Back to School
I WAS READY TO LEAVE COLORADO and was contemplating where to go when a delegation of recruiters from Fisk University came to Denver. As Chuck and I were working through our decision to go separate ways, we hosted a reception for the Fisk recruits at our home and invited our friends and colleagues from the community, many of whom were also Fiskites. The recruiters’ visit reminded me of a long-standing dream I had—to formalize the national network of Fisk Clubs into an alumni association. I had been a very active alumna and remained in contact with many Fisk graduates through my work and travels.
Fisk had always felt like home to me. Chuck and I had met there. My brothers, my daughter Patrice, and my nephew had all gone to Fisk. With the changes in my professional and personal life in Colorado, I found that I now had time to focus on this dream. I packed up a few personal belongings and resolved to return to Fisk to be of service. One of the visiting recruiters, Dr. George Neely, a tenured professor of physics at the university, generously offered to host me at his home in Tennessee while I was getting settled.
Many changes had taken place in and around Fisk in the twenty-eight years since I had graduated. Most notably, I was struck by the differences in the students. These students were not the World War II veterans who grew up under Jim Crow with whom I had gone to school. After the decision in Brown v. the Board of Education and after the protests and marches for civil rights of the 1960s and 1970s, many at Fisk were first-generation college students. They were freer in their personal expression and lifestyles—and they brought different sets of experiences and sensibilities to the school. Suffice it to say, they were not wearing the white gloves and formal dress that my classmates and I had counted as basic decorum.
Fisk, like many of the historically Black colleges and universities, was struggling to maintain its student population. Many white Ivy League universities had begun to recruit Black students and offer scholarships, advantages, and opportunities that Black colleges and universities could not offer, and Black students were choosing to attend mainstream and elite majority-white schools. This shift exacerbated the financial challenges faced by many schools like Fisk. Black colleges and universities had long served as oases for the development of Black minds and for the preservation of Black history and culture even when mainstream white educational institutions were not open to Black students. Fisk’s public financial struggles at the time of my return to campus made the need to raise money from alumni, supporting the school and creating student scholarships, that much more important.
Eager for my new assignment, I embarked upon researching the legal steps necessary for the university to create an association. A formal alumni association could organize the Fisk Clubs to work together, to raise funds, and to align their member networks in strong support of the school. Fisk University staff and the Chicago Fisk Club members were of great assistance to me, as I had never written a constitution and bylaws for an association.
In 1980, we were successful in obtaining the approval of the University Board of Trustees, and I became the first president of the Fisk University Alumni Association, a position I served in for two years. Harold Kelly, Class of 1958 and the president of the Chicago Club, then became the next president. Harold had been part of Fisk’s early-entry program, coming to the university around age fifteen, as he had been able to take university-level classes while still in high school. Harold was very efficient and hard-working and held the group together for more than fifteen years. We strongly believed that the alumni association would become important for recruiting new students for Fisk—organizing alumni clubs on a regional basis, holding social and business gatherings during annual commencement activities at the university, and preparing alumni to serve as ambassadors, among many other ways.
Around this same time, my brother Judson decided to run for the Texas 18th District congressional seat that had been left by Barbara Jordan when she stepped down due to illness. Barbara Jordan had been the first African American elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction and then went on to represent Texas in the U.S. Congress. Our families had long been friends, and Barbara had always been very serious, very smart, and very clear about the issues. Judson felt close to Barbara and followed her career. Mickey Leland and Anthony Hall were also mounting campaigns to compete for Barbara Jordan’s seat. Judson had just been reelected to the Houston City Council, and several family members and I had been active in his campaign. When Judson declared his candidacy for Barbara’s position, I continued to offer support as office manager and supervisor for the new campaign. Unfortunately, the voters who had just elected Judson to the city council did not support his congressional run, and Mickey Leland was elected to take the open seat and went on to serve for several terms. My daughter Patrice would eventually serve as Mickey Leland’s chief of staff.
While I was at Fisk, I was also given the opportunity to be of service to my sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. I had been initiated into the Alpha Beta Chapter in 1950. In the years following my graduation, I had always found great resonance between the values with which I’d grown up and the values that were at the heart of the Delta sisterhood. I remained active in the sorority and in my relationships with fellow Delta sisters throughout the country. After my return to Nashville in 1979, the Delta’s National Membership and Intake Committee asked me to serve as an adviser to the Alpha Beta Chapter at Fisk. By this point, the sorority had been incorporated for sixty-seven years, and I had been a Delta for nearly thirty years.
During this period, initiation practices at fraternities and sororities were growing increasingly extreme, and stories of hazing deaths on college campuses in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana had been in the news. I recall how anxious my brother and I were even as my nephew rushed the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. I also thought that some of the hazing that was happening at Black fraternities and sororities was symptomatic of an oppressed people consciously or unconsciously acting out by taking on the characteristics of their oppressors.
