Cherisse Jones-Branch, Ph.D
Dean of the Graduate School
James and Wanda Lee Vaughn Endowed Professor of History
Arkansas State University
Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch
Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch didn’t mean to become a rural historian. But the Arkansas State University professor has spent the last seven years researching Black women in rural spaces for her book, Better Living by Their Own Bootstraps: Black Women’s Activism in Rural Arkansas.
Her accidental specialty originated with a paper she wrote about Black women in rural Arkansas who worked as home demonstration agents for the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Cooperative Extension Service in the early to the mid-20th century.
The women taught rural families, most often other women and girls, how to keep and modernize their households by managing income, preserving food, and keeping healthy at a time when people were migrating out of rural communities in droves. The first home demonstration club in Arkansas started in 1912, and the program received federal funding nationwide in 1914. The clubs and the agents running them were racially segregated until 1966, as most of the USDA’s work in the South was at the time; Black women were sent to work with Black families. As Dr. Jones-Branch dug deeper into her research, she became convinced that these Black women served not just as educators, but as political activists.
As a Charleston native, Dr. Jones-Branch grew up in a place rich with history. While many study US history in textbooks, Charlestonians live it and see it every day. From the historic plantations to the downtown streets, nearly every aspect of Charleston tells a story of times long ago, although they are not always happy stories. As such, it makes perfect sense that she began to feel the pull to become a historian at a young age with a special interest in African American and women’s history.
When it came time for higher education, Dr. Jones-Branch, also a Persian Gulf War veteran, knew she wanted to stay close to home. She attended the College of Charleston for her undergraduate degree. During her time as a graduate student at the University of Charleston, SC, she worked at the Avery Research Center, an ideal opportunity given her affinity for African American history.
She left Charleston to pursue her Ph.D. at The Ohio State University. Her dissertation, which also became her award-winning first book, was on black and white women’s interracial activism in South Carolina. She went to Arkansas State University in 2003 and became one of the first three James and Wanda Lee Vaughn Endowed Professors at the university and the first and only African American in Arkansas State University’s history. She currently serves as Dean of the Graduate School.