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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