My Truth: My Journey Toward Servant Leadership
I had bad vibes about Howard University’s College of Pharmacy (COP) almost from the moment I sat in my first class. Physically, the College was situated in the “Valley,” Howard’s medical complex, four or five blocks downhill from Howard’s main campus. It was surrounded by the colleges of Medicine, Dentistry and Nursing, and the former Freedman’s Hospital.
The other pharmacy students in my entering first-year class all seemed older, more mature, businesslike than me, and many were using the educational benefits of the GI Bill. The overall atmosphere of the COP was dry and somber, unlike the fun-filled atmosphere of Cook Hall and the main campus. It was also a much longer walk to class, especially in inclement weather.
In COP, we weren’t called “freshmen”; we were called “first years” because most of the class of 30 or so had previously completed one or two years of undergraduate study, enabling them to focus on their pharmacy courses.
Had I known that I had the option of enrolling in the College of Liberal Arts before entering Howard’s pharmacy program, I’d have done so. Instead, I was carrying a course load of the required undergraduate programs for freshmen and also first-year pharmacy courses.
Once again, I found myself the youngest, and perhaps least organized person, in my first-year classes. All of the students were older than me, some several years older. Many were World War II veterans, attending school under the educational provisions of the GI Bill. Only four of us were true college freshman: that bright, motivated young woman from Texas; a young woman from Duluth, Minnesota; Billy Hughes from D.C., and me.
Our teachers were pleasant, but business-like. They had knowledge to impart, shared it, and expected students to absorb it. If not, well, that’s on you. There was little student interaction outside the pharmacy classroom and no counselling –– formal or informal – by upperclassmen, faculty or staff.
After class, I’d return to the excitement and fellowship of Cook Hall and listen enviously to my fellow freshmen talk about the excitement of their classes with renowned Black scholars, some members of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Sterling A. Brown (English); Alain Locke (philosophy); Chancellor Williams (social sciences); E. Franklin Frazier (sociology); John Hope Franklin (history); and others.
I was lost in pharmacy and my first semester grades showed it. Other than English, my grades were abysmal. I can’t and don’t want to remember the details, but they were bad enough to convince me that pharmacy wasn’t for me. Nevertheless, like a lousy job or a poor relationship, I decided to ignore the obvious and press on, hoping for some miraculous improvement.
Things worsened during my second semester. I met a lovely young woman who lived in D.C., and we soon became an “item.” Surprise, surprise, my already poor academics took second-place to my first love. It didn’t help that, with my homework undone, I wasn’t prepared for classes – which I then often skipped.
Then came the summer back in New York City.
SUMMER OF 1950
Like almost all college students – especially Black students – finding summer employment was a real challenge. My previous summer position at the National Urban League in New York City was no longer available, but I was referred to and hired as a messenger by a small men’s hat band manufacturer near Washington Square in Manhattan. They were hesitant about hiring me because they rightly assumed that, as a college student, I’d leave to return to school in a couple of months. I lied and told them I’d dropped out of college; I was hired. Then, just as they feared, I gave my notice at the end of August.
It was hard work. I was on my feet for almost the entire workday, was low-person in the corporate pecking order, and was responsible for delivering all sorts of hat bands to hat manufacturers in New York’s Garment District.
It was a full–time job: Minimum wage at the time was a huge seventy-five cents per hour. After federal, state, local taxes and social security deductions from my weekly gross salary of $30, my take–home pay was enough for my contribution to our household expenses, my personal needs, transportation, and lunch. I had barely enough left to go on a date.
Lesson learned. Stay in school. Get an education. It’s tough out there.
I kept my academic problems to myself and brushed off Ma’s inquiries about school with assurances that everything was just fine.
Despite my disastrous freshman year, I looked forward to returning to Howard, not for its College of Pharmacy, but to enjoy my newly-discovered, all be it unmanageable, independence. Other than frequenting “U” Street, D.C.’s “Black Broadway” and its segregated movie theaters, my social life was generally confined to our campus.
A little-known exception to D.C.’s policy of racially-segregated movies was the Paris Theater, a small movie house in Washington’s West End, featuring foreign films. I wanted to take a girl to a movie there but, uncertain of how we might be treated, I did a dry-run one day, even though I was fearful of going there alone. I was relieved by the uneventful nature of my solo visit, and my friend and I enjoyed our movie day later.