That year, there was a group of young women interested in joining the Alpha Beta Chapter. The women complained of initiation activities that were at odds with the sorority’s values of service and sisterhood. I was on campus and available to be of assistance when the national headquarters determined that the chapter intake committee at Fisk would benefit from some clarity and reinforcement of the mission and principles of Delta Sigma Theta. When I learned of some of the activities, I had a deep concern that Black women in general and my sorority sisters in particular were forgetting who they were and from whence they came.
I began to attend the intake committee meetings for the Alpha Beta Chapter as elder and adviser. I think that my best service was to remind them of Delta’s value of sisterhood and what it meant. As a public service sorority, Delta Sigma Theta was founded to promote academic excellence and provide assistance to those in need. The organization was built on the shoulders of women of character and caliber, women like the twenty-two founders whose first public act was to participate in the Women’s Suffrage March in Washington, D.C., in 1913. I reminded the intake committee members that as Deltas they shared in the legacy of Dorothy Height and many others and that they themselves had an important role to play in continuing the leadership and service contributions of the sisterhood to the Black community.
I am pleased to say that at least for that group of young women, the Alpha Beta Chapter initiation practices were reformed. The young women successfully pledged Delta and developed a close feeling of sisterhood. To this day, I am blessed to be in touch with several of those Fisk sorority sisters and to be honored with a special elder role. I was elected to the National Board of Delta Sigma Theta and served on the executive committee; I was also chair of Arts and Letters from 1983 to 1988. In 1985, we had a very successful Arts and Letters Renaissance in Dallas that featured poet Nikki Giovanni, singer Bill Withers, and the artwork of Clementine Hunter and Earl Hooks, among others. Delta Sigma Theta continues to be the largest African American Greek-lettered organization, and I am still today a dues-paying member and a sorority elder, classified as a Delta Dear.
I was still in Tennessee during the end of the Jimmy Carter/Walter Mondale presidential election campaign against Ronald Reagan in 1979. The campaign came through Nashville, and I made arrangements to visit with Carter and Mondale. At this point, Walter had been my friend for nearly twenty years in the civil rights struggle, and we were very aligned in our values and worldviews. I offered to become involved in the campaign and to do outreach in the Black communities of Tennessee and Kentucky. My daughter Patrice had been a student intern assigned to Tennessee Representative Alvin King when she was a student at Fisk, and I knew several Tennessee state legislators. I felt comfortable with my understanding of the political infrastructure in Tennessee and with the prospect of working in the Black communities in the two states. The campaign work was hard and long and ultimately unsuccessful, as Black voters in Tennessee and Kentucky did not turn out in support of Carter and Mondale. For long afterward, I felt a deep sense of guilt and responsibility that my work had not brought the outcome for which I had hoped.
Many years later, in 2015, during a yearlong series of events honoring the life and legacy of Vice President Mondale, I was invited to the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C., to participate in a panel discussion about the civil rights struggle. That evening included a reception, dinner, and a discussion between Vice President Mondale and President Jimmy Carter. At this event, I sat at a table assigned to the participants in the daylong activities. I was surprised and thrilled to have the opportunity to visit person-to-person with President Carter. I reminded him that I had campaigned on his behalf in Tennessee and Kentucky. I will always remember that evening and our conversation.
In 1981, I applied to pursue my doctoral studies in education administration at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Based on observations that I’d made while consulting in the public schools in Minneapolis, I was interested in researching how to create an environment that would help African American students be successful in their K–12 experiences and beyond. I applied with the encouragement of my colleague Lillian Anthony and the support of Norma Jean Andersen, who was the dean of the college of education at Amherst, whom I had first met in the early 1960s when she served as an evaluator for a federal training program for parents, paraprofessionals, and teachers in Twin Cities schools.
Norma Jean offered me a lovely room in her home until student housing became available. Her family was very active and engaged in the Amherst community: her husband was a church minister and community activist, and her four children were artists, writers, educators, musicians, and Christian ministers. Norma Jean’s home was a welcoming place, and I settled in. I shared many meals and lively conversations with Norma Jean, her husband, and children, and I felt as though I really was one of the family.
The chance to return to school at the age of fifty-one I recognized as a rich and exciting time in my life. I was delighted to find myself on campus with students from all over the world, particularly those from the continent of Africa. Even though I was the oldest student in various groups, I appreciated the experiences and maturity of many of the other students studying education administration. We would gather regularly to share what we were learning and to advise each other in our work. Some students were researching the emotional development of African American students while others focused more closely in my area of study, the role of parents and community in supporting and advancing the education of Black children. One of my closest friends and classmates was Ruby Burges, a respected curriculum development consultant in her nonstudent life. These relationships would become close and lasting friendships.
