AT THE URBAN CENTER
Inwardly, I was apprehensive about succeeding Franklin H. Williams as the director of Columbia University’s Urban Center. Physically, he had a commanding presence. He exuded self–confidence. He had been the U.S. Ambassador to Ghana, and he was used to dealing with people at the highest levels of government, nationally and internationally. A lawyer, he had successfully argued several civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
I had none of these, nor the academic credentials to compete inside an Ivy League University. I wasn’t the product of the Ivy League nor had I earned the Ph.D. — the gold standard of academic degrees and very important in any Ivy League university, then and now.
But I kept my uncertainties to myself and fell back on a tenet of my social work training: Listen to others; you might learn something. One of my first actions as head of the Urban Center was to convene a three-day, out-of-town conference with the leadership of our on-campus Black and Puerto Rican communities. The plan was to consider where we were and where we might be going. We called it New Directions, in effect rebooting.
Our mission was unchanged, but hereafter all programs would be subject to evaluation by newly appointed assistant director for planning, Richard Thornell. Richard was my good friend and I knew that I could count on him to tell me what I might not want to hear. The Center would operate an urban-oriented library, increase its focus on the University’s growing Puerto Rican student population, publish a monthly newsletter, and conduct campus events of community interest, such as lectures featuring my Howard classmate, Amiri Baraka (then known as LeRoi Jones).
CONFRONTING MY SEXISM
There was an antiquated, unwritten and sexist dress code at Columbia University while I worked there. Women wore a dress or skirt and blouse to work. Nothing was in writing; that’s just the way it was — like eating your meals with utensils, not your fingers. We unquestionably followed this sexist policy.
My assistant, Monique Rey, was a warm, capable, and loyal person. Throughout the University, it was generally understood that she was my gatekeeper; if you wanted to reach me, go through Monique.
One day, Monique came into the office and quietly said, “the girls” (her words, not mine) wanted to wear slacks to work. I was preoccupied with something, so without even lifting my head, I brusquely and emphatically said, “No.” No explanation. Nothing. Just, “No.” Monique, quiet as ever, without a word, left the office. I didn’t give the matter another thought.
Until the following morning, that is. On that day every single woman in the Center, including the ever-loyal Monique, came to work, wearing, not ordinary slacks, but tasteful, dressy pantsuits. They looked absolutely stunning – and professional.
Looking back, it would be nice to say that I complimented them on their attire, but I didn’t. I was shocked – and humbled. I was embarrassed and ashamed of how poorly I’d handled the situation.
I belatedly realized that if the staff felt so deeply as to recruit Monique in this mass protest – and that she had joined them – I had better get with the program. Equality for everyone includes women.
Lesson learned? Like it or not, I was sexist. Sexism, just like racism, is an integral part of our lives. If you asked me at the time, I would have vehemently denied having a single sexist bone in my body. It took Monique and the other wonderful women at the Urban Center to open my eyes to my own sexism.
We men have defined women for hundreds of years, on our terms, just like Black people – enslaved or free – have been defined by the predominant caste for hundreds of years. We were supposed to be sensitive at Columbia University. How about starting at home? Thank you to the women of the Urban Center.
Apply my experience to yourself. Wake up America!
Initially, I didn’t appreciate the authority and prestige that would be associated with my name when followed by the phrase, “director of Columbia University’s Urban Center.” I was no smarter or insightful than I was before my appointment, but suddenly, the media imbued me with expertise on race and urban affairs.
I found a distinct difference between white and Black journalists. Whites, with little if any prior interaction with the Black community, required more time-consuming education from me. That’s a big issue when a journalist is operating under a deadline. New York’s few Black journalists, however, had themselves invariably experienced racial discrimination socially and professionally. They required less education, leaving more time for substance.
I learned the value of preparation, background interviews, and providing journalists with advance materials for their preparation and later use. I learned how to talk in short sound bites. I nurtured those relationships. I tried to simplify the reporters’ jobs so they could get our story right.
