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Student Becomes first African-American to earn Doctorate in History from USM

Fri, 12/11/2015 - 05:02pm | By: David Tisdale

Tonya De'Nee Blair

In taking her doctorate in history from The University of Southern Mississippi at commencement Dec. 11, Tonya De'Nee Blair also made history in the same year the school marked the 50th anniversary of its desegregation.

Blair is the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in history from the University, half a century after Gwendolyn Elaine Armstrong and Raylawni Branch integrated USM when they enrolled at the University in September of 1965.

“I'm very pleased and honored to be a part of that legacy,” she said. “It seems almost surreal to put it into that context.”

Blair chose Southern Miss for graduate school after an uncle who lives in nearby McComb, Miss. encouraged her to consider the University. “He went to school there, and had glowing remarks about it,” she said.

The focus of Blair's doctoral research is Southern history post-Reconstruction. She currently teaches African-American studies at a high school in North Carolina, but would like to return to work in higher education. Blair previously taught at her undergraduate alma mater, Elizabeth City State University.  

On the morning of commencement day, she expressed gratitude for the opportunity to study at Southern Miss and the people who guided her. “I really enjoyed the community here – it was hospitable and supportive,” she said. “I thank the staff of the graduate school and my dissertation advisor, Dr. Douglas Chambers. He supported me from day one and never gave up on me.”

Chambers praised Blair for her dedication and example she has set for those chasing their dreams. “Her scholarly achievement this year, and its coincidence with our commemoration of USM's racial integration, will continue as an inspiration for others,” he said.

For information about the Southern Miss Department of History, visit