Unlike our desegregation of RKO Keith Theater the year before, I felt no sense of joy or excitement about this event. In fact, I was angry and embittered that I had to go to the extreme of making a dry run simply to enjoy a movie date with a friend.
Academically, other than the fact that I was falling even further behind my classmates, nothing changed at the College of Pharmacy. I was increasingly overwhelmed and discouraged by my inability to understand the same scientific concepts I couldn’t handle in high school. I was paying dearly for trying to meet my parents’ well-intended but misguided aspirations for my future and the lack of academic counseling anywhere along the way.
I was alone and discouraged. Fellow COP student Billy Hughes dropped out to pursue what would be a brilliant musical career, playing trombone with the famous Count Basie Band. Another struggling COP classmate had transferred to the College of Liberal Arts.
Howard’s College of Pharmacy provided no academic support for struggling students like me. It was “sink or swim” and I was sinking – fast.Unlike other undergraduates, I was never placed on academic probation or otherwise counseled. I cannot explain, or justify, the COP’s inaction.
I got Ds and Fs all but one pharmacy class of the first semester of my second year, but was nevertheless allowed to register for the second semester. I couldn’t get myself to leave Howard and COP and return home mid-year, but I knew that my pharmacy career was over. I rarely attended classes and turned my attention to a full social life.
How bad were things for me? Consider that the U.S. was in the midst of the Korean War that year, 1951, and, but for my student deferment, I was subject to the draft. When I attempted to enlist in the army to escape my COP troubles, I was rejected because of my severe nearsightedness.
My only alternative was to return home at the end of the spring semester, ‘fess up to Ma regarding my failing grades, face her wrath, and plan for an uncertain future.
There are countless definitions of “Bamboozle,” none of which apply to the Bamboolas at Howard University in 1950. We were a motley, irreverent bunch of students who took neither ourselves nor others seriously. We thought the name derived from tricksters, having fun but never at anyone’s expense.
Who were the Bamboolas? My lifelong friends, to start. There was my confidante Maurice “Mush” Edwards; my
roommate, Herb Hannahs; Albert ”Buddy” Bacote (lost all too soon to kidney disease); Waymon Lattimore (who dropped out of college, returned and became a physician); Bennie Parks (who earned his doctorate and invited us to what we learned was a “farewell party” before his death in the 1980s); Ronnie Freeland (one of the most likable Bamboolas); Wally Thompson (dentist); Joe Farrar (attorney); Fran Warren (a resident of Philadelphia); and Robert “Boobie” Shaw (who remains a dear friend, introduced me to my wife, and is facing the end of life as I write these words). There were 20 to 30 others and I could go on and….
We had no officers. A couple of guys tried to organize us and learned that such an effort was like herding cats. Other than planning off-campus house parties and serenading girls from outside their dorms, any efforts to organize the Bamboolas were unmitigated disasters.
Serenading girls? That’s right. Fran Warren was a gifted songwriter and taught us to harmonize romantic ballads. “Story Time” became our signature ballad. It was a tender love story about the depth of love between a boy and girl who conquered the world to a achieve their dream of a life together.
Remember that Howard’s freshman girls were subject to that early curfew? If a Bamboola had a crush on a girl, we’d sometimes gather outside Cook Hall, walk as a group across campus to the girls’ dormitory and, standing below her window, sing “Story Time” and other romantic ballads to honor the lovely girl in question.
OMG! It seemed as if every resident of the entire girls’ dormitory would be hanging out of the windows, cheering us on for what seemed like hours. Of course, the individual girl’s popularity soared.
We became so popular –– and full of ourselves –– that one Saturday night, we rented the popular D.C. jazz club, Crystal Caverns, for our exclusive use, inviting many of Howard’s undergraduate students. Private party. Off-campus. Private club. College students. Relaxed alcoholic beverage restrictions. Needless to say, our party was a success.
The party was so successful, in fact, that eleven freshman girls defied their weekend curfew, stayed at the party until we dispersed at about 2 a.m., and were caught trying the sneak back into the girls’ dormitory. The girls, placed on extended restrictions for violating curfew, became instant campus celebrities for resisting the system. They became known as “The Fabulous Eleven.”
