Fisk University—Racial Pride and Social Uplift
FROM THE DAY the decision was made that I would attend Fisk University it was all I could think about. Going to Fisk meant everything to me. I remember telling our family doctor of my interest in serving my community by becoming a nurse and maybe someday a doctor. He encouraged me to go directly into major studies that would make me eligible for admission to medical school. Dr. Miner was a tall, kind, jovial man who did his undergraduate studies at Fisk and then went on to medical school at Meharry Medical College, located across the street from Fisk. He frequently told me, “You need to go to Fisk so you can prepare to go to Meharry. I want you to take over my practice when I retire.” My family and I took Dr. Miner’s advice very seriously. When the day finally arrived when I would leave home for college, a hot August day in 1947, I waved good-bye to Mother, Daddy, and my brothers as the train chugged away from the Houston depot. “Be very careful,” Mother mouthed. I was sixteen years old and very excited to be on my way to Fisk with the intention of studying medicine.
Trains in the South were segregated back then. The white passengers who rode first class sat in comfortable cars with plush seating and picture windows covered with blinds and curtains and small tables serviced by Black waiters dressed in sparkling white jackets and aprons, bow ties at their necks, and who kept their glasses full and plates laden with snacks. White passengers who rode in coach also had windows. Black passengers were relegated to small, crowded sections in the back of train cars with no access to waiters, porters, or the dining cars.
Thirteen years before I left for Fisk, when Daddy worked as a dining car waiter on the Southern Pacific Railroad, he had organized the Dining Car Waiters Union and served as its first president. He maintained the friendship and respect of the men who were still working on the railroad even though he had left to start his own business when I was still in high school. Knowing that I would be alone on the train for some six hours, Daddy had contacted railroad friends and asked them to look out for me. It was hot on the train, but Daddy’s friends made the long ride more enjoyable by bringing me an occasional sandwich or a cool drink, always with a smile and a “Howdy do, young lady,” along with congratulations on my accomplishment and words of encouragement. Their faces beamed along with mine when they told me what a great man my father was.
My parents fully expected that my brothers and I would go to college. And many of my parents’ friends were Fisk alums: doctors, attorneys, teachers, and others who worked in professions that provided excellent service to our community. The way Dr. Miner and our family friends described their experiences at Fisk made me very excited to be on my way there. “The scholarship is excellent,” they often explained, telling us about their exceptional professors and the classes they had taken. And they spoke of distinguished alumni who had returned as speakers: W. E. B. Du Bois; Ida B. Wells; Mahala Dickerson, the first Black president of the National Association of Women Lawyers; Alfred O. Coffin, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in zoology; and many others.
When I arrived in Nashville, I was greeted by a group of three or four smiling students who had driven to the depot in a truck to welcome me. Arriving at Fisk, the driver removed my trunk and placed it in the basement of Jubilee Hall. The group then led me through the basement and into the foyer, and I remember thinking that I must really be excited about being at Fisk to have been so happy just to walk through a basement.
When we reached the foyer, my student escorts allowed me a few moments to take in the beauty. I was awestruck at the sight of the beautiful and historic women’s dormitory. It was a massive Victorian Gothic structure that featured a towering steeple and magnificent doors. If you walked through the front door, you immediately saw the tastefully decorated foyer with lovely, comfortable places for residents and their guests to sit and talk. A well-dressed receptionist sat behind an elegant desk and to the right of the desk was the most exquisite, gracious staircase I had ever seen. Wide at the bottom and secured by matching pillars and dark wooden banisters on either side, the uncarpeted staircase was adorned by balusters in alternating dark and light wood that had been sent from Sierra Leone, West Africa, by a former student. Large rooms were on either side of the foyer, tastefully decorated in blue and gold—Fisk’s colors—and in one of those rooms was a finely tuned, elegant baby grand piano.
Jubilee Hall is the most striking of Fisk’s buildings and perhaps the most famous college residence hall in the world. It was constructed with proceeds from the university’s Jubilee Singers’ historic 1871–74 international tour. Fisk was facing extreme financial difficulties at the time, so the Jubilee Singers, an a cappella group whose name derives from a biblical reference to the Year of the Jubilee in the book of Leviticus, went on an eighteen-month tour, performing in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. They also traveled to London, where they performed for the Duke and Duchess of Argyll and for Queen Victoria. The tour was grueling due to racism, neglect, hunger, and harsh weather, but in the end they raised $40,000, which was a lot of money in those days and enough to keep their beloved school open. And in the process, they raised awareness of Negro spirituals in states beyond the South and in England.
