Celebrating Black Women Trailblazers: A Conversation with Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch

As we continue our focus on Black History Month, we’re proud to spotlight another Black woman trailblazer, Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch, dean of the Graduate School and professor of History at Arkansas State University. In this exclusive Q&A for our Making History blog series, Dr. Jones-Branch shares insights from her journey, illuminating Black women’s challenges, triumphs and enduring impact in Arkansas.

Can you share a bit about your background and journey? What inspired you to pursue the path you’re on today?

I was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, but I’ve lived in Arkansas for 21 years. I was in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1988-1996 and I am a Persian Gulf War Veteran. I wanted to become a historian long before I knew what that meant. I like doing research and telling stories about people we tend to hear very little about. I came to Arkansas State University in 2003 as a new assistant professor of history, straight out of graduate school at The Ohio State University and spent 17 years in the history department until I became dean of the graduate school in 2020. I am always inspired by opportunities to grow and learn.  

 

How do you believe your experiences have contributed to your success and shaped your perspective on the importance of representation for Black women in Arkansas?

My experiences have made me resilient and determined. I have come a very long way from being that insecure and unsure young woman from Charleston. I am now simultaneously confident and humble. That is to say, I am confident about what I know and humble enough to ask for help or direction for what I don’t know. I don’t mind asking questions, even if they seem dumb. I no longer care about that. If I need information and you have it and I don’t, I’m asking you. 

Black women, and women in general, must show up and represent in spaces where they have not traditionally been. Apply for those positions. Stop waiting until you think you have checked all the boxes. You can’t, and you won’t. That goes for everyone, and that’s a lesson I learned later in life. We are competent and qualified; in fact, we’re typically overqualified. Do it confidently. Do it afraid. It does not matter; just make sure you do it. My mother always says, “Once you’ve done a thing, you can do it again and better.” I believe that wholeheartedly because I have lived it.  

 

In your work on behalf of women and girls in Arkansas, what initiatives or projects are you most proud of, and why?

I am proud of my historical scholarship on women and girls in Arkansas. I co-edited “Arkansas Women: Their Lives and Times”, about women from different backgrounds. I also wrote “Better Living By Their Own Bootstraps: Black Women’s Activism in Rural Arkansas, 1913-1965”, focusing on the little-known history of Black women’s activist labors in rural communities. Additionally, I co-founded the Arkansas Delta Women’s Leadership Academy, which brings women of all stripes together to develop and enhance their leadership skills. I am also very proud of all the young women I have mentored because they’ve done well for themselves. It is important for me to be the woman I needed when I was younger. If you need me to advocate for you, I will. If you are afraid, I probably am as well, but I’ll still stand with you.  

 

Lastly, what message or piece of wisdom would you like to share with the next generation of Black women leaders in Arkansas who aspire to follow in your footsteps?

I often say this to the women leaders coming behind me regardless of their background: Always know your worth and add tax. You are already good enough. You have nothing to prove to anyone. Show up and show out.

 

Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch is Dean of the Graduate School and Professor of History at Arkansas State University. She serves on the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas Board of Directors, she was appointed by Governor Asa Hutchinson to the 2022 Commission on the Status of Women in Arkansas, and she was recognized among the Top 100 Women of Impact in Arkansas in 2023. 

Dr. Jones-Branch is the author of Crossing the Line: Women and Interracial Activism in South Carolina during and after World War II and Better Living By Their Own Bootstraps: Black Women’s Activism in Rural Arkansas, 1913-1965

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