God’s Trombones (Warning: Great Art Inside)

Photo by Patrice Strong

In 1927, James Weldon Johnson published a book of poems based on the oratory of black preachers. Johnson got one of his friends, legendary artist Aaron Douglas, to do the artwork for the book. Their effort turned into one of the masterpieces of the Harlem Renaissance period. Johnson used trombones as a metaphor for the deep, wide-ranging voices of black pastors in the eight pieces which he wrote and Douglas interpreted with his art.

I attended Fisk University in the mid-seventies, not long after Aaron Douglas retired after 29 years of service as Chairman of the Art Department he founded. He continued to live in Nashville until his death in 1979. His art survives him at Fisk and was there for all to see in Cravath Hall. now the Administration Bldg which once served as the Fisk library.

Photo by Patrice Strong

I’m ashamed to say I cut through Cravath Hall two to three times a week. Never wandering up to the second floor to see for myself, the artwork of the man that portrayed black people with pride and not shame. Dr. David Driskell; Emeritus Professor at the University of Maryland called Douglas, “The father of black American Art.” He further said:

“Mr. Douglas was the one who actually took the iconography of African art and gave it a perspective which was readily accepted into black American culture.”

Photo by Patrice Strong

I returned to Fisk last weekend for Homecoming. I came for multiple reasons. The Modern Black Mass choir was celebrating their 50th Anniversary and performed a wonderful concert. Various sports individuals and teams were inducted into the Athletic Department Hall of Fame. I was fortunate enough to be included. I came to see friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in over 40 years. I met current students, reminding them of the legacy of the institution. Before leaving, I made my way to the second floor of Cravath Hall to see for myself the artwork that was ever so near during my time as a student.

Photo by Patrice Strong

In researching this piece to get some information right. I discovered I missed some of the pieces that were elsewhere in the building. Over the years, some works deteriorated to the point where a 2008 restoration couldn’t help them. Douglas himself restored some works when alive, reinterpreting a few of them to suit his current mood. Knowing there is more to see; I have little choice but to return to Fisk for graduation to again see old friends, celebrate with the graduates and alumni, and see in-person some of the wonderful art that I ignored as a student who didn’t know what he was missing.


I was fortunate enough to have been taught about the Harlem Renaissance by someone who you had to know to appreciate fully, Dr. L.M. Collins. He passed away at the age of 99 in 2014. Dr. Collins would lend me books to read and smile when I returned them, reporting on what I discovered. I’d like to think he’s still smiling, watching from above as I harvest more knowledge of the era he found so transformative. Rest in Power Dr. Collins.

Photo by Patrice Strong

The 73–74 Fisk Bulldogs Enter the Athletic Department Hall of Fame


I’m writing this story both as an insider and an outsider. I was a freshman on the team that went 26–4, finished as SIAC Conference Co-Champions, won the SIAC Tournament and made it to the Regional Finals of the Division II NCAA Tournament. Everything that happened that season was completely outside my experience coming from Minneapolis, MN. My high school had a losing record (though they won the State Tournament two years after I left). My high school was maybe 15% black, while at Fisk, I could name the two white students that attended during my tenure, Shawn and Snow.

I hadn’t intended on playing basketball at Fisk. I got there because I scored well on standardized tests. I was offered scholarships around the country. Somebody in my family who knew better than I pretty much shut down the conversation saying, “you’re going to Fisk!” After being in school a month, I was homesick and got to fly home for a weekend. Most of my old friends were doing the same things; hanging out at the park, chasing girls, drinking beer, or discussing one of the above. I didn’t even spend the whole weekend with them, I stayed close to home with family, ready to go back, homesick no more.

My mother brought me to Fisk. We somehow had hotel reservations in Madison, TN a good way from the Fisk campus. I remember we were ordering breakfast, the middle-aged white waitress walked over smiling, “Can I help y’all?,” in what I thought was the most exaggerated Southern accent I’d ever heard. I later learned that was the norm. When the cab dropped us off at New Livingston dormitory. We went to the enclosure across from the lobby that served as the greeting station. While my mother and I were checking in, there were several members of the football team draped all over the lobby furniture. They had arrived days earlier and appeared tired from practice. At the time I was 6’6″ and 217 lbs. I heard a voice, “Look at him, big ol’ sissy, I bet he don’t play nothin’.” I think the player was Dirty Red but I’ll never know for sure.

A hundred yards from my dorm was the Henderson A. Johnson Gymnasium. I’d been playing basketball half my life so it was natural to go there after classes and join in the pick-up games. It didn’t take long before I was asked if I was going out for the team. I discovered the fundamentals I’d been taught by Coach Prohofsky in high school traveled well. Playing against some of the returning players gave me the confidence I could hang.

Three weeks prior to the official opening day of practice, those trying out were required to run three miles each morning to the Buckman Bridge. There’s a metal plate on the bridge that reads, “Built by Virginia Bridge and Iron Co. 1917.” We’d run to the bridge, touch the plate, then turn around and run back to campus. Freshman rookies like myself thought there was some correlation between how fast we ran and future success on the team. A fellow from Boston, Charles Woodson, would win the race every single day. The veteran players had no interest in racing, just finishing as Coach Ron Lawson cruised up and down the route in his Camaro, presumably making sure who was there.