I was thrilled when Charlie Frazier, whom I had known from our mother church St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in Roxbury, joined the staff of the New York Times, using the byline C. Gerald Frazier. Secretly, I hoped that he would ask me easy, softball questions during our interviews. Wrong. He never did. As a journalist, only one color mattered to him –– ink. C. Gerald Frazier was the ultimate journalist.
Black studies and urban/ethnic studies programs, increasingly demanded by Black college students, were relatively few and far between in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Where they existed, their quality varied. Some were absorbed into larger academic entities. Others, while independent, weren’t funded properly. Few were truly independent. The Urban Center was the best-known and well-funded urban-minority program in the country, but it wasn’t an academic program.
A 1970 national conference on urban affairs at Michigan State University, convened by Dr. Robert L. Green, brought together Black scholar-activists to talk about the problems of Black and urban/ethnic studies. Robert L. Perry, then of Bowling Green (Ohio) State University, Vincent G. Harding, then of the Institute of the Black World, and about 50 other Black scholar-activists from over 25 colleges and universities attended the conference.
I quickly learned that a steady source of income is essential for the long-term viability of any organization. The good news is that from that 1970 meeting we organized the National Association of Black Urban & Ethnic Directors to enhance scholarship and promote and evaluate Black, urban and ethnic studies programs. The bad news is that after holding two additional national conferences, the organization closed in 1974 for lack of funds and ideological differences.
However, my relationships with Bob Green and Bob Perry had lasting results. Our three schools developed what some might call a consortium, periodically meeting and sharing ideas and staff. Using our work as a blueprint, Robert Green spearheaded Michigan State University’s College of Urban Affairs. Robert Perry elevated Bowling Green’s Ethnic Studies Program into a highly-regarded Department of Ethnic Studies, retired, and then established a similar program at Eastern Michigan University.
My friendship with Bob Perry continues to this day, as strong as ever. We talk often. We tease one another that, “The lion has lost his bite, but not his roar,” as we complain about everything under the sun and cherish all our blessings.
Lesson learned? Friendship and character trump all of one’s public accomplishments.
PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON, 1972
In December 1972, I was invited to the Civil Right Symposium at the opening of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. It was a historic event and I was excited, not just to be invited, but to be the only invitee from Columbia University.
The former president had suffered several heart attacks since he left office and many wondered if his health would allow him to attend the opening.
Three words describe my flight to Austin: One Big Party. It seemed as if every name associated with Johnson’s Great Society was on that flight, including my hero, Hubert Humphrey. It was like a college reunion. There was no distinction between First-Class and Coach Class passengers. The flight attendants opened the bar to everyone, and everyone — I mean everyone — was boozing it up, telling great stories about LBJ, many too salacious to retell here.
Then, about an hour before our scheduled landing, the pilot announced that an ice storm had closed the Austin airport. Not to worry; we would land at Waco, Texas, where waiting busses would transport us to Austin. There were the inevitable groans, of course.
I was on the bus with Hubert Humphrey. It was late. No booze. Folks were dozing. Silence. Suddenly, Humphrey, in his booming voice, breaks the silence and shouts, “This is just like the goddamned Johnson Administration. We start out in a jet-propelled plane and end up on an f—–g bus in an ice storm in the middle of nowhere!” Humphrey was right.
LBJ did show up for the closing program, against the advice of his wife, Lady Bird. I was heavily into photography at the time, got up close, and personal, and took these photos – each of which speaks for itself. Note former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Earl Warren, right.
These are among the last public photos of LBJ before his death on January 22, 1973.
CALVIN, ATTICA & BLACK STUDIES
By 1970, my brother Calvin was a ”model” (institution-wise) prisoner at Attica Penitentiary. He described it as ”laying in a cut,” meaning just blending in with the scenery. When he expressed an interest in Black studies, we sent him a few books from our Urban Center library, from which he developed a prison-approved Black Studies program. The program was welcomed by his fellow inmates. Calvin survived the 1971 Attica Prison Uprising.