The male student who had taken responsibility for my large traveling trunk had carefully placed it on the floor in the basement, and when the girls knew I was ready, they began helping me unpack. In the era that I went to college, most people traveled by train, and many packed wardrobe travel trunks if they were going someplace where they would be staying for a while. The trunks were equipped with four to six drawers on one side and a rack with hangers on the other side. Each of us took a drawer from my trunk or a handful of clothes on hangers and began the trek up to the fourth floor where freshman women were housed. On the way up the stairs, I could hear the receptionist announcing phone calls over a loudspeaker for residents who would then make their way to the phone that was mounted on the wall in the middle of each floor. If the receptionist announced a visitor, the resident, always appropriately dressed, would rush down to the foyer to meet her guests.
When we finally made it to the fourth floor and the girls led me to my room, I was a little surprised to see how small the rooms were—attic-style rooms with slanted ceilings and limited closet space. Three freshman women were assigned to share each of the rooms. I remember that one of my roommates was a bit messy. There was one chair in our room and she always piled her clothes on it.
My surprise was soon replaced by excitement when freshman week activities began; tours of the campus, introductions to faculty and staff, placement exams, lectures and other academic activities during the day. Every night after we were finished with the hard work of the day, there were meet-and-greet gatherings on the Oval, the campus yard. Music students and those trying out for the Jubilee Singers serenaded us. The piano students then drew us to the elegant Jubilee Hall foyer where we sang and laughed together. It was such fun bonding with my freshman peers. I also learned that week that the manners and good grooming that Mrs. Gray had taught us would come in very handy, because along with the academic activities and the fun gatherings, we were expected to exhibit proper dress and good manners at all times. As Mrs. Gray had emphasized, a Fisk student represents her Black community, on campus and off.
World War II had ended two years before I went to college, so there were a lot of veterans enrolled at Fisk. They were very aware of the racial discrimination in our nation even for them, though they had served our country by fighting in the war. The bigotry we faced when we went into downtown Nashville was intense. Whites accepted everyone except Black people. It didn’t make any difference that as Fisk students we were better educated and more well-dressed than many of the whites who refused to serve us.
Our theater department noted that the only way we were able to get items that we needed for campus plays such as costumes, props, and other equipment was to send the fair-skinned students to town because they would be seen as white. Some of the ways the white people showed their disdain were so ridiculous that we enjoyed playing games with them. Sometimes, just for fun our male students would dress in dashikis and speak Pig Latin when they went into town. Bus drivers, store clerks, and restaurant personnel thought they were African and served them. Even in the face of hatred, we were finding creative ways to beat the system.
In addition to my regular liberal arts courses, I was placed in a high mathematics group my first year. I didn’t believe I belonged in that group and told my father that I planned to drop the class. “You hang in there and do your best,” he said and calmly reminded me that I had to keep the tradition of our family and our people. “We do not quit,” he said.
As my family’s friends had told me, we Fisk students were fortunate to have excellent faculty. Harlem Renaissance poet, novelist, and librarian Arna Bontemps was our head librarian, expanding what was then the world’s largest collection of African American cultural items. The great Harlem Renaissance modernist and avant-garde artist Aaron Douglas taught art classes. Dr. Inez Adams was associate professor of sociology and anthropology, and Evelyn Banks taught mathematics. Saint Elmo Brady, one of the first African Americans to achieve eminence in chemistry, was my chemistry professor and mentor, and Gladys Ford, from Houston, was my English and theater professor. Perhaps one of the most exciting things to happen while I was at Fisk was that in my freshman year the Board of Trustees appointed the noted social scientist Charles Spurgeon Johnson to become Fisk’s first Black president.
We spent many an afternoon vigorously debating issues of race during afternoon gatherings in the Quaker house. The Quakers have a history of engaging in issues of justice, fairness, and education. Representatives of the Quaker faith were on Fisk’s staff, and they supported our education without question. Throughout my years at Fisk, every phase of our experience from Africa to slavery to emancipation and beyond was discussed frequently, and national personalities often appeared on our campus to discuss strategies for freedom. We were exposed to many of the great Black intellectuals, scholars, musicians, historians, writers, activists, and critical thinkers of the time: Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, sociologist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois, civil rights activist Roy Wilkins, just to name a few. They not only lectured but offered us wonderful opportunities to engage in quality conversations with them. In addition, every religious thought was respected and discussed at Fisk. Every Friday evening, students gathered in the campus chapel while a music professor played soft music on the piano or organ. We had the option of simply sitting and thinking or, if we wished, we could go to the pulpit and express our thoughts and feelings. I truly enjoyed that weekly experience. It gave me such a wonderful feeling of peace, relaxation, and reflection at the end of the week.
