History Professor Richard Roberts called Jackson a "pioneer" in the history of East Africa. "He was always interested in the local meanings of changes in popular culture, particularly among the Kamba, [an ethnic group in central Kenya]," Roberts said, adding, "He was especially interested in the interpretation of the first generation of African nationalist leaders," especially Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister of Ghana, and Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania. Roberts said that Jackson's work in African history provided a foundation for numerous scholars who followed him: "He taught many generations of both Stanford graduate students and undergraduate students."
The son of a schoolteacher and a building contractor, Jackson attended segregated schools in Farmville, Va. He earned a bachelor's degree from Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, in 1962 and went on to win fellowships to study at the University of California-Los Angeles, the University of Ghana and Cambridge University, before earning his doctorate from UCLA. He joined Stanford's faculty as an assistant professor in 1969.
Jackson was born in 1941, into what he described as a "striving family." He attended segregated schools in Prince Edward County, where petitions by black families for equal education would eventually be included in the historic Brown vs. Board of Education case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. Rather than integrate its public schools, however, the county shut them down from 1959 to 1964. White families sent their children to private academies and black children went wherever their parents could find work. In 1962, Jackson had already graduated from college, but his younger brother, Otis, had to move away from home with their mother to attend school. Residence Dean Jamila Rufaro said the move had a profound effect on Jackson. "For Kennell, it symbolized the importance of education and the lengths you would go to get one," she said. "It shaped the importance he placed o