RETURN TO CAMPUS
I returned to Howard’s campus in the fall of 1951 armed with a newly-discovered sense of purpose. I was determined to complete my college education. It didn’t bother me that I was a returning third-year student among newly-admitted freshmen, most of whom were my age — 19. The kid who started school at age 4 was finally among college students his own age.
Clarke Hall, a decrepit, wood–frame building (later demolished), was the newly-designated dormitory for upperclass undergraduate male students. It faced south overlooking the main campus. My roommate was my good friend and fellow Bamboola, Herb Hannahs, from Evanston, Illinois.
Herb, now a junior, and I became confidantes. He was a good example for me. He was diligent with his studies (sociology), though not wonkish, and was adept at working the angles – the legal ones — to his advantage. Herb had a tough father, who had told Herb at age 5 that there was no Santa Claus. Not surprisingly, Herb was known to be tight with his money. Students often borrowed money from one another in those days. Herb wouldn’t loan a penny to anyone (except me, his confidante). He’d often sanctimoniously quote from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”
One of Herb’s plans was to give himself a light academic load in his final semester at Howard, leaving him plenty of time for himself. He calculated that if he took extra credits during three of his last four semesters, he could take only the minimum of six credits required to stay in the dormitory during that last semester. Then he could schedule only early morning classes –– and live the good life for the rest of the day. Herb, handsome and smooth-talking, and an excellent ballroom dancer put his spare time to good use. During his last semester, he found a paid position as a dance instructor at the Arthur Murray Dance Studios, made a few extra bucks, and many female friends.
Transferring from my ill-fated sojourn in the College of Pharmacy turned out to be a seamless process, and I was promptly enrolled in the required freshman survey courses: Humanities, Social Science, Physical Sciences, and Biological Science. I wasn’t going to screw up my, arguably undeserved, second chance. Using Herb’s model, I quickly learned a few key lessons for academic success: Go to class. Sit front and center. Take notes, no matter how inept. Do your homework. And good things will happen.
I tentatively applied those seemingly simple guidelines when I took my first examination in Humanities, I was pleased to find that, of course, there was nothing on the test that we hadn’t already covered in class, and I was prepared. Herb’s system worked. Stay with the plan and maybe there’s some hope. I was pleased with my grade of “B” and stayed with the plan for the duration of my college career.
I also learned to treat myself to an easy elective course every semester, a course that would likely result in an “A.” It was a strategic buffer against a possible lower grade in a more difficult course. This variation on Herb’s system worked, too. For example, in my Art Appreciation class, I learned that Grecian art was much more than the naked statues that my friends and I used to leer at in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts ten years earlier. Interestingly, Black art wasn’t covered in this course.
I was relieved when I finished those required freshman survey courses with a flourish and with decent, if not outstanding, grades. I knew that I was going to graduate from college. Failure was not an option. My question was when?
Like my roommate, I developed a catch-up plan. Graduation in the traditional four years wasn’t a viable option for me. But if I could earn 25 additional credits over the next two years, I could graduate in 1954, five years after enrolling at The Mecca.
THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING! THE RUSSIANS ARE HERE!
This was 1951, the middle of the Cold War, and each year the Russian Embassy, then in a palatial mansion on 16th Street, NW, hosted an elaborate, private reception for freshman students from each of the local colleges and universities, school by school.
The receptions were propaganda events, promoting the joy of life in the Soviet Union, the same kind of propaganda that the U.S. conducts through Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. I strongly believe these receptions were an effort to recruit espionage agents. For example, one our hosts innocently observed that the Georgetown University student body was all white – and then asked, “I wonder why?” We all knew we were being probed, but who the heck cared?
The reception was more than a free meal for us starving college students — it was a lavish banquet, the likes of which none of us had ever seen before. I had caviar for the first time in my life. (This rare and expensive delicacy was just all right to me.) The buffet table was literally a groaning board. The liquor of all kind – premium only, of course – was flowing without limitation. Most of us had never had vodka before. We ate and drank like never before and if the price of all of this was a one-hour propaganda speech and film, it was well worth the price.
Classmate and fellow Bamboola, Ronnie Freeland, often had a tendency to over-imbibe. This time he embarrassed us all when he drunkenly fell down the palatial staircase of the embassy. He was unhurt, but we never let him forget that evening.
In my day, all of Howard’s male undergraduate students were required to take basic Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). During our ROTC classes, we were issued heavy woolen uniforms and received classroom training in weapons, military tactics, and so forth. It was an easy, one-credit “A” course.
