My breakfast with Walter

In an earlier post, I mentioned the breakfast I shared with Dr. Walter M. Kimbrough, the president of Philander Smith College.

During the course of our breakfast conversation, Dr. Kimbrough talked about his upbringing in Atlanta and the effect that the Atlanta University Center has had on that city. The Atlanta University Center consists of historically black colleges and universities — Clark Atlanta University, Spelman College, Morehouse College and the Morehouse School of Medicine.

Morehouse, the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Spike Lee, is an all-male institution with about 2,900 students. Formerly the Atlanta Baptist Seminary, it has a strong tradition. Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, who became its president in 1940, was a mentor to Dr. King and delivered his eulogy in April 1968. Morehouse students and graduates played a central role in the civil rights movement.

Spelman, a women’s college with about 2,300 students, began in 1881 as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary. In April 1884, John D. Rockefeller paid off the school’s debt. The name was changed to Spelman Seminary in honor of Rockefeller’s wife, Laura Spelman.

Clark Atlanta University is the product of the 1988 consolidation of Clark College and Atlanta University. Atlanta University was founded in 1865 by the American Missionary Association with later assistance from the Freedman’s Bureau. Clark College was founded in 1869 by the Freedman’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

What Dr. Kimbrough witnessed during his years in Atlanta was this: Talented black students would come to Atlanta from across the country to attend college and then stay there following graduation. Their contributions helped Atlanta become the South’s largest and, in many ways, most dynamic city. While the authorities in Birmingham were turning fire hoses on black citizens, Atlanta was billing itself as “the city too busy to hate.”

Dr. Kimbrough believes Philander Smith and its neighbor a few blocks away, Arkansas Baptist College, can become a smaller version of the Atlanta University Center. With articulate, dynamic presidents — Fitz Hill at Arkansas Baptist and Walter Kimbrough at Philander Smith — these schools are now in a position to attract more financial support from the Little Rock business community, recruit additional students and help give new life to the neighborhoods that surround their campuses.

Here’s the vision: Some of the graduates from elsewhere fall in love with Little Rock and decide to stay. They buy homes near their alma maters and chose to raise their families in those neighborhoods. Young, successful couples, in turn, revitalize a historic part of Little Rock.

Dr. Kimbrough, who spent five years at Albany State University, says there is far less racial tension in Little Rock than there was in Albany and the rest of south Georgia. He remembers that his first impression of Little Rock in 2004 was how nice the people were. With the increasing array of cultural activities in the city — including his own “Bless the Mic” lecture series and the lecture series at the Clinton School of Public Service — Dr. Kimbrough believes Little Rock is in a position to be a mecca for students from other states. Already, almost 40 percent of Philander Smith’s students come from outside Arkansas. Two of the school’s strongest alumni chapters are in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Dr. Kimbrough also wants Philander Smith to be known for its social justice initiative. He defines social justice as “ensuring equity for people regardless of their backgrounds. You don’t want people to be automatically disadvantaged just because they belong to a particular group.”

Of course, once equal opportunity is ensured, it’s up to the individual how much he or she achieves. That’s why Dr. Kimbrough makes giving back to the community a part of the initiative.

“Very few colleges in the state have a truly distinct identity,” the Philander Smith president says. “What are we going to be known for? As a small school, we need to establish our identity.”

Both the Philander Smith and the Arkansas Baptist presidents have made clear that they expect their students to give back. In their minds, the goal of college is not just to obtain a degree and be able to make a lot of money.

During our breakfast, Dr. Kimbrough spoke of the low percentage of parents who attend parent-teacher conferences at some schools in the Little Rock School District.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “You have to make time for your children. You have to make time for your community. It’s not all about yourself. Those are the kinds of things we’re trying to stress with the social justice initiative. We’re giving students a chance to discuss issues such as these. We want to be a part of developing the next generation of leaders for this city and state.”

Kimbrough also established the school’s black male initiative. The Philander Smith website describes it this way: “After looking at the abysmal graduation rates, the president pulled together a committee to begin to look for new ways to engage the men on campus. Through a series of special events for the men, the black male initiative provided opportunities for men to connect with each other, and with faculty and staff. The support of the Philander community was enlisted to serve as mentors for the males on campus. The goods news is that they came together and embraced the concept of being their brother’s keeper. Their goal is to impact lives through involvement and support as the males strive for their objective — to graduate.”

Dr. Kimbrough told me: “We want this to be a model program that others can adopt. A lot of these guys are now sharing the problems they face for the first time. They had never talked about their problems before.”

Earlier this year, Philander Smith purchased and razed what had been the Brick House liquor store across the street. The school also has purchased abandoned houses on Chester Street. Participants in the Black Male Initiative then painted a fence and helped clean the lot where the liquor store had been.

Over at Arkansas Baptist, Fitz Hill has bought more than a dozen homes and even a car wash in the neighborhood surrounding his school.

And the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has formed the University District Partnership in an effort to improve the neighborhoods surrounding UALR.

Partnership director Ron Copeland told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette back in March: “Twenty or 30 years ago, redevelopment often focused on major corporations as anchors. What we’ve seen is private businesses often merge or move or fail. Philander Smith, UALR, Arkansas Baptist College, UAMS — these are major institutions that will be there for the next century. So, to the extent that they have a strong physical and economic presence in their areas, they will continue to be anchors well into the future. … Our advisers tell us that commerce follows people. Our emphasis is creating a quality of life that will attract families, and then businesses and services will follow them.”

Dr. Kimbrough said that when he’s selling potential students on Philander Smith, he’s also selling Little Rock as a city. He would like to see programs such as the social justice initiative and the black male initiative receive national recognition.

“Outside recognition will change the game for us,” Kimbrough says. “It will give Philander Smith more validity. We want to become a model for how we educate our students.”

In the process, a historic part of Little Rock could be revitalized.

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