I don’t recall if it was the first day of regular practice but it wasn’t long before the weight jackets came out. Approximately 25 lb. vests which we wore every moment of practice from beginning to end. Coach Lawson’s game plan required everyone to be in shape. We employed a full-court press from the opening tip until the end of the game unless the score got so ridiculous he’d ease up on the other team.

There were three things about that 73–74 team I came to appreciate more and more each successive year. We had two senior guards, Dick Gold and Freddie Lewis, who had played together for four years. They were listed in the program at 5’10” and 5’8″ and both may have been exaggerations. They were tough as nails and did whatever was required to win unselfishly. They could score a bunch if that’s what we needed. There was a game against Stillman where they each scored thirty points.

They typically got a tremendous number of steals in our pressing defense, ran the offense, one or the other assisted on most of our scoring plays in the set offense. The week heading into the NCAA playoffs, with each approaching the end of their college careers. An article ran in the Nashville paper, “Who Were Those Guys?” featuring Dick and Freddie.

Freddie was quoted, “We’ve been playing together for these four years and we knew what to expect of each other. And that goes not only for the two of us but for Billy Hastings, Roy Jackson, and Ernest Crawford, too.” Dick added, “This team is a real unit. We know what to expect from each other and from the coach.

The second thing I appreciated was that we had seven players that averaged in double figures which is unheard of. Some of that was related to our press defense which generated a lot of lay-ups off steals. We averaged nearly 100 points a game and we looked forward to, “busting the clock” which wasn’t equipped to handle more than 99. I credit our balanced scoring to the decision making of Dick, Freddie, and Corwyn Hodge who is to date the fastest player I’ve ever seen on the court. Dick Gold said, “We’re not supposed to be the primary scorers. We get things started and let the big guys like Billy Hastings, Ernest Crawford, Kit Floyd, Stephen Lee or Bill Spivey do the scoring.”

The third thing and most intangible was the leadership. Dick was mostly quiet but whenever he spoke people paid attention. Freddie was always keeping us focused on what we needed to do. I was the baby of the group at 17 throughout most of the season. It was Roy (Pops) Jackson who kept challenging me to concentrate on team goals and not my own. Billy Hastings also adopted me calling me “son.” The following season I got a “son” of my own, carrying on the tradition.

This was a team that was genuinely happy at the success of any individual on the squad. We laughed at each other but mostly with each other. It was a group of men that genuinely loved each other. I talked to Roy Jackson the other day and all that love is still there. It will be great to be in a room with most of them again one more time at our Hall of Fame induction.

To those who know, some parts of the story were left out. The Daytona/Atlanta trip which led to Coach Lawson banning fans traveling with the team ever again. We went from 16–1 to 16–3 over the course of two nights but between the beach and the “Brass Monkey,” I can’t recall a better time. There was the time we were in Knoxville and had our pre-game meal at a Morrisons Cafeteria, eating a ridiculous amount because Coach Lawson was at a meeting and not there to supervise us. We were so sluggish we were down by 20 points at halftime before coming back to win 120–100 once the food was digested.

Coach Lawson and Asst. Coach Kindell (M’dude) Stephens are no longer with us. Coach Lawson talked more trash than a little bit, having earned the right setting freshman records as a player at UCLA in the John Wooden years. He had high expectations and ran us until we were able to make them come true. Kindell had been a star Fisk player who’d been drafted by the Lakers. He was always there to talk to, making sure we stayed in shape and paid attention to our education. I’m sure when we players get together some stories will be told.

There are individual moments on the court that come back to me as if they just happened. The favorite involving me was a defensive play where I tracked down a ball going out of bounds near a baseline corner, I spun and threw it to a streaking Corwyn Hodge who scored on what seemed an impossible play. Our gym was small but we always rocked. There was a stretch of over four years we didn’t lose a home game.

Matthew Knowles with his two-handed high-arching shot that just floated through the nets. Steve Brown double and triple pumping in his New York style. There was a series where Kit Floyd got four consecutive offensive rebounds before putting in a lay-up while Coach Stephens kept recording the stats. Billy Hastings hitting jumpers from the corner. My favorite Stephen Lee moment didn’t involve one of our own games. We went down the street to see Tennessee State play Kentucky State. A KSU player, Billy Ray Bates dunked on three TSU players when you couldn’t even see the dunk coming. We were seated in the upper deck and Stephen Lee jumped up and screamed at the play, running down the steps to the lower section. Sam Gates who I often matched up against in practice, issued out more punishment than most opposing players. There was the time my roommate William Settle and I arrived in Chicago a day early for a Christmas tournament at Chicago Circle. We used the time to visit friends in Gary, IN and attended the West Side Basketball Tournament wearing new hats we knew were bad.