The highlight of our ROTC program was participation in the “I Am an American Day” Parade. It was a big deal featuring not only each of the area’s college ROTC contingents, but also the service academies – West Point and Annapolis — and active–duty armed forces. My years at Howard were the middle of the Cold War, so America’s military might was on full display. We marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the White House. Then it was “eyes right,” for our commander-in-chief, then-President Harry S. Truman.
Parade day in May 1952 was a brutally warm day. We were sweltering in our heavy winter-issue woolen uniforms. The all-white Georgetown University ROTC detachment, dressed in their cotton, weather-appropriate, open-collar uniforms had gathered immediately in front of us. Clearly, we’d been issued the surplus wool uniforms – just like Black kids in Southern segregated schools who got the used surplus books from white schools.
I asked myself what was wrong with that picture. We were outraged.
Yes, President Truman had desegregated the armed forces six years earlier in 1948, but we, potential future military officers, were still treated like second-class soldiers, solely because of the color of our skin. I wanted to tear off my uniform and return to campus.
SUMMER OF 1952
I began my quest to earn “catch-up” credits in the summer of 1952. I enrolled in Brooklyn College and New York University, and took introductory courses in anthropology and psychology. Like summer sessions everywhere, the course work was compressed, but, I found, manageable.
I naively thought things were going well until one day during a psychology class at NYU, the white professor, to make a point about the concept of perception, imitated tapping an imaginary watermelon to test its ripeness. Then gratuitously said, “Isn’t that right, Mr. Johnson?”
I was the only Black student in the class of about 40. I was initially shocked by his comment. Then I was outraged by the audacity of his overt racism, in an academic setting, no less. I looked him in the eye and said nothing, initially; then, “How would I know?” There was a deafening silence in the classroom, then he proceeded as if nothing had happened. But it had. I had stood up and, for the first time in my life, I had spoken truth to power. This was my truth.
I really wanted to curse that bald-headed, white male professor for his overtly racist act. But at what price? A poor, nontransferable grade in retaliation for my assertiveness? I suppressed my rage, but for those four short words: How would I know?
The summer had its fun times, too. Maurice Edwards and I regularly ventured into Harlem Heights where his girlfriend and future wife, Babette, and her friends lived. Maurice and I also resumed spending most of our weekends hanging out at Riis Beach, flirting with young women and swimming. We watched hard-nosed, pickup basketball games, featuring many of the New York area’s finest collegiate and professional basketball players, such as 7-foot Walter Dukes of Seton Hall University. Skill, not race, mattered in these games.
Things radically changed – for the better – when I returned to The Mecca in the fall of 1952.
First, I was offered a position as an RA (resident advisor) in the Cook Hall freshman dormitory. The position provided free lodging and a meal discount, significantly reducing the financial burden on Ma. It helped Dad, too, who was sending me some spending money. My financial situation improved even more during the second semester when I was awarded a one-quarter tuition scholarship.
A few residential staff counselors had learned of my inglorious story in the College of Pharmacy, noted my decent grades now, and were impressed by my emerging maturity. They apparently felt that I might be a positive influence upon entering freshmen. The scholarship was a big help financially, but also in terms of my still fragile sense of self. I turned lemons into lemonade.
Second, with my required courses behind me, I was now able to focus on my major, sociology. Black Studies had yet to be developed as an academic discipline, but I was exposed to many legendary Black scholars: John Hope Franklin (history); Rayford Logan and Sterling Brown (English); Alain Locke, America’s first Black Rhodes Scholar (philosophy); and my idol, E. Franklin Frazier (sociology).
As I applied my “rules for academic success,” I made decent grades over the next two years; I made the Dean’s List once. I took extra courses (always balanced with an “easy A” elective) and was elected to the honorary sociology (Pi Gamma Mu) and psychology (Psi Chi) societies. I was also elected to leadership positions on the Men’s Dormitories Council, eventually becoming its president.
- Franklin Frazier became my mentor when he hired me as his research assistant foraforgettable (to me) project in which he was involved. His advanced classes were conducted like seminars, and we learned to value his scholarship and his role model, W. E. B. DuBois. He once exclaimed that the only reason he continued to teach at Howard was in the forlorn hope that, one day, he would find a Black scholar. We didn’t believe him. We knew, despite his gruff exterior, he cared about us.
Tragedy struck in 1952, when my fellow Spartan, Frazier Taylor, who played football for Howard’s arch-rival Lincoln University was killed by a drunk driver. Frazier, was irrepressible, loud, and fun-loving. He was returning to Lincoln in a private car, after his team defeated Howard in the traditional Thanksgiving Day football game. Frazier was the first Spartan to lose his life. We were all devastated.