In those days, it was customary for the sitting governor to commute or shorten the sentence of a few, carefully-selected, long-term “model” prison inmates. In December 1972, then Governor Nelson Rockefeller commuted Calvin’s 20-year to life sentence after he had served 13 years, making him immediately eligible for parole. When his release was delayed for lack of employment, I offered him a six-month clerical post in Urban Center’s library.
Calvin met our job expectations and was well-liked by staff and others, secured his own apartment and got along well with our children, Scott and Alison then in elementary school. However, I was inwardly troubled by his occasional flashes of anger toward me over seemingly petty matters and his manipulative behavior toward others — for example, leasing a car from one of our Center supporters.
I began to distance myself from him after his six months at the Urban Center. A re–take warrant was issued by his parole officer (I don’t know why), and he took flight to California and went underground, using the identity of a long-deceased cousin.
I never saw or spoke to my brother again. He died in jail in 1996, awaiting trial for the horrific murder of his then–girlfriend. His prior murder conviction constituted Special Circumstances, making him death-penalty eligible. He was 74 years old.
Coincidentally, I was in Los Angeles on other business when Calvin died, and I attended his funeral to support Ma and my now-widowed sister, Eleanor. I saw him. I felt nothing. No anger. No sadness. I didn’t know this person. My brother had died decades earlier.
Several factors contributed to my decision in November 1973 to resign from my position at the Urban Center. First, the University’ media and fiscal folks, all white, were subjecting the Center to seemingly innocuous questions. They seemed to be trying to identify shortcomings in our operations, from a white perspective. Why?
Second, the Urban Center’s academic advisory committee, anchored by Black tenured faculty, was long on advice, but short on interceding on our behalf with other tenured faculty. I was becoming isolated.
Finally, our available funds were down from the original $10 million to “only” a half million dollars. President William “Bill” McGill rebuffed my request for direct support from the University, assuring me that my position was secure so long as he was president (Why not? My position was endowed.) I would have to raise funds for the Center’s continuation. I wasn’t sure I had the skills to raise those funds.
Clearly, I concluded, Columbia University, didn’t have a lasting commitment to the Center and our mission. I was being set up for failure. It was an untenable position for me.
There was no path forward for me there. It was time for me to go.
Lesson learned. Columbia University, at the time, had no lasting commitment to addressing its underlying issues of racism and being a good neighbor to its Harlem community. The Ford Foundation’s $10 million line of credit made the Urban Center and its accomplishments possible, at no direct cost to the University.
It’s been said, “Show me your checkbook, and you’ll show me your priorities.” Columbia did so in 1974. Race and urban affairs were not a priority at that time.
A SERENDIPITOUS MEETING
It was Thursday, December 7, 1973 when I almost literally ran into one of my University confidantes, Russ Nixon, the self-described “house socialist” of the University’s School of Social Work. When I told him of my decision to leave the Urban Center, he enthusiastically told me that Congressman Gus Hawkins (Democrat, California), a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, was looking for a staff director for his subcommittee on equal opportunities and juvenile justice. Russ brushed off my questions about the duties of a Congressional staff director with, “Don’t worry. It’s acquired knowledge. You’ve got the tools.” I didn’t ask what he meant. He told me that he’d call Congressman Hawkins about me and would be back in touch.
Two days later. I was shocked and saddened to learn from a news article, that Russ had died of a massive heart attack just the day after our chance meeting.
Expecting nothing further from our conversation, our family took a long-planned, three-week vacation to an isolated village in Jamaica — Long Bay in Portland Parish. There was no phone in the entire town which is located on the eastern tip of Jamaica.
Returning to my office in early January, I learned that, shortly before his death, Russ had made that call. Congressman Hawkins had left urgent messages asking me to call him as soon as possible. I did.
Tags: Attica Prison, Columbia University, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, President Lyndon B. Johnson
Next, Returning to D.C.
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