The favorite team moment had to be our second game in the NCAA Tournament. We faced Tennessee State after defeating James Madison in a play-in game for the right to play TSU. They rested while we played the night before. Their team featured All-American Leonard “Truck” Robinson who later played for the Knicks and led the NBA in rebounding one year. They were a much bigger school with taller players and heavily favored. We won 65–54 with Billy Hastings, Dick Gold, and Stephen Lee in double figures. Truck Robinson fouled out in the final few minutes, ending his college career other than he planned. The official attendance for that game was 5,428. I’ve met 10,000 people since then who swear they were there.

We lost our game the next night against the University of New Orleans. We were playing on our third consecutive night. I can’t speak for anyone else but I remember a play where my mind was willing to move over and cut someone off but the body wasn’t able. A week or so later we had a team banquet and got gold jackets. Perhaps a week after that, we had a team only party at Burrus Hall in which I learned bad things happen after drinking 16 short cans of “The Bull.” What I’ve never forgotten is how much that team and its players meant to me and how I’m looking forward to seeing them again.

George Cooper (GEO) Shadow Warrior


George Cooper is the first “Shadow Warrior” I’ve personally known before writing about. We attended Fisk University together and knowing his history is important to knowing George. In those days, Fisk had just over 2,000 students. There were those hardly anybody knew and those that knew everybody. George was in the latter category. He had a big afro, was always smiling and was deadly serious about his music, the Jubilee Singers and Black history.

Part of that history is the story of Ella Shepherd. She was born into slavery on Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage Plantation in Nashville, TN in 1851. While she was young, her father was able to buy his own freedom for $1,800. His former master broke a promise to let him buy Ella. It took the threat of her mother saying she’d “take Ella and jump into the river than see her a slave” before she was allowed to be sold to her father for $350. Her mother, still in slavery was taken to Mississippi.

After marrying another slave woman whose freedom he purchased. Simon Sheppard took his family from Nashville, TN to Cincinnati, OH after a race riot in 1856 made it impossible to pay his debts. His family could be seized as assets and sold back into slavery. In Ohio, Ella attended a colored school and began studying music. She was a prodigy and soon had her own piano. A rarity for black children.

After Simon died in 1866, Ella helped support the family by performing at local functions. She was seen by a prominent white music instructor who agreed to provide her advanced training. Ella was his only student of color, entering thru the back door between the hours of 9 and 10 PM.

In 1868, Ella accepted a teaching position at a school near Nashville in Gallatin, TN. She took her meager earnings and entered the “Fisk Free School for Blacks”, which in 1866 became Fisk University. She became the music teacher at Fisk. Becoming the only Black staff member at the school until 1875.

Because of financial difficulties at the school. Fisk’s Treasurer organized a bunch of students to sing for money. After some success locally, George White was given permission to form a group and go on National Tour in 1871. Ella was one of nine students selected for the original Jubilee Singers where she also served as pianist and assistant trainer.

The first tour raised $20,000 which purchased land for the new campus. The Jubilee Singers was often the only source of revenue for the school and their concert tour was extended to seven years. They raised over $150,000 in America and Europe, financing the construction of Jubilee Hall which still serves as a women’s dormitory. Sheppard was the backbone of the Jubilee Singers and later began lecturing throughout the South forming Jubilee choirs. She later found her mother and a sister and brought them to Nashville.


George would not mind that I used part of his story to tell that of Ella Sheppard. Her story is intertwined with his. George Cooper was a Jubilee Singer while at Fisk and toured to some of the same locations as Ella. I hesitated to use the word “was” as George certainly “is” a Jubilee Singer as that’s not something that ever left his soul. He’s active in the Jubilee Singers Alumni (JSA) and part of the JSA Advisory Board. The legacy of Ella Sheppard is strong in George. He once wrote of her, “If not for her, her intellect, her spirit, and her musical genius, Fisk would not have survived. George White started the Singers but Ella Sheppard nurtured the seed and grew it into the powerful force that it became. Those who don’t know of her, I ask that you take some time today and discover a woman who essentially gave birth to American Music. Ella Sheppard-Moore! Fiskites, a TRUER Daughter, there never was!” In 2009, George founded the Ella Sheppard School of Music (ESSOM) in his home town of Chicago.


I’ve neglected to this point to mention George’s accomplishments as a musician. Although he got his start as part of the All-City Choir in Chicago, later joining the Jubilee Singers at Fisk. It’s playing the piano for which he’s better known. His nickname is “Maestro” and his mastery of classical music has taken him all over the world. The world class pianist has recorded for Polygram and Capitol Records and toured with Little Richard, The Isley Brothers, Peabo Bryson, Natalie Cole and his home girl Chaka Khan. He did a series of instructional videos on, “Secrets of the Chopin Etudes.” He’s performed as a solo artist and part of the group of Fiskites R&B band, “Autumn” and heads the GIII Jazz Trio. He’s presently the Director of the Lutheran School Gospel Chorus, is the Assistant Minister of Music for the church he grew up in, St. Mark AME Zion and Minister of Music at the Congregational Church of Park Manor. Like Bo Jackson, George Cooper knows music. But it’s not his playing or singing that makes him a Shadow Warrior… it’s his teaching.

