The wealthy industrialist Cecil Rhodes was an uber-racist who—in an 1877 paper—asserted that it would be better for native Africans to be under the heel of British rule.

According to a recent story in The South African newspaper, Rhodes wrote in 1877: “I contend that we [white Englishmen] are the first race in the world, and that more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy these parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimen of human being, what an alteration there would be in them if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence.”

Oh what a difference a couple of centuries of enlightenment about race can make.

The Rhodes Trust recently announced that Duke University history major Jamal T. Burns was one of 10 African Americans of the 32 American winners of the Rhodes Scholarships for graduate study at Oxford University in England.

Burns, a native of St. Louis, is a senior at Duke. Burns is a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow, a program named in honor of American philanthropist Andrew Mellon and legendary Morehouse President Benjamin Mays to address underrepresentation in the halls of higher learning.

The Rhodes Scholarships will pay all expenses for Burns during his two or three years of study at the University of Oxford in England, “and may allow funding in some instances for four years,” according to a recent story in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (or JBHE), which also notes that being named a Rhodes Scholar is considered among the highest honors that can be won by a U.S. college student.

Duke senior Kendall Jefferys is also among the newly named Rhodes Scholars, according to an announcement from the university

“While at Duke, Jefferys was a Rachel Carson Scholar, a prestigious program that offers undergraduates research funding and experience in marine science and conservation,” the Duke statement says. “She was also the winner of a Benenson Award in the Arts.”

Wake Forest student Savarni Sanka, originally from Cary, is a recipient too, as is Peter J. Andringa, who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill earlier this year. Sanka is the only North Carolina native on the list.

The JBHE story notes that the scholarships were created in 1902 by the will of Cecil Rhodes, who made a vast fortune in colonial Africa. The country of Rhodesia in southern Africa bore his name between 1965 until 1979, before the country won its independence in 1980. It is now known as Zimbabwe.

“According to the will of Rhodes, applicants must have ‘high academic achievement, integrity of character, a spirit of unselfishness, respect for others, potential for leadership, and physical vigor,’” the JBHE reports. “To date, 3,548 Americans have won Rhodes Scholarships, representing 326 colleges and universities.”

The article also notes that in recent years, the highly prestigious scholarship program has done much to diversify its selection of winners.

In addition to selecting 10 African Americans as Rhodes Scholars this year, 10 were also selected in 2017. Last year, there were four African American winners selected—all women—and in 2018, three were chosen.

Burns will follow in the footsteps of generations of African Americans who became Rhodes Scholars, including the acclaimed writer John Edgar Wideman in 1963, former United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice in 1986, and former presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Cory Booker.

In 1907, Alain LeRoy Locke, the famed philosopher of the Harlem Renaissance, was the first African American selected for the honor.

But it may have been a mistake.

“It is generally believed that at the time of the award the Rhodes committee did not know that Locke was Black until after he had been chosen,” the JBHE reports. “It would be more than 50 years later, in 1962, until another African American would be named a Rhodes Scholar.”

While at Oxford, Burns will study for two master’s degrees in social anthropology and education. Burns’ research “engages colonial influences on interpretations of the masculinity of Black boys in school settings,” according to the JBHE.

The Duke senior is recognized as “a leading promoter of a new debate paradigm known as performance debate,” and he organized a speech and debate tournament that brings high school debaters from across the country to Duke.

The remarkable young scholar—in the spirit of reaching back to help others—also founded and managed a campus organization for first-generation college students.

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