I was very active in student activities during my four years at Fisk. I was president of the Newman Club (Fisk’s Catholic student organization), served on the Dormitory Council and the Women’s Senate, and was a member of the Tanner Art Club. I served on the Sociology Club’s executive committee in my sophomore, junior, and senior years, and on the executive committee of the Stage Crafters Club in my junior year. I joined the Booster Club my sophomore year and was named Miss Booster in my junior year. I served as a summer retreater, welcoming new students to our campus during my junior year and was a Junior Counselor that same year. I was Attendant to the Alpha Sweetheart in my freshman year and was Attendant to the Omega Sweetheart in my junior year. I served on the staff of our yearbook, The Oval, in my junior and senior years. I was voted Queen of my freshman class and was Queen of the Music Festival in my junior year. I was inducted into Delta Sigma Theta sorority my junior year and was also voted Miss Fisk that year.
My social life was also very active. I had a wonderful group of friends who spent much time together talking and laughing and taking long walks on weekends. I dated a young man from San Antonio named Harold Jones during my sophomore year. I remember that Mommie did not like him—I don’t think I ever knew why. During World War II and immediately after the war, the armed services offered full four-year scholarships to students who volunteered to serve for two years. When I told Mommie that Harold had accepted the offer and joined the army, she was relieved.
Before he left, Harold asked his close friends to protect his “interests” (meaning me). It seemed like I couldn’t turn around without one of his friends checking on me or watching me. One Sunday afternoon while my friends and I were walking in the park enjoying the beauty of the landscape, listening to the songs of the birds and discussing politics and Black history as we did every weekend, I found myself deeply engaged in a conversation with Charles “Chuck” Johnson, an engineering student who was also from San Antonio. He had been a part of the group all along, but we hadn’t paid much attention to each other until that day. I found him incredibly interesting—his intellect was outstanding. I soon began to look forward to our weekly walks in the park so that we could talk more. We talked about many, many things that were meaningful to both of us, and over time we discovered that we shared many values. We started dating in our junior year.
My life’s direction took a change near the end of my college years. Having grown up in an environment of service to the community, I had gone to Fisk with intentions of going to medical school. Dr. Miner, our family doctor, was serving the community when he made house calls to the sick. During those visits, we always talked about our community and its needs. Looking back, I believe my interest in medicine came from wanting both to address my mother’s illness and to do the things Dr. Miner talked about: service to community through medicine. And indeed my studies from my freshman year until the middle of my junior year reflected that plan. But over time, certain things I heard from medical students about unpleasant, even scary things they saw or had to do as assignments made me fearful, and I began to lose interest in completing my plan.
My roommate, Beatrice Jourdain, was a sociology major. She often talked about her courses, her research, and the exciting fieldwork she was doing with poor Black families and children in segregated Nashville and around the state of Tennessee. She shared with me the research of Fisk’s President Johnson, and we had long conversations about the condition of our people and the difference she believed she could make through her studies. When she was assigned a research project that utilized a very new method, using punch cards to record key responses of her research subjects, she received permission for me to go with her to a few of her interviews. That was when I fully understood her excitement about her studies.
The more Bea talked about her field, coupled with what I saw for myself when I accompanied her, the more interested I became in sociology. It was so much more people-oriented than my chemistry major. Besides, my male friends who were medical students constantly drilled into me that “being a doctor is very hard for a woman,” which at the time only reinforced my fear that I probably wouldn’t make it through medical school. I wanted to change my major but my promise to Dr. Miner made such a decision very difficult. He was anticipating that I would take over his practice when he retired, and I wanted to keep my word. But I couldn’t ignore my growing excitement about the field of sociology. I knew it was my true calling.
Thanks to a wise adviser and the support of my family, I was able to change my major from chemistry to the far more satisfying field of sociology. Through hard work and support, I was able to graduate on time with a sociology major and a chemistry minor. My adviser and the school admissions director told me that this major/minor combination would probably never happen again. To the best of my knowledge, it has not. Later, I began to realize that my decision to change my major may well have been unconsciously influenced by my mother’s community work: her teaching, volunteering, and “feeding the community,” as she always said.
My intention was to go right into graduate studies in sociology. However, while my father was in Nashville for my graduation, Chuck Johnson asked for my hand in marriage. He had received a Rockefeller scholarship to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and wanted me to accompany him to Boston as his wife. My father agreed, and Chuck and I became engaged and planned to marry shortly after graduation.
Looking back on my years at Fisk University, I realize that it was there that I was able to begin actualizing all that I had been exposed to in my life, and where learning and new ideas could be tested and expanded on. It is where I learned the scholarship that supported what I had witnessed growing up in a home and community that taught me the value that our ancestors place on education and service through examples of parental teachings, community work, and the way the people around me lived. My experiences at Fisk, coupled with the values my parents instilled in me, helped create a tireless desire to be deeply involved with the struggle of my people.