I was eager to get deep into the research on the education of African American children and to talk with scholars who shared my interests. At Amherst, I met professors who had been in the field of education for a long time and with whom I would spend many hours talking about what should be included in a curriculum for African American students. Meyer Weinberg, a scholar of W. E. B. Du Bois, was the chair of my dissertation committee. He was a distinguished scholar and one of the pioneer researchers of integrated education following the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His eighteen books included The World of W. E. B. Du Bois, a journey through Du Bois’s views on virtually all aspects of twentieth-century life and other studies of the education of poor and minority children. W. E. B. was my hero. Both Du Bois and Meyer emphasized the particular necessity for African American people to understand their history and context. Benefiting from Meyer’s scholarship and historical work was a dream come true for me.
The papers of W. E. B. Du Bois were held in the special collections and university archives at Amherst, the library that in 1994 would take on his name. I will never forget the first time I stood outside that twenty-eight-story building. In some ways, that experience mirrored the first time I saw Jubilee Hall as an entering freshman at Fisk. To me, both of those buildings represented the phenomenal history of our people: Jubilee Hall was the reminder of a people who believed in education, who sacrificed and shared their talents to make education available to so many African American people; the W. E. B. Du Bois library represented a scholar who gained knowledge and pride of Black people while at Fisk and never stopped telling our stories. At Amherst, I rejoiced at being in an environment where Du Bois’s commitment to the education of African American people could be felt everywhere.
I spent many full days in the small study carrels of the library, studying Du Bois’s papers and other works. I would go into the library early in the morning and lose myself in the research and materials from the shelves. I found such joy in reading autobiographical accounts of African Americans people who were students during the periods that followed emancipation through to the Brown decision (1865–1954), and also learning about the persistent efforts of African American people to obtain education across the decades. I still draw inspiration from all that Black people were able to accomplish in the incredibly productive twelve-year period of Reconstruction, when Black people were fully recognized and had the freedom to be elected to state legislatures. I learned about the work of Black legislators to make education free and accessible for all children—Black children and poor white children. And the great pride that they took in this work. I saw clearly how the people of my generation directly benefited from their accomplishments.
Reading of our history after the end of Reconstruction, I also saw how quickly the opportunities and possibilities for our people diminished with the emergence of Jim Crow, the brutality of the Klan, and the proliferation of laws that would entrap Black people in the South within the persistent power structures of white supremacy. This history documented the ups and downs of the struggles of Black people, the advances and the retractions, as the system revived old and manifested new methods of oppression. I began to see how this pattern issued forward into my lived experience and into the classrooms and schools where I had been and now found myself.
I was utterly transported by my research. I would emerge from the library in the evenings and blink as my eyes adjusted once again to the natural light of the sun going down on the day. I often had to shake my head to remember when and where I was. I would have been content to keep reading about this history of African American people, but Meyer Weinberg would urge me on in the writing of my dissertation saying, “Josie, you’ve done enough research. I’m going to lock you into a room until you finish the writing! You don’t need to do any more research.” But I found this immersion in the literature so essential. As I would write in my dissertation: “An historical review of these issues is necessary because the struggle is on-going and the obstacles to racial justice, political equity, and equal educational outcomes continue to persist today for Black people. . . . these historical events are important to know and discuss because the past helps us to determine the future.”
During my studies, I also visited fourth-grade classrooms at a suburban school just outside Amherst. In the early 1980s, busing plans were being implemented in Massachusetts, and many Black students were being bussed from urban school districts, like Springfield, to predominantly white suburban schools. I observed that Springfield students arrived at this suburban school with clear differences in the levels of their academic preparedness, differences that neither the schools nor the teachers were prepared to admit or address. The teachers at the school had not had experience teaching African American students and rather than develop strategies for addressing the academic differences among the students, they permitted the African American students to try to downplay the scholastic differences using skillful expression and performance. While the teachers and other students enjoyed the “performances” of the Black students, I was reminded of how I used to watch Black boys in my community while growing up. Before the age of five, they would walk with their little shoulders back and with such confidence that they were a delight to observe. Then after a few years of attending school and being told what they could not do, their heads would bow. They seemed to lose confidence and bend over as they walked. It was as though, as the years passed, you could see the pride drain from them as they came to embody the expectations and stereotypes of the majority culture. I was eager to figure out how to restore the confidence to our Black students.
While I was studying at Amherst, James Baldwin was a visiting scholar at Hampshire College, just down the road. On one occasion, he came to our campus to give a lecture. Baldwin was one of my idols; I attended the lecture with great anticipation. I was struck by the calm, forceful confidence in his voice and message, and I was thrilled to be in his presence. He spoke with such authority about the value that African American people brought to this society and how important it was for Black people to write, think, and talk about our contributions to this country. I had a chance to visit and talk with him. His pride in his people was contagious and I found his words to be so very affirming.
