October 23rd, 2007 09:24 EST
Lending a Hand to Black Higher Education
During my senior year at Knoxville College (1969-70), I was among three students appointed to serve as non- voting members of the school's Board of Trustees. Over the weekend, nearly four decades later, I was elected chairman of the board, not only having a full vote but charged with the responsibility of helping save my alma mater.
So much has happened between those two events that it's hard to know where to start. So, I'll start at the beginning, when out of Tuscaloosa, Ala., I set foot on the small, Presbyterian college in East Tennessee.
Like my all-Black Druid High School, Knoxville College was a place where young African-Americans were nurtured, challenged and prepared to compete in an integrated society as the sun was just beginning to set on the Jim Crow era.
A few years earlier, Gov. George C. Wallace had "stood in the schoolhouse door" to block the enrollment of two Black students at the University of Alabama in my hometown. Robert Shelton, the head of the Ku Klux Klan, lived across town. And White ministers would come on TV and say that if God had wanted us to be equal, He would have made all of us the same color.
In that environment, young Blacks like me needed to hear that even on our bad days, we were equal to Whites. We needed to hear, as McDonald Hughes, my high school principal would say, "You got to be ready for the day when integration comes." They kept us focused on the future. Dr. Robert Owens, the president of Knoxville College, would talk about what he called the three Ps - plan, prepare and produce.
More than anything else, Knoxville College gave me that middle "P"- - preparation. I didn't know it at the time, but being editor of The Aurora, the school newspaper, prepared me for a career in journalism. Knoxville College did not offer journalism classes, but the training I got on The Aurora and the experience I received working as a stringer for the Knoxville News- Sentinel prepared me for my first job as a reporter for Sports Illustrated.
For some reason, my tiny alma mater has produced a string of nationally-known Black journalists. Vernon Jarrett, who graduated before me, was the first African- American columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a paper that I would also later work for as a Washington correspondent and New York bureau chief. Ralph Wiley, who graduated after me, would also work as a reporter for Sports Illustrated and offer commentary on ESPN. And another graduate, Barbara Rodgers - I'm not going to tell when the former Miss Knoxville College graduated - works as a reporter/anchorwoman for KPIX-TV in San Francisco.
As editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, I was elected president of the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME). Jarrett was elected president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). Knoxville College is the only institution in the nation with the distinction of having alums serve as presidents of both NABJ and ASME.
The point here is not to brag about past accomplishments. Rather, it is to illustrate that Knoxville College was and is a place where dreams are born.
Even in an era of desegregation, Black colleges have an exceptional record of accomplishment. Although they represent only 3 percent of the nation's colleges and universities, Black colleges produce 24 percent of all African-Americans earning bachelors degrees.
Like many Black colleges, Knoxville College fell on hard times in the late 1980s and early 1990s; some of the wounds were self-inflicted as the college went through a series of presidents. The enrollment, which peaked at 1,200 during my time on the yard, has dwindled to around 100. But that's quite an achievement when you consider that we've been without accreditation for 10 years.
Students still come to Knoxville College and, like me, they go on to fulfill their dreams. But the slate of us elected as Board officers on Saturday -- Vice Chairman Rev. Dr. James Foster Reese, Secretary Marva F. Greene and Treasurer Carl Jones -- are on a mission to reclaim Knoxville College. We're going to rebuild enrollment (it's already projected to grow by 50 percent the next semester), we're going to regain accreditation and we're going to hire a new president.
I'm under no illusion that it will be easy. We need national corporations and foundations to serve as partners to save a valuable college that's been around since 1875. We need alumni missing-in-action to return to the fold. And we need the help of other donors who recognize that a college education is still the ticket to success.
We must do this, not for ourselves, but for the thousands of students who want to make their dreams come true.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com.
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