In an era when a firm grasp of history seems more important than ever, it falls to educators like Pero Dagbovie, Ph.D., to help guide future generations in their study of the past. The Cranbrook Schools class of 1989 graduate earned the title of University Distinguished Professor in the Department of History at Michigan State University and holds the position of associate dean within the university’s graduate school.
If anyone seemed destined for their career, it is Dagbovie whose family name may be familiar to generations of Cranbrook alumni. “Both of my parents were teachers,” says Dagbovie. “So, at one level, I was socialized to enter the teaching profession and higher education.”
Dagbovie’s father, Prospero Dagbovie, was a longtime French teacher in the Upper School while his mother, Fran Dagbovie, taught English and served in various administrative positions for many years.
Despite the inspiration he had at home, academics was not always a career aspiration for Dagbovie, who attended Kenyon College as a lacrosse star. “As a freshman in college, I did not know exactly what I wanted to major in,” he says. “I think that I was most interested in ‘international relations,’ whatever that may have entailed in my mind at the time.”
During his freshman year at Kenyon, “I was fortunate to have met a dynamic visiting professor, an African American woman who taught a class entitled ‘Domination and the Arts of Resistance,’” says Dagbovie. “She was Afrocentric in her orientation and profoundly shaped my interpretation of history.”
Following his freshman year, Dagbovie transferred to Michigan State University, where he would go on to earn his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate. Upon graduation, he taught at Wayne State University for several years before he was recruited back to MSU’s Department of History in 2003. In addition to his work in the history department, Dagbovie been active in MSU’s African American and African Studies Ph.D. program.
Dagbovie’s research and teaching interests cover a broad range of subjects and time periods, including black intellectual history, black women’s history, the history of the black historical enterprise, the civil rights-Black Power movement, hip hop culture and contemporary black history.
In 2015, Dagbovie was named an associate dean in the graduate school where he has been an effective voice for diversity and inclusion and graduate student professional development. In 2017, his talents as a professor, scholar and mentor were recognized with the awarding of the title of University Distinguished Professor, among the highest honors given to an MSU faculty member. It is awarded, says the designation, “to select faculty members who are nationally and generally, internationally recognized for the importance of their achievements. Awardees have superior teaching skills that encompass the breadth and depth of their discipline, a distinguished record of public service, and scholarly, creative, and artistic achievements.”
Outside of the classroom, Dagbovie has authored six books and numerous articles, and recently became editor of The Journal of African American History, the oldest and most well-respected journal focused on African American history.
“Writing books for me is a creative outlet,” says Dagbovie, “The process of writing books keeps me focused. I enjoy engaging in historical research (i.e., visiting archives, engaging with historiography, thinking historically, offering new interpretations about what people said and did in the past and why).” His most recent books include Carter G. Woodson in Washington, D.C.: The Father of Black History (2014), What is African American History? (2015) and Reclaiming the Black Past: The Use and Misuse of African American History in the Twenty-First Century (2018).
“African American history has changed profoundly over the past several decades,” says Dagbovie who is encouraged by a collection of path-breaking books that have recently been published.
Dagbovie also has been active public history by helping preserve history through museum exhibitions and the preservation of historic sites. At Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, he served as a consultant for their permanent exhibition, “And Still We Rise: Our Journey Through African American History and Culture.” In addition, he worked with the U.S. Department of the Interior, the National Park Service and others as the principal investigator for the Carter G. Woodson Home, telling the story of the life, work, and contributions of the “Father of Black History.”
Looking back on a career that is still evolving, Dagbovie says, “I have derived a great deal of satisfaction from being able to teach and mentor various generations of graduate and undergraduate students, write books on topics that I am passionate about, and engage in public history.”
No doubt a great deal of that passion for academic excellence and its cultivation came from Dagbovie’s experiences at Cranbrook. He says, “Cranbrook is undeniably a part of me. Being able to attend and benefit from the Cranbrook Educational Community since kindergarten was and is a blessing.”
He cites several faculty members as inspiration for his work and commitment to academic excellence. “I credit more than a few Cranbrook teachers for challenging me to grow as a scholar in high school which, in turn, contributed to my future growth,” he says. “JoJo Macey always encouraged me to be courageously creative. Mr. Martin taught me ‘the basic rules of grammar.’ I know Dr. Fred Roth profoundly impacted my future abilities to reach texts critically and closely and taught me the value of revising and rewriting.” Dagbovie says he still has copies of the legendary English teacher’s detailed, typed comments that he gave every student for every paper.
In the years ahead, Dagbovie will continue to guide and inspire through his writing, teaching and leadership in shaping education at one of Michigan’s leading universities. And by reminding today’s readers of the importance of the past, he will no doubt continue to help shape the opinions and perspectives of tomorrow.