At the school he founded, the Ella Sheppard School of Music, he gives free music lessons to children 2–14. He solicited friends, his church and other sponsors to keep the school going. One friend, Tamera Fair, (a fellow Fiskite) provided space for the school at one of the Premier Child Care locations she owns and said this about George.


“Not often in life do we personally have the chance to meet living angels, living legends. We read about them. Now we “like” and “follow” them. I am in a select class that shares time and space with one, Maestro, George Cooper. Since the moment we met in the yard of Fisk University, I knew Geo was a talent for the times, correction for all time. I had no idea that we would work so closely together in the future. Geo was looking for a home to put his music school. I had far more space than I needed. He agreed to put the school in the building and has provided music lessons to hundreds of children in the west side of Chicago for over eight years. Many of the students have continued their study in music and are following their teacher’s footsteps and becoming accomplished pianists. His passion shows in every note he hits and every lesson he gives to every child he touches. I feel honored to call someone so great, friend!”


Had this been all he’d accomplished, George would have provided a great service but he does so much more. When I knew George he had not yet become Geo (Gee-Oh) so I’m slow to embrace the name but Geo also an Ambassador for the HHW (Henry Hendricks Weddington) School for the Performing Arts. HHW is an open walls school serving children from all over Chicago. They audition for acceptance and get paid for their participation. Geo has been teaching Master Classes, doing arrangements and composing for them for years. I watched a recent video HHW performing one of his arrangements, Njiculela, Es Una Historia, I Am Singing which instantly dispels everything you may have assumed about Chicago if you only read the news. At least 5 of those students have gone on to Fisk University and become Jubilee Singers. In writing this story I found that George was always recruiting for Fisk and the Jubilee Singers… always teaching. George said of his efforts to bring music to youth, “I’ll keep going ‘till my breath runs out!” I won’t wait until then to say thank you!

There are a few things that are the essence of who George is. Chicagoan, musician, Fiskite, Jubilee Singer, a member of Omega Psi Phi, father, teacher and in his own way Historian. One of his arrangements and compositions for HHW was a Black Heroes History Medley. He’s always looking for teachable moments whether talking about music, sports, Fisk or our nation. A true believer that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. George will keep you and the children he comes in contact with informed of their history. For that reason, he’s a Shadow Warrior.

Originally published July 7, 2017

Mathew Knowles: About That Book Of Yours?


Mathew Knowles, father of Beyoncé, Solange, Nixon, and Koi, has written a book, “Racism: From the Eyes of a Child.” The marketing thus far seems to be designed to either dissuade people from reading it or make them so mad they can’t help themselves. Among the highlights are that he “only dated white women or very-high complexioned black women that looked white.” Adding fuel to the fire he said, “I actually thought when I met Tina, my former wife, that she was white. Later I found out that she wasn’t, and she was actually very much in tune with her blackness.”


He went on to describe the two years he attended Fisk University after transferring from a white school and said, “They had a colorism issue there. I was in the last class where they’d take out a brown paper bag, and if you were darker than the bag, you couldn’t get into Fisk.” In the book he describes, “eroticized rage,” in which white women was his way of “getting even or getting back,” at whom I’m not certain.


In full disclosure, I knew Mathew Knowles, we played on the same basketball team at Fisk in his Junior year while I was a Freshman. We were not close. On a twelve-man team there were various cliques based on age, position, playing time, hometown, or just disposition. We were in different fraternities, had different majors, we never hung out, even on road trips. We never didn’t get along, there was just little we had in common that caused us to bond. As basketball teams go, we had very little dissention, we had a good team with unquestioned leadership from the two Senior guards. We won a lot of games, finishing 26–4, going to the NCAA Tournament. Life was good on the basketball team and Mathew and I were teammates… but not close. In the picture below, Mathew would be in the front row on the right, I’m third from the left on the top row.


I must disagree with his description of Fisk. I was there with him both of his years. Certainly, I’d heard of the brown bag test that was said to have been in use at one time at Fisk. But his class which he says was the last of those tested had beautiful women of all hues. Flipping through the yearbooks of those years, there is no sign the paper bags hadn’t been thrown out long ago. I don’t know why Matt chose to characterize his years at Fisk as he did. Maybe that’s his recollection but it wasn’t true.


What he says about his own upbringing and what his mother may have instilled in him as a child may well be his truth. He says his mother told him, “Don’t ever bring no nappy-head black girl to my house.” He says that message was reinforced not only in hometown Gadsden, Alabama but throughout the Deep South.


I’m not saying colorism doesn’t exist. I know people today whose choices are informed by their skin tone as much as their environment. But I think there exists an individual responsibility which Mathew doesn’t seem to own up to. As an adult, particularly one who was exposed to beautiful dark women, he had a chance to outgrow his upbringing, as do we all.


Selling a book these days sometimes requires focusing on the most salacious points to garner interest. I hope there is some educational value in there as well. I bumped into a fellow Fiskite this evening who came the year after Mathew left and inquired if she knew him? She had already read at least one of the articles about his book including what he said about Fisk. She gave me the hand! Mathew’s book may well get the hand as well.

