African-American professor tells rare tale

Chris Phillips

Dr. Charles DeBose, a professor at The University of Akron, is bicultural, bilingual, historical, worldly and a musician.

All of those adjectives are impressive, but DeBose was also the first African-American to graduate from Stanford University with a Ph.D. in linguistics.

Being the first person to do anything is tough, and DeBose had to adapt to a strange and different environment.

“I could tell I was different than most of the other students,” DeBose said. “I sometimes got looks because I would say something that the other people didn’t understand. I would talk like I was talking to my brothers back home. I had to change the way I talked.”

There were other African-Americans on campus at Stanford, though, so DeBose didn’t feel completely alienated.

“Everybody finds people that they are like and hangs out with them,” DeBose said. “My wife and I bonded with other African American couples that we met on campus. It’s only natural to want to be with people that are like you and institutions should provide areas that people can go to and fit in.”

DeBose compared being the first African-American to graduate from Stanford with a Ph.D. in linguistics to the first professional African-American baseball player, Jackie Robinson.

“When you are the first to do something, you represent everybody from that race,” said DeBose. “Jackie Robinson broke the color line and had to keep a level head about it because he represented everyone.”

DeBose didn’t set out to make history; however, his early days were very similar to those of many young people today.

When he was just three years old, DeBose moved to Akron during the Great Migration that saw many African Americans move from the rural south to the midwest, west and north.

“Originally, I had no intentions of furthering my education,” Debose said. “I wanted to write music.”

After some convincing from a friend, DeBose enrolled at The University of Akron where he graduated with a bachelor of arts in Spanish.

After graduating from The University of Akron, DeBose joined the Peace Corps and was part of the first group to be sent to the Dominican Republic. This made him the first African-American to serve in the Dominican Republic as part of the Peace Corps.

“Joining the Peace Corps was psychologically challenging, but it was one of the best learning experiences of my life,” DeBose said. “I got much more from the people there than they got from me. If more Americans could have that experience, we could be more productive and effective at getting what we want done in the world.”

After his stint in the Peace Corps, DeBose traveled the country and had stops in Washington, D.C., and California. His travels eventually lead him to Stanford.

After graduating from Stanford, DeBose took a job at Fresno State University, but wanted to move on and teach at a high school in Oakland, Calif. Finally, he ended up at the California State University East Bay as an associate professor.

DeBose said he took jobs in public institutions because he wanted to give back to people that were much like himself growing up.

DeBose isn’t done, however. He now teaches Intro to Linguistics at The University of Akron and participates in seminars on campus.

“It’s quite a trip for a young kid from East Akron,” DeBose said.