At nine years old, Joey Jennings joined a Little League football team in his home town, Jefferson City, Tenn. That’s where Jennings said he remembers first encountering racism.
Someone referred to Jennings using a racial slur. He also dealt with other name calling.
“It just got in my brain,” Jennings said Wednesday. “Why do people hate me? ... It made me hate my color for a long time.”
Jennings, 22, will graduate Saturday from Winthrop University. Jennings said the racism he faced has been a large factor in his choice to study sociology and pursue a career in research.
“I wanted to understand why this was, and make it better not only for my siblings, but for my kids in the future,” he said. “I don’t want them to suffer the same things I suffered. (Racism) is still a very real issue today.”
Jennings is one of three sociology undergraduates among a group of thousands of students nationwide who were offered 2019 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, according to a release from Winthrop. Jennings has been awarded a full scholarship to the University of Maryland in College Park to pursue his doctorate.
Jennings said he applied to six graduate programs and was accepted into all of them. He chose Maryland for the school’s location near Washington, D.C. and available research opportunities.
“When I got accepted to the NSF ... I was overwhelmed. I broke down, I cried. I felt like my research meant something to somebody,” Jennings said.
During his Winthrop career, Jennings examined police brutality over a 23-year period. Jennings said the project focused on data obtained in a public online survey on race relations, following the Rodney King incident in 1992 and the 2015 Freddie Gray riots.
Jennings also studied newspaper articles related to the Baltimore riots and spoke with Leonard Pitts, who wrote a series on how people can help improve race relations, according to Winthrop.
“The analysis showed that, during the 23-year period between the observed riots, public opinions on prejudice were related to systematic discrimination practices that led to marginalization of inner-city minority communities,” Jennings said in the release. “In turn, these communities find in riots an opportunity to bring public awareness to their constant criminalization, invisibility in the criminal justice system and marginalization.”
Jennings presented his research at the Southern Sociological Society Conference and Winthrop’s Showcase for Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavors, according to Winthrop.
He also spent last summer at the NSF research program at the University of North Carolina - Charlotte, the release states. Jennings researched areas of high homicide in Charlotte and presented his findings at UNCC’s symposium and to the Midwest Criminal Justice Association.
Jennings said he hopes to use his Ph.D. to improve race relations around the world.
“It is because I have witnessed numerous types of adversity and injustice, or a lack of proper justice, firsthand that I want to further my academic career in sociology and engage in social research with the hopes that I can uncover social injustice,” Jennings said in the release.
When Jennings experienced the name-calling and racial tension in middle school, Jennings said, his dad stuck up for him.
“He stood up for me and put a stop to the name calling, but it did not ease my heart. I was able to grasp that the reason I was treated differently was related to my skin tone,” he said in the release. “We struggled, it was tough, but my family is strong. My dad raised my siblings and I to fight, and that made me the man I am today.”
Jennings’ family struggled financially. There were times without enough food and days without electricity, according to the release. His mother also battled substance abuse.
“My dad worked all the time to try to get us out of the hole, but it was very difficult for him,” Jennings said.
Jennings said he saw his mom go to jail multiple times when he was a child, due to her battle with cocaine.
“I blamed myself whenever she went to jail for the first time. I held that resentment in my heart for a while but she’s my mom and I love her to death,” he said.
Winthrop became a place Jennings could grow and pursue his dreams.
Besides academics, Jennings also excelled in track and field. He holds the current Winthrop record for indoor and outdoor pole vault.
“I don’t brag about that too often but my dad loves to hear it and my sisters love to hear it,” Jennings said.
Jennings also served as the leader of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a peer mentor, and president of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee at Winthrop. He was chosen for the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, the highest honor bestowed to a male Winthrop student.
Jennings credits his Winthrop professors for where he is headed.
“The Ph.D. is a start for me to work as an activist, to create change, and to shine an academic light on social issues that have been dark for some time now,” Jennings said in the release. “I love learning, and I want to use my strengths to help marginalized people and answer the questions I faced as a youth.”