MUSC's first humanities scholar honored for career's work

June 16, 2021
a man with a cane poses in front of a small white wooden building in a country setting
J. Herman Blake, Ph.D., stands in front of Moving Star Hall, one of the few remaining praise houses in the Lowcountry. Photos by Sarah Pack

Looking back over his life’s work, which has taken him from the University of California Santa Cruz, where he was the first Black faculty member and founding provost of Oakes College, to the Medical University of South Carolina, where he was the first humanities scholar in residence, J. Herman Blake, Ph.D., sees as the common thread that he was always “seeking to build a sense of community.”

Now, the American Sociological Association is honoring him with its Distinguished Career Award for the Practice of Sociology.

“When I think about where I started, what I wanted to do, what I ended up doing, I’m overwhelmed. Overwhelmed,” he said.

Lisa Kerr, Ph.D., director of the MUSC Office of Humanities, was pleased to learn of the honor for Blake. She said Blake became a mentor in the humanities for her during the time he worked at MUSC.

“He was incredibly humble given all of the leadership positions he’d held, all the accolades he’s received over the years. You would not know his accomplishments from interacting with him,” she said.

Blake was born and raised in New York but had family roots on Johns Island. He served as a medic in the U.S. Army, then attended New York University, where he intended to study social work. Instead, he became fascinated by the study of sociology and wanted a “life of the mind.” After graduating in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree, he went on to the University of California at Berkeley, where he earned his doctorate in sociology. 

From there, he joined the faculty of UC Santa Cruz (UCSC), which, at the time, was a relatively new institution within the University of California system. UCSC modeled itself after the residential college system at the U.K.’s Oxford University, and Blake became instrumental in the founding of the university’s seventh college, later named Oakes College.

He and the other founding faculty members had a vision for a college committed to liberal education and high standards that would have a diverse faculty and recruit from all underrepresented groups, including ethnic minorities, low-income students and women. It was a continuation of his commitment to undergraduate education that began while he was still at Berkeley and teaching part-time in the Bay Area. Decades later, one of his students honored Blake on the floor of the U.S. House for that commitment.

“He saw something in me that I did not see,” said California Rep. Barbara Lee. “He was patient and kind, but he was determined to push my intellect and help me understand I could achieve the American dream regardless of the difficulties I faced as a young single mother on public assistance. For that, I am forever grateful.”

It was while at UCSC that Blake began his long professional association with the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. In 1967, the Schwarzhaupt Foundation, which was funding Septima Clark’s citizenship school program on Johns Island, asked Blake to visit the island and assess the school’s work. Blake stayed with family on the island and began his lifelong foray into the history and customs of the Gullah Geechee community.

He regularly visited and began bringing his UCSC students to spend summers living and working within the community. While here, he would often visit Moving Star Hall, one of the few remaining local praise houses in the Lowcountry. Praise houses, he explained, date to the times of slavery. They were small buildings where enslaved people could worship without oversight. These weren’t traditional European church services led by a minister; instead they were gatherings where people might sing, testify or offer a prayer. Moving Star Hall still stands on Johns Island, though it has been converted to a chapel. Nonetheless, the small white wooden building is a powerful symbol.

“It is a signal, central element of Gullah Geechee culture. When you see this place, hardly any sign, nothing ‘distinctive’ about it, you realize you’re at one of the most sacred places on this island,” he said.

His first, brief association with MUSC came during this time when he was invited to be a keynote speaker during a conference involving MUSC and the Johns Island community. The event had been organized to improve relations and to see how MUSC could become more involved in community health issues.

a man speaks in the breeze under oaks 
J. Herman Blake, Ph.D., talks about how he looked for a humanities presence in departments and units at MUSC.

Blake researched and wrote a paper about community perspectives on health – and highlighted how community perspectives differed from the medical university’s perspective.

“As my own uncle once said to me, ‘Every sick ain’t for tell the doctor,’” Blake said. “You don’t tell the doctor about your illness.”

Blake remained at UCSC for 18 years before moving on to Tougaloo College in Mississippi, Swathmore College, Indiana University, Iowa State University and the Sea Islands Institute at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

He had retired to Johns Island when MUSC came calling. John Raymond, M.D., provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, invited Blake to become the university’s first humanities scholar in residence in 2007. The position came with a broad mandate to “enhance the humanities perspective at MUSC.”

“John Raymond gave me a set of keys and an office and left it to me to figure out how to make it work,” Blake said.

He began by meeting with every dean, many of the department chairs and hospital leaders as well as attending grand rounds and becoming familiar with existing programs.

“My goal was to ‘listen eloquently’ for the manifestation of a ‘humanities presence’ in every setting,” he explained. “I became keenly aware that there was a strong interest in the humanities throughout MUSC, but the heavy time demands of the existing units and programs indicated the best approach was to augment and strengthen every humanities perspective in every unit or program, rather than increase their time demands.”

“My goal was to ‘listen eloquently’ for the manifestation of a ‘humanities presence’ in every setting."

J. Herman Blake, Ph.D.

Blake became involved in making presentations to both faculty and staff. Over his eight years at MUSC, he regularly made presentations to second-year dental students; presented to medical students on ethics, end-of-life care and the fundamentals of patient care; brought in speakers for grand rounds; and co-published a paper in the journal Thoracic Surgery Clinics with MUSC pediatric cardiac surgeon Robert Sade, M.D., and lawyer Mary Kay Schwemmer of the Charleston School of Law, highlighting how telemedicine has changed the way that patients and surgeons communicate.

When Kerr met Blake, she was working in the Center for Academic Excellence and the Writing Center. They collaborated for several years, along with colleagues from the College of Charleston, Trident Technical College and Charleston School of Law, to organize a book club focused on health and health care issues.

“The idea was to engage the MUSC community with the larger community – Herman was very focused on involving the community,” Kerr said.

He also encouraged her in her career. She remembers a lunch conversation with him shortly before he retired from MUSC. At the time, she was about to become chair of the University Humanities Committee, but she felt, as did many of her predecessors, that something more permanent should be in place.

“He was the one at that lunch who said, ‘Have a plan, think about what you want.’ And I ultimately came up with a proposal for the Office of Humanities,” she said.

While at MUSC, Blake was also able to incorporate the work he had done in the Sea Islands during his time at UCSC, utilizing, for instance, oral histories he had taken from residents. One of the most meaningful to him was that of a woman whose father had been enslaved and sold away three times. She spoke of how they searched for each other after the Civil War.

“When you have those accounts, those narratives, and when you can play the tape, it’s a way of impressing upon medical professionals the importance of not only being professional but being caring. That's what I did,” he said.

After Blake left MUSC in 2015, he became executive director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission until 2017. He now lives in the Lowcountry with his wife, Emily L. Moore, Ed.D., former associate dean for academic and faculty affairs in the MUSC College of Health Professions.

The American Sociological Association is presenting its awards during a virtual annual meeting in August.