Friends and family also visited Amherst during my studies there. Vice President Mondale came to campus while I was a student as part of his presidential campaign in 1984. I believe it was the first time he introduced the voters to Representative Geraldine Ferraro, his running mate and the first woman nominated for vice president by a major political party. Norrene had completed her master’s degree in electrical engineering at Stanford and had taken a job at Lanier Business Products, a company with offices in Bedford, Massachusetts. Her work at the time focused on developing the code for Lanier’s first digital voice messaging system. Periodically, she would spend weekends in Amherst with me, and we would go shopping at antique and flea markets. We enjoyed each other’s company and our relationship deepened.
In February 1986, at the age of fifty-five, I received my doctor of education degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Patrice, Norrene, and Josie attended the ceremony and expressed their great pride and inspiration at my being the first in our family to get a doctor of education degree. Josie’s husband at the time and their eight-month-old baby, Lauren Noelle, my first grandchild, were also there. I felt tremendous joy at having made a contribution to the literature on the role Black parents and the Black community played in providing education for our children and in amplifying the value that African Americans have placed on education throughout our history. Meyer wanted me to publish my dissertation. Unfortunately, I didn’t follow through on this. Thirty years later, however, in 2016, my dissertation was digitized and made available online by the University of Massachusetts Libraries. To my great pride, my dissertation now shares the same home where the papers of W. E. B. Du Bois reside.
During the final year of my doctoral program, my beloved father had fallen ill: he had collapsed while at a dry cleaner with his wife, Martha. Doctors determined that he had had a mini-stroke. My dad and I were very close, even more so after my mother’s death in 1960. Following his stroke, I spent time between Amherst and Houston in order to help care for him while completing my studies. My father and I spoke regularly every week, and during our conversations and my visits to Houston I could always count on hearing my father’s observations of the politics and current events in the life of the city.
After the excitement of commencement ended and my daughters left, I returned to Houston to continue caring for Daddy and to think about what my next steps would be. My father continued to be a soft-spoken, quiet person, going about many of the daily habits and rituals as he always had. He would still get up every morning and stand watching himself in the bathroom mirror as he buttoned his shirt and tucked it into his pants, in exactly the way that I remembered seeing him dress when I was child. The family eventually hired a lady who came in the mornings to help Dad get ready for his day. When I was visiting, I would also help him to get dressed and ready in the mornings, even when the business of the day would involve the two of us just going to the front room to sit and talk.
Though my father was still engaged in some work with clients in his real estate business, as his faculties declined my brother Judson Jr. had stepped in to take over the majority of the activities of his business. My brother Jim and John Davis Jr., Martha’s son, had a law practice that was also part of Judson W. Robinson and Sons. Dad would still banter with community members like he always had, but now after conversations he would ask one of us who the people were with whom he had engaged.
One day, my father set out on an errand to deliver some papers to one of his clients and was gone all day. Dad had always loved to be out and about driving around, but on this occasion he had said he would be right back. After several hours had passed, my brothers and I grew increasingly worried. Judson Jr. and Jim decided to go out looking for him and I stayed home, calling around to neighbors asking, “Have you seen Big Judson?” No one had seen him or knew where he was. As it grew later, we were beside ourselves. We didn’t call the police: even as multigenerational Texans, we didn’t have that kind of relationship with the police. Then suddenly, my father came back to the house on his own. He told us that he had been over by the Ship Channel, a great waterway in Houston. He had driven on the wrong sideof a divided parkway and had gotten confused about where he was.
My father had always been very talented at doing things his way. There had been other minor incidents, such as when Dad had forgotten where he had parked the car, but nothing had so completely scared the family like this incident. Even though my father tried skillfully to make excuses for his getting lost, my brothers and I were terribly afraid that it would happen again, and we decided to take away his car keys. This was a terrible blow to my father and heartbreaking for me as well, because I knew what driving meant to his sense of independence. Even after my father was no longer permitted to drive, he would go out nearly every morning and clean the windshield of his car, just as he had done with the 1939 Lincoln he had driven when I was a child.
Daddy passed away on May 11, 1986, three months after my graduation. I was back in Nashville, at a meeting of the alumni association at Fisk, when I had gotten the call that he had suffered a heart attack. I returned to Houston immediately and joined Martha, her two children, and my brothers at the hospital, but he never recovered from the heart attack. We were all there as a family at my father’s bedside when he died. The crowd overflowed the church at my father’s funeral service and the number of cars in his funeral procession stretched for miles.