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Suffering Pitfalls of Civil Rights

LeMoyne-Owen was known for turning poorly prepared students into professionals. But, as with many black colleges, its glory days ended with desegregation.

October 13, 1998|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On his first day at LeMoyne Normal Institute, Theodore Roosevelt McLemore stood in the headmaster's office.

McLemore, now 96, recalls that moment as if he were still 14 years old. It was a Monday morning in December 1916. He wore the only suit coat he owned. Tiny beads of cold sweat pooled at the base of his back. The headmaster, Earl Clippinger, sat behind a massive wood desk.

Miss Mary Peebles, McLemore's eighth-grade teacher, stood beside him. She was the reason he was there. She had persuaded his father to let him leave the farm and finish high school in Memphis.

"Mr. Clippinger, I'm bringing Theodore Roosevelt McLemore from Collierville, Tenn., to work his way through school," Peebles said. "He wants to matriculate here at LeMoyne."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 14, 1998 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Black colleges--In an article in Tuesday's Times on Lemoyne-Owen College, the mayor of Memphis, Tenn., was misidentified. He is W.W. Herenton.

The headmaster rose and extended a fleshy pink hand. McLemore wiped moisture from his palms onto his knee britches. "How do you do, Mr. McLemore?" the towering white man said.

McLemore's eyes still mist when he recalls that gesture. "It was the first time I'd ever seen anybody black treated with such respect. From that first handshake, I got a feeling I was somebody. I wanted to know what he knew, and I was willing to study whatever it took to learn."

The small preparatory school that accepted McLemore is now LeMoyne-Owen College, one of the nation's 103 historically black colleges and universities, almost all of which are in the South. For most of its history, LeMoyne-Owen has turned poorly prepared black students from Memphis and rural Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama into middle-class professionals.

But LeMoyne-Owen's glory days came when the restrictions of a segregated American South made the school's job easier than it is today. Until the late '60s, black farm kids rarely went beyond high school. Few were affluent or lucky enough to escape a future of sharecropping or menial jobs. For folks like McLemore, higher education shimmered like an impossible dream.

In the contemporary South, black students can pick from a menu of schools that McLemore was never offered. Elite private institutions aggressively recruit the offspring of people they once excluded. State universities, many of which were militantly opposed to desegregation, are now open to all those who meet their criteria. And black students can still choose from a roster of black colleges and universities.

Amid these choices, LeMoyne-Owen resides in a netherworld. Unlike Spelman College in Georgia or Tuskegee University in Alabama, it does not boast a distinguished academic program that rivals its white counterparts. Nor is it like Bishop College in Dallas or Friendship College in South Carolina--two of the nine black colleges that have folded since 1976--an institution that nobody wants to attend.

Rather, LeMoyne-Owen shares a fate familiar to the great majority of black colleges: Beyond its tightly coiled Southern roots, it is barely known even among college-bound high school graduates. Teetering like a seesaw over its past reputation, LeMoyne-Owen tries to level itself for an uncertain and competitive future.

Precarious Fiscal Situation

LeMoyne-Owen's student body of slightly fewer than 1,000 is drawn largely from black working-class and low-income families in Memphis. It has always attracted a sprinkling of white students. The school, which has more than 40 full-time faculty members, offers 15 majors in disciplines such as elementary education, fine arts, accounting and chemistry. Alumni include Duke University religion professor C. Eric Lincoln and Washington Mayor Marion Barry as well as such Memphis leaders as Mayor W.W. Herndon and City Council Chairman Myron Lowery.

But with an endowment of only $10.5 million, the school's fiscal situation is precarious. The once-vibrant hilltop campus that greeted McLemore is tattered and worn. Classrooms have tiles missing from ceilings. Directly opposite the college, a drug-riddled housing project has been razed, but a rubble-strewn landscape remains. Until recently, the school had no dormitories, requiring resident students to live as boarders in the surrounding community.

The college is already a product of one lifesaving union. LeMoyne College merged in 1968 with Owen College, a junior college founded and run by a Baptist missionary organization. But even the combined resources of two black-run colleges failed to reverse the steady march of black students--and the money they carry with them--to previously all-white colleges.

In 1968, the Ford Foundation reported that 80% of college-educated black Americans earned their degrees at a historically black college or university. Twenty-six years later, the National Assn. for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education estimated that 1 in 4 black college graduates now come from black schools.

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