Celebrating Civil Rights, Civil Liberties and Greatness at Fisk University

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In 2006, I started working on my dissertation, a process that led me on a beautiful journey.

The journey began with a visit to Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., the home of Charles Spurgeon Johnson’s presidential papers. I was interested in Johnson because he was one of the first African-American presidents of a historically Black institution and he worked extensively with White philanthropists. I wanted to understand how African-American leaders in the South navigated the murky waters of White philanthropy.

Over the course of writing my dissertation, I visited Fisk nearly ten times, staying about a week for each visit. During my visits, I became acquainted with a lovely man ― Leslie M. “Doc” Collins, an English professor at the historic Nashville institution.  Collins began teaching at Fisk in 1945 and was a wealth of knowledge about Fisk’s history. I was honored to interview him for my dissertation; he was one of a few people who worked with Charles S. Johnson and could detail Johnson’s leadership style.

What I liked most about Collins was that he didn’t mince words or pussyfoot around tough topics. He was forthright in his praise and criticism of Johnson and helped me to craft a nuanced and rich biography of the president. Professor Collins passed away on Sunday, February 23, 2014 at 99 years of age and left a beautiful legacy in all of the students that he taught and mentored.

Just five days later, another Fisk icon passed away.

Lee Lorch, who taught math at Fisk, died at 98 years old on February 28, 2014. Lorch was not your average professor. He was an activist for civil rights and civil liberties and for equity in society; he was instrumental in forcing the desegregation of Stuyvesant Town, a housing development in New York City.

Charles S. Johnson hired Lorch in 1950 to teach math at Fisk when no one else would take a risk on Lorch. The math professor was an inspiration to students and single-handedly mentored and prepared more African-American mathematicians than any of his contemporaries in the U.S.

In addition to teaching, he continued his fight for justice while in the Nashville area. Lorch and his wife Grace, who was also an activist, enrolled their White daughter in a local Black public school to test the recent Brown v. Board of Education. The powers that be in Nashville were not happy with the Lorch’s actions and soon Lorch was accused of being a Communist and brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Rather than support him, President Charles Johnson chose to protect Fisk University (and its deep ties to White philanthropists) rather than Lorch. One could say Johnson had little choice as a Black leader in the segregated South. Johnson fired Lorch in 1955 and Lorch never forgave him, though he understood the Black sociologist’s pressures.

Eventually Lorch found another faculty position at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. As with Professor Collins, I had the opportunity to interview Lee Lorch several times about his role at Fisk and his relationship with Charles Johnson. Even in his later years, Lorch was fiery and spirited; his activist soul continued fighting for justice.

Leslie M. Collins and Lee Lorch left us with tremendous legacies and life lessons.  These were individuals who lived for much more than themselves and their own well being. Whether it be to further knowledge on the Harlem Renaissance or to demonstrate how one moves the needle toward justice, these two men are role models and examples for all of us.

I am proud to have met them both, engaged them and learned from their large lives. I am honored to include their stories in my teaching and research in order to make sure that the next generation of students can live by their valiant examples. Both of these individuals are the impetus for my asking students in my History of American Higher Education course “What do you live for beyond yourself?” and “For what cause would you be willing to give up your comfort?

Answering these questions and actualizing the answers makes all of us better human beings.

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2 Responses to Celebrating Civil Rights, Civil Liberties and Greatness at Fisk University

  1. I am a Fiskite. When i first read this article, i thought to myself that it was an interesting synthesis of events. However, upon a second reading, i was somewhat offended. While i have an appreciation for your academic dedication to the Fisk experience, as a Fiskite, this article to me lacked a depth of understanding and context, which i believe necessary to any authentic or productive conversation about the HBCU experience—the Fisk experience for sure. I have interviewed persons at length and spent time with them for various reasons, but probably would not have chosen to publish a memorial tribute of sorts without consulting some others who knew them really well over a long period of time. Especially if the subject of my articles were octogenarians and had plenty of persons yet alive who could speak about them.
    While i am not an educator or academician, as a Fiskite involved with my Alma Mater, your characterization of Dr. Collins, to me, seemed unworthy of a person who chose his words so carefully and insisted that others do the same. I believe he would have recoiled at the word “pussyfoot” being used in his presence, and certainly in a sentence referring to him. Also, to describe Dr. Lortch’s singular attitude towards Fisk as one of a lifelong grudge about his firing from Fisk seems incongruous, and your dismissal of Dr. Johnson as one who chose to curry the favor of white philanthropists over the employment of one professor seems elementary in its analysis.
    Dr. Collins was an icon of professorial impeccability, who touched generation after generation of Fisk students. His persona demanded that we students examine ourselves through the prism of excellence and eloquence, and he required of us all a sense of decorum in the presentation of our physical and intellectual selves. He did this by example both in and out of the classroom. His disapproval of all things was couched in its reserved and gentlemanly speech, almost Shakespearean in its pattern and delivery.
    Dr.Lortch’s journey to Fisk in the fifties from his previous dismissal after a year at the University of Pennsylvania was a hard landing. By the time he arrived at Fisk, he had been exiled from white American academia because of his political beliefs and activities. He was brilliant and had a profound influence on the lives of the students he knew and mentored in his extremely brief tenure at Fisk, and his death is mourned by them. It gives me pause to believe that, given his prior experiences, he would hold onto a lifetime resentment of Dr. Johnson who gave him brief shelter during the era of McCarthyism and a national witch hunt against all individuals and institutions who were perceived to champion anti-segregation philosophies, as well as freedom of thought and expression. With all due respect to Dr. Lortch, i am grateful that Dr. Johnson did not sacrifice Fisk for any one or any thing; and i choose to believe that Dr. Lortch did not merely intellectually understand that decision but agreed with that decision.
    Unlike Dr. Collins, Dr. Lortch is largely unknown to most Fiskites. He is among the many extremely gifted professors who, despite their brevity of tenure, have contributed to the Fisk brand of excellence and inspired its sons and daughters to greatness. This only happens through the leadership and dedication of presidents like Dr. Charles S. Johnson, who have the vision and ability to identify and harness so many of the human and economic resources necessary to nurture and sustain our academic credibility in the face of the many challenges that have threatened the survival of my Alma Mater! As in all things, generals, not unlike University presidents, choose which battles to fight in order to win a war. And the lens though which they, and all of us, determine which battles to fight is often viewed through the lens/experience of the strategist.
    Concerning your article, i asked myself the question: Was it written through the lens of privileged academia or the lens of survival of the oppressed? I believe that using both lenses might have produced a more balanced article. In my view, Dr. Collins was the ultimate strategist as a professor, often referred to as the man who “walked through the raindrops”, an analogy on so many levels. He chose to be what Fisk needed and purposed his life, with dignified sacrifice, accordingly. He was able to signal this everyone—wordlessly. It was his essence of being that was his endearing brilliance. Today we look to “Friend” as one of the brightest stars in the pantheon of the Fisk constellation, which now also includes Dr. Lortch in that constellation. And put simply, no matter how you look at it, that pantheon would surely be diminished without the choices—including Dr. Lortch’s hiring and firing—and the vision of Dr. Charles S. Johnson..

    cassandra teague walker
    March 8, 2014 at 5:42 pm

  2. apologies for misspelling Dr. Lorch’s name.

    cassandra teague walker
    March 8, 2014 at 6:43 pm

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