Honorary Degrees: Jim Crow and the Future

By Alfred Brophy

The blogosphere is lighting up with discussion of Washington University’s decision to award an honorary degree to Phyllis Schlafly. Sometimes those decisions are controversial; at other times, they are something that everyone agrees on. That reminds me of one of my university’s excellent decisions on an honorary degree, which it awarded back in 2006 to art collector and benefactor Paul R. Jones. The University of Delaware houses much of his collection of African American Art.

But first a step back in time to the 1930s Alabama. It was one of Jones’ childhood aspirations to play football for the Crimson Tide. Alas, that was not to be. Instead, he played for Alabama State. In the 1940s, when Jones was a student at Howard University, he applied to the University of Alabama’s law school and was denied admission because of his race. That didn’t stop him, however; he went on to a successful career as a businessman in Atlanta, then to work in the Nixon administration, and even a run for Congress in 1982 (as a Republican). At one point in the 1970s, Dr. Jones was in the federal government’s education department and approved a large grant to the University of Alabama for adult education. He never mentioned his history with the university at that point–he just did something that was forward-looking and positive. Though that did not mean that he had forgotten his history with the university; in fact, he saved the law school’s letter to him.

In 2004 the University of Alabama and Dr. Jones began a partnership that involved a show of some of his art collection in Tuscaloosa; that was followed by a generous gift by friends of the university for a scholarship for needy students in his name. And this culminated in his giving a commencement address in August 2006, along with an honorary degree. Even there, Dr. Jones did not talk about the past; he chose instead to talk about the graduates, their families, and the future. It was a moment of a gesture to make amends for the past and to build something better for the future.

The image above is Romare Bearden’s School Time Bell.

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One response to “Honorary Degrees: Jim Crow and the Future

  1. Pingback: A Moving History from the Era of Jim Crow « Diverse’s The Academy Speaks

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