George (GEO) Cooper: Shadow Warrior

George Cooper is the first “Shadow Warrior” I’ve personally known before writing about. We attended Fisk University together and knowing his history is important to knowing George. In those days, Fisk had just over 2,000 students. There were those hardly anybody knew and those that knew everybody. George was in the latter category. He had a big afro, was always smiling and was deadly serious about his music, the Jubilee Singers and Black history.

Part of that history is the story of Ella Shepherd. She was born into slavery on Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage Plantation in Nashville, TN in 1851. While she was young, her father was able to buy his own freedom for $1,800. His former master broke a promise to let him buy Ella. It took the threat of her mother saying she’d “take Ella and jump into the river than see her a slave” before she was allowed to be sold to her father for $350. Her mother, still in slavery was taken to Mississippi.

After marrying another slave woman whose freedom he purchased. Simon Sheppard took his family from Nashville, TN to Cincinnati, OH after a race riot in 1856 made it impossible to pay his debts. His family could be seized as assets and sold back into slavery. In Ohio, Ella attended a colored school and began studying music. She was a prodigy and soon had her own piano. A rarity for black children.

After Simon died in 1866, Ella helped support the family by  performing at local functions. She was seen by a prominent white music instructor who agreed to provide her advanced training. Ella was his only student of color, entering thru the back door between the hours of 9 and 10 PM.

In 1868, Ella accepted a teaching position at a school near Nashville in Gallatin, TN. She took her meager earnings and entered the “Fisk Free School for Blacks”, which in 1866 became Fisk University.  She became the music teacher at Fisk. Becoming the only Black staff member at the school until 1875.

Because of financial difficulties at the school. Fisk’s Treasurer organized a bunch of students to sing for money. After some success locally, George White was given permission to form a group and go on National Tour in 1871. Ella was one of nine students selected for the original Jubilee Singers where she also served as pianist and assistant trainer.

The first tour raised $20,000 which purchased land for the new campus. The Jubilee Singers was often the only source of revenue for the school and their concert tour was extended to seven years. They raised over $150,000 in America and Europe, financing the construction of Jubilee Hall which still serves as a women’s dormitory. Sheppard was the backbone of the Jubilee Singers and later began lecturing throughout the South forming Jubilee choirs. She later found her mother and a sister and brought them to Nashville.

geo4

George would not mind that I used part of his story to tell that of Ella Sheppard. Her story is intertwined with his. George Cooper was a Jubilee Singer while at Fisk and toured to some of the same locations as Ella. I hesitated to use the word “was” as George certainly “is” a Jubilee Singer as that’s not something that ever left his soul. He’s active in the Jubilee Singers Alumni (JSA) and part of the JSA Advisory Board. The legacy of Ella Sheppard is strong in George. He once wrote of her, “If not for her, her intellect, her spirit, and her musical genius, Fisk would not have survived. George White started the Singers but Ella Sheppard nurtured the seed and grew it into the powerful force that it became. Those who don’t know of her, I ask that you take some time today and discover a woman who essentially gave birth to American Music. Ella Sheppard-Moore! Fiskites, a TRUER Daughter, there never was!” In 2009, George founded the Ella Sheppard School of Music (ESSOM) in his home town of Chicago.

geo3I’ve neglected to this point to mention George’s accomplishments as a musician. Although he got his start as part of the All-City Choir in Chicago, later joining the Jubilee Singers at Fisk. It’s playing the piano for which he’s better known. His nickname is “Maestro” and his mastery of classical music has taken him all over the world. The world class pianist has recorded for Polygram and Capitol Records and toured with Little Richard, The Isley Brothers, Peabo Bryson, Natalie Cole and his home girl Chaka Khan. He did a series of instructional videos on, “Secrets of the Chopin Etudes.” He’s performed as a solo artist and part of the group of Fiskites R&B band, “Autumn” and heads the GIII Jazz Trio. He’s presently the Director of the Lutheran School Gospel Chorus, is the Assistant Minister of Music for the church he grew up in, St. Mark AME Zion and Minister of Music at the Congregational Church of Park Manor. Like Bo Jackson, George Cooper knows music. But it’s not his playing or singing that makes him a Shadow Warrior… it’s his teaching.

