Patricia Jones-Jackson

Courtesy of daughter, Brie Jackson.

African American, Linguistics

Patricia Jones-Jackson


Dr. Patricia Jones-Jackson was a linguist and scholar of Gullah folkways and language traditions. Hailing from a large and rural family, Patricia Jones was the seventh of eight children born to Haller Reed Jones and Curtis Lucious Jones in Schaal, Arkansas. Her siblings include former Surgeon General, Dr. Joycelyn Elders. As a child, Jones was educated in Howard County Training School. Initially, she pursued an education in the field of nursing at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville but after determining a new academic interest, Jones completed a BA in English at the University of Detroit (1970) in just two years. Her passion for language inspired her to continue her intellectual journey at the University of Michigan where she completed her PhD in Linguistics with a dissertation titled “The Status of Gullah: An Investigation of Convergent Processes” (1978).  Soon after, she joined the English Department at Howard University and rose to associate professor, teaching there until her untimely death.  

After learning that African descendants in the Sea Islands retained more African traditions than on the mainland, Dr. Jones-Jackson developed a passion for research in the Gullah-speaking region. This formational work would result in nearly a decade of research on both sides of the Atlantic. Like Zora Neale Hurston and Katherine Dunham before her, Jones-Jackson’s fieldwork exemplified participatory ethnography. At times, she could be found working side-by-side with Gullah people, and their cultural kin in Nigeria, in the fields, to learn aspects of contemporary language use and culture directly from the communities in which she worked. Her methodologies honored vernacular knowledge, reciprocity, connection, participation, and a long-term commitment to communal bonds. Building on the foundational work of Lorenzo Dow Turner, who chaired Howard University’s English department in the 1920s, Jones-Jackson connected diasporic communities, sharing linguistic and folkloric lifeways between Gullah, Yoruba, Ibebio, and Igbo people. Studying speech, prayers, sermons, and folktales, she approached her work on traditional language and culture as advocacy for cultural conservation in the face of encroaching leisure development and gentrification in the Gullah communities. 

Dr. Patricia Jones-Jackson was conducting fieldwork on assignment for the National Geographic Magazine on Johns Island, South Carolina when she died in a car accident in 1986. 

Among her acclaimed works relevant to folklore are:

When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions in the Sea Islands (1987) 

“Let the Church Say ‘Amen’: The Language of Religious Rituals in Coastal South Carolina” in The Crucible of Carolina: Essays in the Development of Gullah Language and Culture, edited by Michael Montgomery (2008) 

Michelle Lanier

(coming soon)