culture. She developed a course, "Africanisms in American Culture," to look at this cultural influence, which she claims makes the American South different from the North. She began speaking about the subject to church groups and civic clubs, and received an Associated Colleges of the South grant to stage a two-day workshop on the subject at Davidson in spring 2011.

Her point about cross-cultural influence was clearly, but inadvertently, demonstrated by one of her students participating in the Ghana program. When the student saw a vendor boiling peanuts, she exclaimed "I'm going to love Ghana because they boil peanuts just like us!" Fairley corrected her. "You mean we boil peanuts just like them!"


Her warm manner and comfort in front of audiences also led Fairley to a sideline hobby as a storyteller. She was introduced to the craft by her father, and started to perform by telling his tales to Malu's school classes. Her reputation spread, and she found herself in demand to perform at other schools, churches and festivals. In 2006 and 2007, she conducted workshops on storytelling and its significance in the education of youth for teachers of Freedom Schools from across the nation. She is also planning to present a course on storytelling and family identity through the "Davidson Learns" community classroom program.

In addition to all her activities off campus, Fairley devoted herself to her Chambers Building classrooms and office. She described herself as a cultural anthropologist whose research interests include ethnic relations, oral history, religion, Africa and the Diaspora. She taught courses about ethnic relations in America, art, African civilizations, and Africanisms in American Culture. During the past several years she also taught a course on "Visual Culture" that requires students to produce an ethnographic film on Carolina culture.

She also worked faithfully to help the college recruit and retain more minority students, working with the STRIDE pre-orientation program, July Experience, the counseling office, career services and residence life. She said, "When I arrived there were very few African American students, and they had a difficult time adjusting to campus life. They had a hard time living on a campus where they were a minority 24 hours a day. That's a steep cost to pay for an education. They were working hard, but weren't enjoying the Davidson experience."

She applauds steps the college has taken to increase the number of minority students, and says there is now a critical mass of minority students here that makes them more comfortable.

Her work on the institutional level has been matched by her personal efforts to promote community here. Though there's no "counselor" plaque on her door, she welcomes all into her office to share their academic struggles and social issues. She encourages students to develop confidence in their academic skills and take ownership of the college.


Those efforts have made a positive impact, and earned her the 2006 Student Government Teaching Award, the 2008 Thomas Jefferson Award, and the 2011 Hunter Hamilton Love of Teaching Award.

In nominating Fairley for one of those honors, a student wrote, "I never had a professor who spoke not only to my mind, but also my soul."

Another prize citation hailed her "for her positive impact on students, and personal commitment to their success." It continued, "If there is a common thread to this labor and record of love and service, it is community-building. No one stands taller in helping build a true and caring Davidson community, one that encompasses all students, minority and majority in all ways: race, gender, sexual orientation, and national origin."

In facing retirement, Fairley has but one regret. "I haven't published as much as I'd like," she confessed. She has been a regular presenter at professional conferences, and has written journal articles on the significance of dreams among African American, West Indian, and African people, women's roles in the church, and the dilemma of the black scholar. But given the time she would have published more.

She was looking forward to retirement as an opportunity to work on her unfinished scholarship. In fact, she developed a long-term plan to spend seven months of the year in Davidson, and five months in Ghana.

Then she heard NAACP's Ben Jealous speak, and her priorities changed. "I'm postponing my plans to teach next year in Africa," she announced. "I wouldn't be able to bear the thought that I didn't try to make sure everyone has a vote that counts."

Though many people recognize her as quite extraordinary, the NAACP is lucky to have attracted this "ordinary person" from Davidson to help it change the world.