Editors Note: I know for some, the hardest part is coming to grips with what to write. Here's a tip: try to think about a particular event or incident; something that stands out as an indicator of your HBCU years. A date experience, trying out for some kind of team or club, a work-study related thing, a road trip, holiday getaway, etc. The common urge is to try to tell an all-encompassing story about your overall experience, however, the most poignant essays almost always detail a very specific occurrence. Also, as a point of reference, below are three essays that are featured in Vol. 1.
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Prairie View A&M University, 1988
"I'm Going to Make You Change Your Major"
My parents graduated from Bishop College in the 1950s when it was located in Marshall, Texas. Although they were born and raised in Texas I grew up in California. I had no real concept of HBCUs other than the occasional stories my parents shared with me at home. They spoke of the struggle to pay for tuition and books, meals shared from the cafeteria, and the lifelong friendships that were born out of America’s sorry racial history. I especially found humor in the stories about tough and overbearing professors that taught them the craft of their chosen professions. Never once did I think I would have my own story to tell.
When it was time for me to choose a college, I decided on Prairie View A & M University of Texas based on my mothers’ advice and its reputation for producing black engineers and military officers. I secretly thought I would go down to Texas, armed with my California sensibility, roll through that Texas backwater program and obtain that degree in a matter of semesters. After all, I reasoned, how hard could this small southern school be academically?
My first days of classes on “The Yard” were a shocking eye opener and revealed a world this California boy was grossly ill-prepared for. I learned quickly that most HBCU graduates seem to share one consistent experience: everyone has at least one professor that leaves an indelible mark on their lives. Ben S. McMillan, III, AIA, NCARB, left such an indelible impression on my life that not a day goes by that I don’t remember I owe him a debt of gratitude.
I met Mr. McMillan during the first weeks of my freshmen architecture studio. He was not just our freshman studio professor — he became somewhat of our black “Socrates.” He was gruff, bright, brash, and, above all, excruciatingly demanding. He challenged us in every way, calling us out for our mistakes and forcing us to confront our weaknesses both personally and academically. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. I can remember the day he laid out his expectations: “You will come to class, you will be on time, you will do the work, or you will go home!” he exclaimed. “All male students must wear shirts and ties and all female students must wear dresses or pant suits, no exceptions. And if you don’t like it, you can hit the door!” For effect, his arm rose pointing to the wide double exit doors behind us.
“What on earth was he thinking? Who was this man? What college students wear ties and dresses to class?” I muttered under my breath. This was my time, my life, and I wanted to express myself as I saw fit. Coming from the sleepy, laid back beach and farming community in Oxnard, California in the 1980s, I had never worn a tie in my entire life. In sunny California, it was year-round summer wear for a climate that never dipped below 72 degrees. I can remember Mr. McMillan’s famous words as he drew the line in the sand: “If you don’t have a tie, borrow one. If you don’t have a dress, take up a collection and buy one. No excuses. If you want to be a professional, you have to look professional.” I can also remember his voice bellowing across the design studio when a student challenged his class policies, “Change your major!” Hearing, “Change your major!” became so routine that I began to think it was the name of the course.
Mr. McMillan challenged, cajoled, and angered us into wanting more for ourselves. He demanded that we become the best — the people we all deeply wanted to be but didn’t quite know how. At first, my classmates and I hated him and the attire became a rallying point for his frequent demonstrations and demands. When we fought back, he gave us more work.
Slowly, over time, my classmates and I began to see the positive effects. We began to develop a sense that we were walking in the footsteps of great black architects and engineers like Vertner Woodson Tandy or Nathelyne Archie Kennedy. We were, after all, not just college students — we were young professionals. There was a sense of pride and honor when I consistently heard, “You must be one of Mr. McMillan’s,” when I walked into a campus building or classroom. I had never experienced anyone telling me as he unfolded my architectural drawings, “This is cold.” This, coming from Mr. McMillan, meant the world to me.
Looking back I now realize that Mr. McMillan’s requirements weren’t necessarily about the ties or even the demands as much as they were meant for me to reflect on who I was and what I was made of. It was about reorienting myself to impending professional expectations. My high school teachers never expected much from me but Mr. McMillan did. What I think Mr. McMillan was saying to us was the world owes you nothing and will give you nothing. You have to be professional in all that you do so that people will take you and your ideas seriously. Mediocrity is simply unacceptable.
Today I am a college professor after spending nearly 15 years in private architectural practice, many of those as my own boss. I still feel the effect of all Mr. McMillan’s wisdom. To this day, I still feel uncomfortable standing in front of my students without a tie. It might sound like a small thing but when I wore that tie to class and stood there while he told the world I was finally measuring up to his standards, I felt different. I somehow felt more alive, probably because I rose to the challenge. And each and every time I don’t feel like giving my best, I remember the rallying cry of our black Socrates: “I’m gonna make you change your major.”
# # #
Wendel Eckford is currently the Ralph Bunche Professor of history at Los Angeles City College. The California native is an alumni of Prairie View A & M University where he earned a five-year degree in architecture. He is a member of the Macking Eta Gamma chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Inc., and Phi AlphaTheta, history honor society. The HBCU grad was commissioned a 2nd Lt. in the United States Army Reserves.
Wendel earned a master's degree and a doctorate in history from the Claremont Graduate School and a master's in African American studies from UCLA. He is currently working on a master's in theology from the University of Notre Dame. He has two children, Matilde and Isotta Eckford.