At the school he founded, the Ella Sheppard School of Music, he gives free music lessons to children 2-14. He solicited friends, his church and other sponsors to keep the school going. One friend, Tamera Fair, (a fellow Fiskite) provided space for the school at one of the Premier Child Care locations she owns and said this about George.

geo10
“Not often in life do we personally have the chance to meet living angels, living legends. We read about them. Now we “like” and “follow” them. I am in a select class that shares time and space with one, Maestro, George Cooper. Since the moment we met in the yard of Fisk University, I knew Geo was a talent for the times, correction for all time. I had no idea that we would work so closely together in the future. Geo was looking for a home to put his music school. I had far more space than I needed. He agreed to put the school in the building and has provided music lessons to hundreds of children in the west side of Chicago for over eight years. Many of the students have continued their study in music and are following their teacher’s footsteps and becoming accomplished pianists. His passion shows in every note he hits and every lesson he gives to every child he touches. I feel honored to call someone so great, friend!”

geo9

Had this been all he’d accomplished, George would have provided a great service but he does so much more. When I knew George he had not yet become Geo (Gee-Oh) so I’m slow to embrace the name but Geo also an Ambassador for the HHW (Henry Hendricks Weddington) School for the Performing Arts. HHW is an open walls school serving children from all over Chicago. They audition for acceptance and get paid for their participation. Geo has been teaching Master Classes, doing arrangements and composing for them for years. I watched a recent video HHW performing one of his arrangements,  Njiculela, Es Una Historia, I Am Singing   which instantly dispels everything you may have assumed about Chicago if you only read the news.  At least 5 of those students have gone on to Fisk University and become Jubilee Singers. In writing this story I found that George was always recruiting for Fisk and the Jubilee Singers… always teaching. George said of his efforts to bring music to youth, “I’ll keep going ‘till my breath runs out!” I won’t wait until then to say thank you!

There are a few things that are the essence of who George is. Chicagoan, musician, Fiskite, Jubilee Singer, a member of Omega Psi Phi, father, teacher and in his own way Historian. One of his arrangements and compositions for HHW was a Black Heroes History Medley. He’s always looking for teachable moments whether talking about music, sports, Fisk or our nation. A true believer that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. George will keep you and the children he comes in contact with informed of their history. For that reason he’s a Shadow Warrior.

geo6

Each month Enigma In Black will feature a new Shadow Warrior. Don’t miss any by scrolling down and clicking “Follow”. Please share so that we can bring these Warriors and their work out of the shadows! I’d love to hear your suggestions for future Warriors which you can leave in the comments section.

Glory Edim

Aramis Ayala

Dr. Crystal A. deGregory

Kelly Hurst

The Wilson Academy

Sevgi Fernandez

Dr. Crystal A. deGregory: Shadow Warrior (Founder of HBCUstory)

Dr. Crystal A. deGregory is a product of one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Fisk University. In full disclosure, I also attended Fisk University and while we weren’t there together and I’ve never met Dr. deGregory. We share an influence by and a love for the late Dr L.M. Collins , for which I will always appreciate her.

“Dr. DE” is a historian. Since she hit the yard at Fisk University in 1999, she was amazed not only its institutional history, but its “community of caring family and staff.” Every HBCU has a history and those who have made it their mission to mold future leaders and contribute to an ongoing legacy. Part of Crystal’s mission is to ensure that these stories be told. More importantly that the role of the HBCU never be minimized historically so that they will be respected and appreciated in the present and the future. She graduated Fisk in 2003 and went on to earn a Masters and PhD from Vanderbilt University, and a separate Masters of Education from Tennessee State University.

In addition to her passion for history. Crystal is active in the support of many causes. She is a Co-Host of Black Docs Radio  who’s tag line is, “More Than a Radio Show, It’s a Movement.” The show focuses on community involvement not limited to discussion but includes finding solutions. The program features a group of women “Doc’s” who use their power for good in support of programs like, Renewal House which provides services for women and families, Docs Donate Socks, and Docs Mentor which provides mentoring services to HBCU students.

Black docs.jpg

Photo: dinnerwithnerds.com

In 2012, Dr. deGregory founded HBCUstory. Part of its purpose is the “advocacy, initiative, preserving, presenting and promoting inspiring stories of the HBCU communities, past and present, for our future.” Their website currently is running features on Johnnetta B Cole-Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, former Morehouse President-Benjamin E. Mays, Transplant Surgeon-Sherilyn Gordon-Burroughs, and Basketball Coach- Ben Jobe among others.

In addition to telling warm stories about HBCU traditions and feel good anecdotes. They conduct the HBCU Symposium. The last of which was held Oct. 31-Nov. 1, 2016 on the campus of Paul Quinn College campus in Dallas, TX. Presented there was scholarly research and case studies documenting the relevancy of and historic and contemporary need for HBCUs. Presenters included Johnnetta B. Cole who has called Dr. deGregory, “young sister leader.”

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Crystal A. deGregory is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, she was named the 2014 HopeDealer of the Year, was a finalist for the 2015 HBCU Awards Alumna of the Year, and a Bishop Michael Eldon School 50th Anniversary Warriors Golden Jubilee honoree. She’s had published an editorial in the New York Times on, “Nashville’s Clandestine Black Schools,” been in many educational publications and written, HBCU Experience – The Book. Rumor has it she’s working on another book which will be awaited with baited breath.

I’ve somehow omitted that she’s proudly Bahamian. She’s truly an Ambassador for her native land when abroad. She often returns home to give back in her unique way. I encourage you to listen to her Grand Bahamian Ted Talk in which she discusses, “The Problem With What We Teach and Tell Young Girls.”  Dr. Crystal A deGregory is a true Shadow Warrior although it’s already debatable how much in the shadows she is. In many circles she’s already a star.

