Typically, the university searches far and wide to draw the best candidates
to its graduate programs - but Phil Rubio was delivered right to
Rubio was a Durham postal worker carrying mail on East Campus in 1993 when a group of graduate students invited him to deejay a weekly jazz show on WXDU.
While working with the radio station, he realized that Duke offered a way to combine his varied interests in oral history, labor and African-American, Latin American and Caribbean studies. In 2000, he took early retirement from the Postal Service and joined Duke's graduate program in history.
His route to Duke had been far from traditional: Born in New Bedford, Mass., in 1950, he left Beloit College in Wisconsin in 1969 after a year of undergraduate study. He moved to Durham in 1988 and, while working full time for the post office there, completed his degree through a distance-learning program offered by Vermont College in Montpelier. He received a master's degree from N.C. Central University in 1998.
At Duke, he found a new appreciation for his life experiences and their role in informing the direction of his research. "There were two other non-traditional students in my 2000 cohort, and our life experiences were treated as assets, not anomalies, by history faculty," says Rubio, who completed his Ph.D. in history in 2006. "In my case, they didn't act like a 50-year old mailman who had just won a Mellon Fellowship might not be able to keep up with the program."
His research at Duke focused on 20th century U.S. civil rights and
labor history. He also taught courses at N.C. Central in Latin American
and Caribbean history and at Duke's Center for Documentary Studies
in oral history fieldwork.
His work reflects an eclectic mix of interests and experience, from his heritage - Cuban, Spanish and German on his father's side, Greek and Polish on his mother's - to his experience as a pianist and deejay playing jazz, salsa, R&B, and reggae music.
Based on his observations from 20 years of work at the post office,
Rubio uncovered the neglected subject of labor and civic activism
by black postal workers in the United States. His research and interviews
revealed the crucial role black postal workers played in the development
of postal unions and the 1970 wildcat strike that led to the creation
of the quasi-governmental U.S. Postal Service. He compiled his findings
in his dissertation, " 'There's Always Work at the Post Office':
African Americans Fight for Jobs, Justice, and Equality at the United
States Post Office, 1940-1971."
Rubio also studied the role of diversity in academia, revising and expanding his master's thesis into a 2001 book, "A History of Affirmative Action, 1619-2001," published by the University Press of Mississippi.
Now in his first year as an assistant professor of university studies at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro, Rubio plans to teach a course on the history of the New South next spring.
"Diversity is built into the academic experience. But how much and what kinds of diversity will be valued and taught - to whom and by whom? I argue that as much valuable diversity should be embraced as possible," he says. "But it should not be implemented as just something to enrich the white college student's experience, which unfortunately has become the dominant current in framing this issue in academia today."