• • •
Sandra E. Walton Wilson
Cheyney State College (Cheyney State University), 1966
Prior to my first semester in college, all freshmen were invited to and required to participate in an orientation to the college during the summer. We were introduced to some of the administrators, walked the campus identifying the buildings, listened to some college history and were introduced to expectations and procedures. At this time we were guided through our registration and were allowed to purchase books at the bookstore. I personally enjoyed meeting other neophytes and spending time in the dorms. We were also notified that there would be a time of freshman initiation that would be administered by the upperclassman. The orientation lasted for a week and I was encouraged, excited and a bit scared
In the fall my parents drove me to the college, helped unpack my clothes, make up my bed and left me standing on the quadrangle feeling alone and sad. However, that changed quickly as some of the girls that I had met during the summer arrived.
That is when Freshman Initiation began. The sophomores arrived and began the procedure. One young lady was introduced as the Dean of Initiation. She was the top supervisor for the girls. We were given written explanations of expectations. Everyone, boys and girls, were given a blue and white beanie to wear for a week to identify their status. We had to memorize a poem called "The Teacher" which had been written by Leslie Pinckney Hill, one of the past Presidents of the college. Since this was a teacher's college, I found that acceptable. The precise greeting for upper upperclassmen was important. We had to bow, fling our hands with knuckles ever so slightly brushing the ground and say "Good morning, evening or afternoon, Most Honorable Sophomore, Most Distinguished Junior or Most Exalted Senior" every time we saw someone. I tried to not make eye contact with too many folks but that was to no avail.
By the end of the week we knew which students fit which category. They taught us to sing the alma mater. These were good things. However, the girls were addressed as Dog-etts and the boys were Dogs. I became Dog-ette Walton for that week. We felt a bit like their servants. We ran errands, were insulted, and were requested to spout the poem or sing the alma mater at any time. In the evenings they gathered all of the girls on campus into a room and made us do silly things that were demeaning like blowing out a light bulb. When I think of it now, I get tickled. One girl got in my face and was not very nice. Somewhere from deep in me came these words: "This will be over on Friday. I will see you on Saturday morning." At another time, when they were making the Dog-ettes do something funny, they told us that we had better no laugh but I couldn't help it; I laughed to myself and tried to hide behind someone who was in front of me. The girl standing beside gave me a nudged said, "Stop it! You are going to get us all in trouble." That is when I got caught.
This is how that conversation went:
Sophomore: "Dog-ette Walton, step out!" (I stepped out as directed with a smirk on my face.) "I know that you are not laughing."
Me: "No, this is the way I frown."
Then there were moans and groans from the crowd and quiet laughter from some both sophomores and freshmen. Thus my nickname became..."Madame Indifference."
Most of us had never been away from home and we just assumed this was part of the college process so we participated. It was interesting because no one really had to take part in it but we all did not consider that aspect. This was part of the college process and we actually enjoyed the interactions. It was a way of getting to know and depend on each other as we were being introduced to the upperclassmen.
It is strange when I think about it now because it was a time that I appreciate. The funny thing is that I became the Dean of Initiation for the next group of freshman To this day, when the alums get together we sing the alma mater and I can still recite "The Teacher."
# # #
Dr. Sandra Wilson is native of Pennsylvania. She is a retired elementary school educator and college professor, an award winning painter, Deacon at her church, published playright, parent of two and grandmother of five. She is an officer in the Phi Beta Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.; The Links, Inc.; and past National President of Black Women's Educational Alliance. Among her activities at Cheyney University was starting the school's first Drill Team. She cites her days there among her most valued experiences.
• • •
University of Maryland Eastern Shore, 1972
"Fresh Chickens and Stolen Pies"
I attended Maryland State College in the late 1960's. I was able to pay for my education through a combination of grants, student loans, and a partial football scholarship. Like the majority of my fellow athletes, most of us came from middle class or lower middle class families.
Mid-August marked the beginning of training camp for college football teams everywhere. When we arrived on the nearly deserted campus nestled on the outskirts of the tiny town of Princess Anne, Maryland, most of us had all of our worldly possessions contained in one or two tattered suitcases.
In those days most of the area surrounding the college was rural farmland as far as the eye could see. We practiced three times a day in scorching heat. Between practices we would make our way back to our dorm rooms and collapse onto our beds in an attempt to muster up enough energy for the next practice session. This tedious routine went on day in and day out. In the evenings we had a few hours of our own to unwind. We'd sit out on the steps of our dorm trying to stay cool. Air conditioned dorms were unheard of at Maryland State.
The nearest "big town" was Salisbury, about thirteen miles north of where we were. For a bunch of broke athletes with no means of transportation, it might as well have been thirteen hundred miles away. There were no movie theaters, no fast food places, nothing except open fields where cows would graze and corn fields that seemed to stretch on forever.
On some nights, well past our bedtime curfew, when pangs of hunger got the better of us, a few of the guys would grab a couple of pillow cases and head out to the hen house. Maryland State had an excellent agricultural program; they grew some delicious chickens. Richard, a gargantuan country boy from South Boston, Virginia usually headed up that operation. He'd wring the chicken's necks, pluck the feathers, cut up the chickens and fry them in a skillet using a hot plate. There would be feathers everywhere the next day.
Other times a group of us would sneak into the town of Princess Anne and wait for the bakery truck to deliver its load of baked goods to the town's only supermarket. The delivery would be made in the wee hours of the morning, around three or four a.m. Everything would be left by the front door of the market. When the market opened up for the day, the merchandise would be brought into the store and placed on the shelves for sale. Unfortunately we got there first. Once again the pillow cases would yield their bounty upon our return back to the dorm. There were pies, pastries, cakes; enough to go around and then some!
All of these experiences and many more helped to forge unbreakable bonds and lasting friendships that still exist to this day.
# # #
Tommy Owens, originally from Baltimore, Maryland, is a retired educator. He presently engages in his two favorite pastimes, painting and creative writing."