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PROFILE: Johnnie B. Watson, President of
By Arelya J. Mitchell, Editor-in-Chief
The Mid-South Tribune
And the Black Information Highway
If anyone has a reality check about what Black colleges have to go through to make it through the 21st century or the next day for that matter it’s Johnnie B. Watson, LL.D, president of LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis, TN.
It’s hard not to notice the ‘hyphen’ between ‘LeMoyne’ and ‘Owen College’. That hyphen is indicative of what had to be done four years after the Civil Rights Bill became law in 1964 and a year later when Congress thought it had better define what a Black College was, which was “An institution whose primary mission was to educate Black students.” The official definition seems redundant at best and makes you want to go ‘daaaaaaahhhh’. Nevertheless, defining what a Black college is represents a slice of time ensconced in the Civil Rights Movement when integration brought about a change in the nation’s higher learning educational structure. That inevitably meant reconfiguring Black colleges into the educational landscape. And in 1968, the year Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, LeMoyne College hyphenated itself with Owen College to survive and to continue its mission of educating Black students long before Dr. King’s ‘dream’ could become a reality—long before ‘little white boys and girls and little black boys and girls could even study together in a classroom—not to mention a college classroom.
LeMoyne College was founded in 1871, and therefore could be designated as a Historical Black College and University or HBCU. Owen College was founded in 1947. It, too, could be designated as such because in 1965 in Title III of the Higher Learning Act, any Black college founded before 1964 could have the HBCU distinction. It was also a time period that integration—no matter good it was intended—began to kill off Black colleges, but those who cared about this ‘Black’ heritage screamed ‘murder’ , in fact, and a crusade began that would save these colleges. So that hyphenation is symbolic of that long-fought battle just for former slaves to have a right to read and write, which was once upon a time against the law. Bringing these two colleges’ conjoined histories into the 21st century is Johnnie B. Watson, a longtime staple in the education fabric of Memphis and the Mid-South.
As are many historical Black institutions, LeMoyne-Owen is located in the heart of an African American community which itself has seen a transition from what would have been seen as a normal African American neighborhood where the ‘village actually did raise the child’, to a blight area of projects and poverty and Black middle class flight. But today the LeMoyne Gardens area is one of revitalization where picturesque apartments and houses now make up the landscape. This revitalization took place under the leadership of Memphis’ first elected African American mayor, Dr. W.W. Herenton, who, ironically happened to have been Memphis’ first African American school superintendent.
Watson himself once served as deputy superintendent of the Memphis City Schools System, so he is no stranger to the community, and he knows that to keep this historical African American college beyond just getting by, he has to get out into the community to do grassroots fundraising. Unlike Ivy League or mainstream universities where presidents can raise millions at one gala sitting, Black college presidents still do have to nickel and dime it. And Watson has nickeled-and-dimed it quite well, thank you. This 140-year-old institution can boast of turning out some of the Mid-South’s prized students (including Dr. Herenton) who went on to become Black America’s lawyers, teachers, doctors, preachers, and other public servants and citizens.
“In fact, I know I have made more public appearances than any president this college has had,” says Watson in the confines of his comfortable but modest office in Brownlee Hall on campus, “ primarily because I am a known entity…people know I don’t mind speaking.” Let’s make it clear, he’s not even taking away any credit from previous presidents, but just putting the job of president in its present economic environment when times are tighter and the legitimacy of Black colleges is constantly being questioned.
Watson said that people learned about what type of administrator he was when he was in the Memphis City Schools System. “I never accepted a personal honorarium. I speak on Men’s Day and other events at churches and so on. I will ask that they give a donation to the college [instead of an honorarium]. I am just as appreciative of the dollars I will receive from a small church with 25 people present than I am of the $5,000 I receive from a church of 1500 members --- so that’s the message I am trying to send out, and the alumni association is helping me with it. It doesn’t always take the big big contribution to get something done. If we get consistent contributions, we can keep this college afloat, and that’s one of the messages I am trying to send. No amount is too small. Now almost every day when I leave a church I will get a check – two or three checks for five dollars, and I am so appreciative of that because I feel the kind of faith that the five dollar donation has in us is just as important in this economy as any larger donation. I can depend on the five dollars. In this economy, it’s the people who gave me $20,000 who will call and say they are going to have to decrease or won’t be able to give at all this time. I am aware of the economy, and I’m working to reestablish relationships with corporate Memphis, a base we have lost since the economy is bad.”
Because there has over the decades been the issue of ‘Black student flight’ to predominant white colleges, Watson was asked if Black colleges shouldn’t just go by the wayside of the dinosaur? The question annoys him but he seems to welcome the opportunity to answer it, saying it is a standard question that’s presented to practically every Black president of an HBCU.
“I don’t think I would totally agree with that because when I look at the number of doors that have actually closed,” he begins having earlier discussed that since integration some Black colleges have had to close their doors such as Mississippi Industrial College (MI) in Holly Springs, Mississippi, “on the other hand, I do see that some doors are not closing as quickly as some would think. Now I would have to admit that every Black college may have fiscal problems every day of the year with the exception of maybe three such as Morehouse—Howard—and maybe Spelman. We struggle for our very existence. So when they say a college is on probation because of fiscal problems that doesn’t embarrass us [Black colleges]. Right now I am very pleased to report that I have been able to give bonuses. Our enrollment increased so significantly that our board of trustees approved for me to show appreciation to every staff member by giving them a one time bonus…hopefully, our enrollment will continue to increase, and I will not only be able to give a bonus but give raises, because people at least look forward to a three percent raise…but these are problems that are experienced by almost every historical Black college and university that I know and these problems are from fiscal instability,” he says, explaining that these probationary measures are not of an academic nature. “…And people want to know how do we keep the staff? I say it is because of the love they have for their institution.”
He continues to beat the drum on why professors stick with Black colleges: “They have a commitment when they come—a tradition of providing an education and the feeling of giving something back to the community and helping Black students to get where they have gotten. We don’t have a lot of turnover. The turnover is in the young people you hire. If they can find a ten cents an hour raise then they’re gone,” he says with ire sarcasm that defines a generation gap, “but the older people stick when they accept these jobs in historical Black colleges. They’re wedded to them.”
Besides, he thinks there will always be a place for Black Historical Colleges and Universities, and he points out how no one ever questions the validity of predominantly white colleges in the area of higher learning.
“I worked at Rhodes College [in Memphis] and I represented that college on many occasions. The president of Rhodes College was very comfortable with me. In those eight years not a single person asked me what place Rhodes College has. Rhodes College is a predominantly white institution—an outstanding institution. Every day that I have been president of LeMoyne-Owen College, somebody has asked me why is that historical Black college still needed? My response is that LeMoyne-Owen fills a need that Rhodes, Christian Brothers College, and the University of Memphis cannot fill. You know, I’m not shucking and jiving when I tell you that we know our students by name and not by number, that we have small classrooms and that we also are aware of the social and economic problems that our students face. You know they have a president of the college who grew up across the street in LeMoyne Garden Housing Project with five sisters, and if I don’t know the needs of poor Black children…I don’t know anybody who does. I spent my entire life working in public education.”
And that has been satisfying, he says.