We Bamboolas also became campus celebrities for having hosted such a great party that students risked breaking curfew to stay at the event. Attending a Bamboola party soon became the thing to do on weekends.
Some fifty years later, in 2001, the Bamboolas returned to Howard for our Golden (50 years) Reunion. Of course, we roamed the campus and returned to the “scene of our crime” — Crystal Caverns. The most moving part of the weekend was when we went to dinner at a large D.C. restaurant. We spontaneously and harmoniously sang “Story Time.” It was a moving experience as I thought about our since-departed friends. The entire restaurant fell silent as we sang – and then the other customers burst into applause. Our wives were moved beyond words at our enduring bond. They shouted and clapped and laughed enthusiastically. It was a celebration!
Sadly, immediately before that 2001 reunion, Walter “Hamp” Hampton, a kind and gentle Bamboola, confided to me that he was terminally ill and wouldn’t be with us for long. Hamp, fearing that he would be a distraction, made me promise not to tell the others that he was terminally ill until afterward. It was difficult to keep my word, but I did. (What must he have felt as we sang “Story Time”?) A few months later, Maurice Edwards and I visited Hamp at his home. The end was near, but what we expected to be a brief, sad visit, became a wonderful, unforgettable two-hour stay with our beloved ‘Boola Brother. We talked and we talked and we talked. It felt so good.
We had special individualized custom-made wool Bamboola sweaters made for our members — and imagine this; I‘ve still got mine — I’m the only one. There was an unwritten rule that a Bamboola sweater was not to be worn by any woman other than your wife. Here’s my original Bamboola sweater, almost 70 years later, worn by my wife, Connie.
Bonds were strong at Howard, but especially among the Bamboolas. Mine with Maurice Edwards was tightened over the next few summers at Riis Park, a popular beach for the Black college crowd in New York in those days.
Maurice knew the beach’s reputation very well. I didn’t. On my first trip there with Maurice, I reminded him that we needed to bring sandwiches for lunch. He brushed off my concerns. “Don’t worry. I’ve got us covered,” he said. And he did. Once we got to Riis Beach, many girls recognized us and invited us to share their lunches. We went to Riis Beach countless times thereafter. We never wanted for lunch invitations – and we also met lots of wonderful young women.
Maurice and I each got married in 1956. His marriage to Babette, has lasted over 60 years. Mine didn’t.
Maurice Edwards is my best friend, still lives in New York City, and we talk two or three times a week. Sometimes our calls are extended, confidential, intimate conversations. Sometimes, just a quick telephonic touch.
While my social life during my first two years at Howard was terrific, my academic life was a disaster. To say that I was fearful about returning home in the summer of 1951 would be an understatement. But I had no alternative; I had to tell Ma the truth – that I was failing almost all of my classes.
Never had I felt so embarrassed and ashamed of myself. I felt as low as a grasshopper. To my surprise, Ma wasn’t outraged by my disclosure. After further discussion, I distinctly recall her simply saying, “Never mind. We’ll find out what you can do.” She showed no emotion whatsoever, much to my surprise.
Somehow, Ma contracted with an educational psychologist who administered an aptitude test. It indicated that I had superior intellect and confirmed what I already believed: That I had no interest or aptitude in the sciences, but I did have a strong interest in “people.” The latter conclusion didn’t surprise me, because I knew that when I should have been working on my pharmacy classes, I often enjoyed reading the sociology and psychology textbooks of my roommate, Herb Hannahs.
For the first time in my life, Ma and I made a collective decision. I would return to Howard, transfer to its College of Liberal Arts, study hard, and make up as much time as I could to graduate as soon as possible.
While I had certainly had my differences with Ma’s decision-making in the past, and I would in the future, I didn’t this time. She rescued me from my abyss at great emotional and financial cost. I never forgot this.
Shortly, after my 19th birthday, when most students begin their freshman year of college, I returned for my third year at Howard University with a grand total of 13 credits toward graduation. I needed at least 120 credits to graduate.
I knew it was going to be hard, but I knew I couldn’t afford to mess up again. Not this time. It was all on me.
Next, 17. Buckling Down
© 2020. Lloyd A Johnson All rights reserved.