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I’ll end, not with my words but those of another. Friend, mentor and fellow Fiskite, Edie Lee Harris had this to say:

“I met Crystal online as she was about to defend her doctoral dissertation. We share a love for history, she as a professional, me in my armchair. She was at the 85-yard line in the phD program at Vanderbilt and was feeling the strain of it all and needed some encouragement to get to the goal. She really didn’t’ need help, just an ear and a cheerleader, and I was happy to oblige, having survived law school, and feeling her frustration with some who were obstructing her path.
At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude a trail she was blazing a trail at Vandy. It wasn’t until she graduated that I she announced that she was in the first group of AAs to get her Doctorate in History at Vanderbilt. (She’s that kind of modest about what she’s achieved). Since then, I’ve watched her excel in her field across a wide spectrum of endeavors. I’ve witnessed as she’s her grown from a deep-fried doctoral student to a mover and shaker in her field. She brings her boundless energy and passion and analytical skills for her subject to anyone who will lend an ear, eye, or a brain. More than anyone else I know, she fiercely carries that torch lit by the legendary Fisk intellectuals of the past. For her, history is alive, and she has a unique ability to bring it alive for others. I’m proud to call her my friend and I really can’t wait to see what she does next.”
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Each month Enigma In Black will feature a new Shadow Warrior. Don’t miss one by scrolling down and clicking “Follow”. Please share so that we can bring these Warriors and their work out of the shadows! Would love to hear your suggestions for future Warriors which you can leave in the comments section.

Featured Photo: HBCUstory.org

Previous Warriors:

Sevgi Fernandez

The Wilson Academy

Kelly Hurst

When We Said Their Names… I Missed One

Bernard Bailey is the 7th leading all time scorer in the history of Tennessee State University (TSU) basketball. I recognize five of the six players ahead of him. Some by reputation, others I had the chance to know and play with or against. The leading scorer, Dick Barnett played 12 seasons in the NBA. Nine with the New York Knicks. The last time the Knicks won an NBA Championship. Dick Barnett with his “fall back baby” jump shot was there.

Ted “Hound” McClain played several years with the NBA and ABA before the merger. He was a close friend of my Fisk University assistant basketball coach Kindell Stephens. I knew Ted when he was with the ABA Kentucky Colonels. When he was in Nashville, he often stopped by Fisk and sometimes participated in pick-up games during the off season.

Leonard “Truck” Robinson, 3rd on the list, was a senior at TSU when I was a freshman at Fisk. I’d seen him play in the Vanderbilt Invitational Tournament but never played against him until we met in the NCAA Division II Regional Semi-finals. The game was legendary in local circles. Although both Fisk and TSU both had excellent teams and were a mile apart on Jefferson St. The teams almost never played each other. It’s one of those games that people “remember being there.” Far more than the 5,400 people that could actually fit in Kean’s Little Garden where TSU hosted the game. Although I played a pivotal role in our victory the night before against James Madison. Against TSU, despite hearing from people that I “dropped 20-30 points” against Truck Robinson. I had a more modest 7 points and 3 rebounds. Fisk won a close game where we pulled away at the end, 65-54. Truck Robinson who was averaging 25 points scored 15 points with 14 rebounds.  Fortunately, Fisk had three players score in double figures (Hastings, Gold, and Lee), and victory was ours.

The following year, the teams did not meet. Truck Robinson was replaced at center by heavily recruited Bernard Bailey from South Carolina. Because I typically read the sports pages daily (looking for my own name). I was aware of Bailey’s success. It was the following summer when a few Fisk players drove the mile to the TSU gym to participate in some pick-up games. We walked in the gym with a little swagger, our last visit ending in a major victory. Teams were chosen, I remember being guarded by Forward Joe Webb during the first game but by the second game I was matched up with my physical counterpart, Center Bernard Bailey.

I was at the time 6’6″ and about 225 lbs. Bailey I remember as being 6’7″ and a little stockier. Basketball is a physical game and there was a lot of contact. After a hour or so of bumping, shoving, and elbowing. I found that Bernard was strong, assertive on the basketball court, and extremely likeable. During his TSU career he amassed 1,700 points, was in the top ten all-time in several offensive categories and rebounding. It was the only time I ever met Bernard Bailey but I’ll always remember him. Had we spent more time together we would have been friends. I learned today that Bernard Bailey is dead.

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Bernard was born in small Eutawville, SC., population 344. He was a lifelong member of the Springfield Missionary Baptist Church. It was there his final services were held and he was buried in the church cemetery. He didn’t die within the past few days. It was on May 2, 2011 that Bernard, unarmed, was killed by the Eutawville Police Chief, Richard Combs.

When you think of Eutawville… think of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. Their police force is a bit larger than that of Andy and Barney. They have two police dogs, Max and Rocky. I imagine in a town of 344 most people know each other. The incident that led to his death started a few days earlier when his daughter Briana was stopped by Richard Combs for a tag light violation. Briana called her father to the scene and Combs and Bailey got into an argument. It is reported that while not cursing, Bailey was loud and “disrespectful.” Apparently Combs didn’t handle disrespect very well. Combs returned to his office and had an “obstruction of justice warrant” drawn up against Bailey which he didn’t immediately serve and of which Bernard was unaware.