I didn’t join any social fraternity while I was at Howard, despite a few overtures to do so. Some of my decision was based on money, but my most compelling reason was the brutal nature of hazing by the fraternities. It often bordered on sadism, and I saw more than a few pledges suffer broken bones and serious sprains. A wall of silence prevailed. The hazing was an open-secret and tolerated by the universities – at Howard and elsewhere. Fortunately, the worse aspects of hazing are slowly becoming a relic of the past.
I did join a leadership development service fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega, and had my first experience working with Black kids as an after–school tutor at nearby Benjamin Banneker Junior High School. We’d visit the school once weekly after school and help kids complete their homework assignments. These kids were really struggling and it felt good to say to a child, “There. All finished!”
I served in several campus leadership positions, such as the Greek Council and several campus-wide student body committees, got to know many other students, and was well-liked. I dated a few young women, but never anything serious.
During my senior year, I represented our student body at a few out-of-town collegiate conferences, including one at the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York City. I was thrilled to sit in a delegate’s seat and, with a mere twist of a dial, listen over headphones to English simultaneously translated into multiple languages.
The highlight of my college experience was when I was selected to participate in a three-week Howard University/Yale University student exchange program. I lived in a Yale college (Dwight), attended regular classes, and basked in Yale’s traditions.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was on an academic par with my white Yale hosts and that we, the Black Howard students, were far more socially adept with young women than they were. For example, at a Smith College/Yale/Howard dance, the “Yalies,” mostly wealthy grads of exclusive all-white prep schools had minimal social skills with young women. They clustered together and shared fantasies about certain young women, but didn’t know how to ask a young lady to dance –– unlike us suave Howardites.
These last three years at Howard were a turning point in my life. From the ashes of my disastrous experience in the College of Pharmacy and with Ma’s unexpected support, I’d returned to Howard’s campus and made something of myself.
But success, however you measure it, has many parents – beside Ma and Dad, the opportunity to interact with Black scholars and students, the impact of racism, the fellowship with my fellow Bamboolas, my emerging maturity, all came together to make me more confident in my ability to compete with others – Black or white – so long as the playing field is level.
Toward the end of my senior year, my academic and leadership accomplishments were recognized by my election to Who’s Who Among Students in American Colleges & Universities 1954. And here I am, in the photograph with my Who’s Who Howard classmates for that year.
I began to feel that these gifts made it my duty to try leveling that playing field for others.
Graduation was fast approaching and brought with it with two problems whose solutions were beyond my control.
First, there was the matter of D.C.’s segregated hotels, restaurant and public facilities. Ma and Dad would come to my graduation, but I didn’t want them to be subjected to such racism, especially on this celebratory occasion. President Dwight Eisenhower solved that problem just a month or so before my graduation. He issued an executive order immediately de-segregating all public facilities in D.C. I breathed a sigh of relief. My parents would not be subjected, as I was, to racial segregation in our nation’s capital. They could stay or eat wherever they chose to – and could afford it.
Second, was the logistics of my parents seating arrangements. When Eleanor married Earl Redway in 1951, our parents couldn’t put their antagonistic feelings on hold long enough to sit next to one another during their only daughter’s wedding. Eleanor was deeply hurt. Clearly, things would be no different for me and my graduation.
I decided not to play any part in their selfishness, gave each of them two tickets to the ceremony, and departed to line up for the processional. No, they didn’t sit together. I learned that fact from my older brother, Calvin, who was able to attend, having again been granted parole from prison.
A month earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, declared segregated public schools unconstitutional and Howard awarded Thurgood Marshall, the lead attorney in the case, an honorary degree during my graduation ceremonies. He received a sustained, standing ovation.
We Howard graduates were among only about 13,000 Black students to graduate from college that year.
Looking ahead, I’d applied for and received a full tuition scholarship to pursue a combined master’s degree program in sociology and social work at Adelphi University in Garden City, Long Island, New York. I found myself torn between following in the footsteps of my Howard mentor, E. Franklin Frazier, and pursuing a career inside university education or becoming a direct, social service provider, helping folks in trouble, hands-on. The two-year master’s program gave me a unique opportunity to step back and decide on my future career.
I had a fleeting interest in entering Howard’s law school, but I still harbored inner uncertainties about my ability to do the work despite my strong undergraduate academic record. Despite its civil rights leadership, Howard’s law school had a poor Bar passage rate among its graduates. I was frightened by the prospect of perhaps earning a law degree, but failing the bar exam and being unable to practice law.
In any event, I certainly wasn’t the shy, frightened kid disembarking from the train at Union Station almost five years earlier. I was exposed to racism and bigotry in countless ways – and was determined to be part of a solution, somehow.
I was 21–years–old and, unlike the vast majority of college students today, I was debt-free.
Tags: Howard graduation, leadership, rules for academic success
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