Dr. David Arlington Roberts Talbot
Dr. David Arlington Roberts Talbot was born on January 25, 1916, in British Guiana (now Guyana), South America, to David Patterson, an ordained minister in the Methodist AME church, and Maude Roberts Talbot. Guyana, now an independent country, was a British colony from 1814-1966. In addition to the British colonists, the demographics of Guyana included the descendants of indentured servants from India and, like Dr. Talbot’s family, the descendants of African slaves. Growing up under British Colonial rule, Dr. Talbot remarked that he was brought up as an “imitation Englishman outside England,” but one who could never be a true Englishman due to colonial politics and discrimination. At Queen’s College in Guyana, Talbot received a wide exposure to the classical fields of study: Latin, Greek, French, mathematics, English literature and composition, philosophy and history.
“It was…the sort of education that didn’t free you. It tied you. Because you always had the feeling that the glories were of the past and that you, as a colonial, had no opportunities really to perform or achieve. You could understand and you could repeat, but you did not have, would not have, the opportunity of being a central figure in history.”
Dr. Talbot came to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1935 in the middle of the Great Depression to attend college. As a young 18-year-old, he recalled a feeling “of arriving on the stage of the main theater of the world.” Although he spent the majority of his life as a colonial Guyanese, it was difficult to accustom himself to the rules and restrictions of the Jim Crow South.
“It [segregation] was such a culture shock and to me, such a terrible expression of man’s inhumanity to man—the dehumanizing aspect of it. People might argue that under the colonial systems discrimination existed, but it was much more subtle and great pains were taken to protect your feeling of integrity and manhood. Here, in America, there was just the communication that told you that you were zero or less.”
Talbot recognized one key difference between Guyana and the United States. In Guyana, he would always be considered a colonial, a second-class citizen behind the British. In America, if the walls of discrimination and segregation could be dismantled, anyone could be recognized for their talents, intellect, and achievements, regardless of race.
“I had this feeling that there was opportunity in the U.S. and that one had a chance not to be a copy or an imitation but to be the real thing. It was a good feeling that the…knowledge that I got would be judged on the basis of its worth, right there in the arena that was the most prominent in the world. This was one good feeling that went with all the bad feelings involved in the change.”
In 1939, Talbot received his bachelor’s degree from Morris Brown College where he briefly taught mathematics before moving to New York in 1940 to begin graduate studies at Columbia University. He halted his studies to enlist in World War II. He served as a personnel officer and interpreter in the Third U. S. Army under General George Patton and was awarded the Bronze Star for his service. Returning to the United States following the war, Talbot married his wife of 57 years, Phyllis Willis on June 19, 1946. They later had three sons, David Jr., Jim and Eric. He worked as a social worker in New York City for six years and also became a successful vacuum cleaner salesman. Although he found financial success as a salesman, he was not content in his occupation. He knew his father expected him to become a minister or a teacher, both professions that served others. Although he was an ordained minister in the Methodist AME Church, he felt the call to teach. After completing his master’s degree at Colombia in 1951, and with the support of his wife and the encouragement of his father, Talbot began writing colleges offering his credentials. His father encouraged him to accept the offer from the college offering the lowest salary because they needed him the most. He received the lowest offer from Shorter College in North Little Rock, Arkansas, and following his father’s advice, he accepted the position and began teaching in 1952.
“…after that my life started having meaning. I was back into the tradition of the family. I was giving more than I was expecting to receive…following Father’s advice was the turning point of my life.”
For five years he served as Dean of Students and head of the English Department at Shorter College before attracting the attention of Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College, now known as the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff. He joined the faculty at Arkansas AM&N and was later named Dean of Students and Associate Vice President of Student Affairs. Dr. Talbot was highly regarded among students, faculty, and staff during his tenure in what was a difficult and tense period in American history, the Civil Rights Movement.
“It was a very, very difficult situation to be a black administrator of a state college when the state laws said that the things that the black students were doing are unlawful. At the same time, as a black you had to say to the students, ‘These are your rights.’ You wanted and needed the respect and trust of your students and yet at times as an administrator, you had an obligation to the state and to the institution. I frequently identified myself with the students. They were fighting for rights which belonged to all Americans and as often as I could I backed them, sometimes regardless of the consequences.”
Talbot obtained his doctorate in 1966 at the University of Arkansas, completing an internship under the direction Dr. D. Whitney Halladay. Later in 1966, Dr. Halladay became the sixth president of East Texas State University. Although ETSU integrated in 1964, there were no black faculty, administrators or courses related to African American history and literature in the years immediately following desegregation. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, a group of students organized ASSET, the Afro-American Student Society of East Texas. ASSET delivered a list of demands to President Halladay requesting among other things, black faculty members and administrators. Dr. Halladay encouraged Dr. Talbot to visit campus and interview.
“I was tremendously impressed by the department…and my prospective colleagues in Student Personnel and Guidance…. But the thing that impressed me most and that changed my decision was that I met with some black students who found out that I had an opportunity to work here as a member of the faculty. One student [said], ‘We really need you. Please come.’ I said, ‘I don’t think I will.’ He said, ‘Really, we need you. Think it over carefully. We really need you to come here.’ And as we were going back to Arkansas in my mind I could just hear the black students saying, ‘We really need you,’ and I could see that old, old black magic, that tradition coming back with my father’s voice almost saying, ‘Hey son, go where you’re needed.’”
Dr. Talbot became the first black faculty member at ETSU in 1968, the same year the public schools in Commerce integrated. Racial prejudice was something the Talbot family faced daily, but Dr. Talbot knew he had the opportunity to effect change.
“Overall, I had to play a dual role, constantly having to say to myself, ‘Don’ t you dare forget that you represent, that you are the representative, elected or not, of all the minorities: black, Indian, Mexican-Americans.’ And that gave me an uncomfortable feeling of mission. You have a mission to facilitate, to help the university, to solve the problems, to change the attitudes, and to obey the law—the spirit, not only the letter but the spirit of the law.”
Dr. Talbot served the university for 19 years as a member of the faculty, department head, director of the Counseling Center, director of the Center for Student Development Services, and as Special Assistant to the University President for Affirmative Action. He implemented many successful programs, including the Inter-Cultural Living Experience and a multi-cultural teacher training institute. Dr. Talbot retired from East Texas State University in 1987. Over the course of his career, he mentored thousands of students, and served as an advisor for multiple organizations, including his fraternity, Omega Psi Phi. He was later recognized as a professor emeritus and was awarded Spirit of Mayo citation.
“I think if you look out of the window, you’d see black, white, brown students walking on campus and apparently with a great deal of ease. That was not so when I came here. I think one of the things that I was instrumental in achieving was removing naked fear from the race relations on campus. I tried to work as an interpreter and as a change agent. I tried to be a messenger—an ‘effector.’”
Dr. Talbot remained in Commerce following his retirement where he was active in civic affairs. He served on the Commerce Independent School District Board of Trustees, the Hunt County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Board of Directors, and was a member of the Kiwanas Club, Norris Community Club, Commerce Literacy Commission, and Hunt County Family Services. He also taught Sunday school and played the organ at the First United Methodist Church. Dr. Talbot passed away on March 9, 2003.
“I think that the course of history has been slightly modified by the fact that in 1968, September 15, I arrived and that I have been used as the transmitter, as some sort of conveyor of, oh, lots of things. Sometimes it’s active, sometimes it’s passive but that I have been…I don’t understand it, and I don’t try to. That’s the part of the mystic in me. It’s traditional in our family. We are service oriented, going where we are called, and I just accept it.”