On May 2, 2011, Bernard Bailey went to the courthouse to talk to Combs about the initial citation when Combs tried to arrest him on the warrant. Bailey said, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” and left. Bailey got into his truck as Combs chased him. Combs entered the still open door as Bailey began backing out of the parking lot. Combs shot him three times. Twice in the chest and once in the shoulder.

Combs was tried twice for murder, each resulting in a hung jury and a mistrial. He claimed self-defense under South Carolina’s, “Stand Your Ground Law.” Instead of pursuing a third trial. Combs plead guilty to a misconduct change and was sentenced to ten years in prison which was reduced to five years of probation and one year of house arrest. He never spent one night in jail. The City of Eutawville settled separately with the family for $400,000 in a wrongful death suit. Combs lost his position with the police force. Bernard Bailey lost his life.

When names were being said of Black unarmed victims killed by police officers. I missed Bernard Bailey’s at the time. I’m angry about “Stand Your Ground” which always seems selective in nature. I’m annoyed at all the people claiming, “race wasn’t a factor,” when the whole disrespect motivation seems to be all about race. I’m saddened that someone who literally looked like me in size, skin tone and age is dead and received no justice. Most of all there’s a sense of loss. Of a friendship that could have been. A family’s loss of a husband and father. Of fairness and justice. This event was almost six years ago and I just found out. The pain is no less now than it would have been then. The cumulative grief from events like these is building. Where does it end?

The Day I Fought Muhammad Ali

 

 

Just a bit of poetic license because I never actually fought Ali although he did throw a punch at me. That may be a stretch too as he never intended to hit me because he surely could have done so had he meant to. Muhammad Ali came to visit Fisk University in 1975 and I was among many enthralled by his presence. He was admired not for being a champion. But for championing peace and non-violence. For taking a stand and not giving in to the pressure to bow down even though it temporarily cost him his belt and millions in earnings for doing so. He risked going to jail for his beliefs and it was the man and not the boxer that was cheered that day.

Ali in Jubilee Hall

He gathered around him in a circle, those of us who at least looked the most formidable. Football players, basketball players and other athletes. I told myself I was taller than he, my reach as long. But before any delusions of glory could manifest themselves, he threw a playful jab in my direction as he’d done others in the circle to demonstrate his quickness. It only registered that he’d thrown the punch after his fist was on its way back. I felt the wind against my jaw before my sight registered the arm behind the fist I never did see. My thoughts of boxing were permanently erased as I realized that there was a level to which I could only aspire.

Ali kiss at fisk

Ali eventually disappeared back into the limousine in which he appeared. Many got to chat with him and while I did not I have a memory that will last always. Muhammad Ali… the greatest. RIP!

The Doctor Is In

 

 

In England at Buckingham Palace, a special flag called the Royal Standard is flown when the Queen is in residence. I suppose this would notify anyone entering to take extra special consideration due to the possibility of encountering the Queen. In the United States, any Air Force aircraft carrying the President is called Air Force One and any Marine helicopter is called Marine One which announces the significance of the traveler on board. At Fisk University, a far less formal tradition would let you know of the presence of Dr. L.M. Collins in the library.

Fisk Library

When entering the library, with little fanfare Doc would simply place his hat on the counter as he headed left to the elevator that took him to his second story office. My personal experience is that I can’t recall ever entering the library without noting whether or not the Doctor was in. One could be invited to his office by appointment, sometimes summoned or one could just drop by, taking the chance that the line of students wouldn’t be too long. Upon entering the office one is struck by the limited space, overwhelmed by books everywhere seemingly growing out of the walls and piled on many surfaces. Many a student left with a book they didn’t have on the way in as there was little in his collection if anything that he wouldn’t freely share.

doctor collins graduation

I often wondered about his hat, if there were a single hat of which he took the same meticulous care as he did the El Dorado that sat in the driveway of the cottage where he resided during most of his Fisk years. He sent me on an errand once, asking me to take the El Dorado which made me both appreciative that he’d thought me responsible but also fearful that any harm might come to his car while in my possession. This would have been about 1977; the car was already 7 years old and had only 5,000 miles on the odometer. Doc Collins walked most everywhere he went.

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Pictorial evidence showed he actually had a number of hats over the years. Some came with a band, some tweed and others plain. There are words you could never associate with a Dr. Collins hat; dirty, crumpled, faded or pretty much anything with a negative connotation. And when he placed his hat down when he entered the library, there was no question it would still be there when Dr. Collins came to retrieve it for who would dare take that hat?

My memories of Dr. Collins are forever with me and in his passing, I’m not so much experiencing a loss for myself but sadness for future Fiskites who won’t be blessed with his presence. They won’t know to glance left when entering the library and feel just a little bit better in knowing that the Doctor is in!

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In Loving Memory of Dr. Leslie M. Collins –  February 23, 2014