Remarks Upon the Death of Professor Ray Gavins
Historical Society of North Carolina Meeting
October 14, 2016
Greensboro, North Carolina
By Andre D. Vann, NCCU Archivist
“A Life In Full”
An ancient African proverb states that “when an old person dies, a library burns to the ground”
I would not exactly call him old, but I think the writer of this African proverb must have had Dr. Gavins in mind with such powerful words. Today, I can say that I feel that great loss as if it was yesterday and I recognized that a mighty oak had fallen and leaves as Edwin Markham wrote “And leave a lonesome place against the sky.” Though saddened by his loss, we recognize that he has left many outstanding examples which we, who are left behind, would do well to emulate.
I am indeed pleased and thankful that you have taken the time to stop and reflect on the life of my dear friend, and your associate. Dr. Ray Gavins who spent a total of 45 years at Duke beginning in 1970-the year of my birth by the way. He was a mentor, scholar, activist, historian, and wise sage, preacher of the gospel, an intellectual and a true son of the south.
Thank you to the Brown-Gavin’s Family, Historical Society of North Carolina and indeed the Greater Duke University History Department Faculty, Staff and Students for this time. His dear wife Thurletta Brown Gavin’s and I have many connections from back home in Henderson and Warrenton, NC.
I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the life and work of a man who was not only a professor at Duke University, but he was also a part of the Durham family at large. He used his talents and writings to change the narrative about how others saw the experiences of African Americans in the Jim Crow south with his great works The Perils and Prospects of Southern Black Leadership and co-authored Remembering Jim Crow. In fact it was at his urging that I was asked to submit for publication for the later publication-a picture of my great grandfather and great uncle who were farmers in Vance County for Remembering Jim Crow in 2001.
In researching and writing about those who had been invisible far too long he helped to change the America historical quilt for the better.
It was my good fortune to have known the one whom we have come here to honor today-Dr. Raymond Gavin’s-better known as “Cousin Ray” since March of 1991 when what I would call of the greatest gatherings of scholars ever assembled came to Durham to explore one of the first attempts to examine and explore the Jim Crow era through history, research and oral history. If all of the historians who gathered were gangsters they all would have been arrested for racketeering.
Out of the work of these conversations came -The Behind the Veil Project. I was among an early group of students who learned in a joint class taught between NCCU and Duke University-which were by the way, the very first courses ever taught between the two institutions and among the very first courses that were taught on the history of Jim Crow in the south.
We learned firsthand from Ray Gavins, Bob Korstad, Bill Chafe, Leslie Brown and Annie Vaulk, Beverly Jones, Freddie Parker and others who were on the cutting edge of this research area. We saw each other often and on almost any day I would run into him on the NCCU track field jogging and talking because he understood that one needed an outlet outside of work.
While my little hometown of Henderson, North Carolina or “Henason” as we say is the resting place of the remains of our dear friend and I can say that I have visited his tomb as often as I am in Henderson.
However, I am reminded that no stone slabs or monuments can ever hold the fine story, memory and legacy of a great man. You see he was what I call comfortable with himself, self assured, confident and was one of the greatest influences in my life. He worked in order that the next generation would not have to prove themselves as he let his work speak himself-That was Cousin Ray.
Cousin Ray’s success was possible because of his experiences of growing up in the south in Atlanta and because of his clear understanding of history, because of his intellect and because he remained curious and surrounded himself students and friends who were as well.
You see a good teacher is smart enough to know that you never stop learning and you can even learn from your students. Such was the case on May 9th 2016 which was the last time that we would greet and see each other. I was hosting a lunch and learn at the Stanford L. Warren Branch Library in honor of one of his students (Dr. Crystal Sanders) who had authored a new book A Chance for Change and who comes in the door, but Professor Gavins and Dr. Martina Bryant to support her and ever willing to hear something new and refreshing-that was “Cousin Ray”.
Further, he possessed many great gifts and one of them was listening. He was able to convey that he was genuinely concerned with you and he understood the importance of being heard.
He came to visit me often in Shepard Library as he was on the hunt for materials for research on African Americans in North Carolina and we sat on my proverbial front porch discussing materials and links to hidden gems and he often sent over a few students and asked me to assist them with their research projects.
I am saddened by the loss of Dr. Ray Gavins or as I called him “Cousin Ray”, but I am happy about the lengthening shadow that his body of research he left behind. He was a personal friend of mine, fellow member of the Historical Society of North Carolina and a role model in the historical profession.
I am reminded of a Greek proverb that states “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” I think the Greeks must have had “Cousin Ray” Gavins in mind as a he was a true historian whose life, work and mentorship will live on in the lives of those present and those yet to come.
I shall always cherish his friendship and may you join me in keeping his memory alive forever.