Lessons Learned from a White Valedictorian at Morehouse College

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman


On May 12, 2008, as I was walking down the street in Atlanta, Georgia, I happened to glance at the newspaper stand.  I was shocked to see the headline “White Valedictorian Makes Morehouse History” on the front page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.  I have to admit that my initial reaction was “geesh, can’t African Americans have anything of their own?”  However, after thinking about the news and talking with quite a few Morehouse graduates, I changed my mind — at least in part.  Joshua Packwood, from the interview I watched on CNN, seems like a good man with strong intellectual skills.  Morehouse College, the only black college dedicated to the education of African American males in the nation, can be proud of his accomplishments.


Thinking about a White Valedictorian at a Black college gives us an opportunity to contemplate what can be learned from this situation. 


First, an excellent educational institution can attract the best students regardless of their race and the institution’s racial make-up.  I have long doubted this idea as I have experienced White racism toward Black organizations and institutions again and again. Joshua Packwood’s choice of Morehouse gives a glimmer of hope to the nation that race relations are changing.


Second, as Harvard Sociologist Charles Willie said years ago, White students attending Black colleges can help alleviate racial misunderstanding.  Students like Joshua Packwood gain exposure to the diversity within Black culture and in effect, serve as ambassadors to the White community, helping to dispel racist myths.


Third, Black colleges nurture and support students regardless of their race.  We would be hard pressed to say this about many historically White colleges and universities and their treatment of Black students.  I know quite a few White students who have attended Black colleges and the majority of them say that they were treated with respect and supported in their pursuit of academic degrees.  


Fourth, Whites who complain about African Americans who succeed within historically White institutions, thinking that an African American win is their loss, should take a page from Morehouse College‘s notebook.  Instead of seeing Joshua Packwood’s success as a setback for Blacks, the college’s students and leadership embraced Packwood, publicly acknowledging him as a Morehouse man and expressing their pride.


Fifth, although Morehouse College has a long history and strong reputation, there are still many who are not aware of the contributions that Black colleges have made and continue to make in the nation.  Having a “first,” in this case a White valedictorian, brings positive attention to Morehouse and Black colleges as a whole.


Despite these lessons learned, I continue to wonder why the past African American valedictorians of Morehouse College haven’t received the same kind of national media attention as Joshua Packwood.  Given the small numbers of African American men graduating from college, each and every one of Morehouse College’s best students ought to be celebrated.


Dr. Marybeth Gasman is an associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania.


3 responses to “Lessons Learned from a White Valedictorian at Morehouse College

  1. The headline that I would have written is “Morehouse Valedictorian is Rhodes Finalist.” But I have fought the appellation “black poet” for decades to no avail.

    Homo sapiens began in Africa, and unless you come from Mars you are African. No pride about it here; it is just a fact confirmed now.

    It says something negative about Americans for adopting those spurious taxonomic categories of race. They only exhibit to the world and ourselves our American disease. We all need to sit quietly within and understand what we do to ourselves. The disease of racism is terminal.

    Race is not an achievement. It is at best a spurious scientific category. The relevant category is another Morehouse man achieves, another individual Morehouse student achieves. His scholarship is the achievement and Morehouse’s. Congratulations to Mr. Packwood, Morehouse man.

  2. The purpose of Morehouse is not to define a zone of black achievement and confine it, but rather to create a space that encourages black achievement. The reason, of course, we wish to encourage black achievement as such is because of the minority position of blacks in society. Acknowledging this young man’s talent as a white minority in a predominantly black institution is a testament to the ability of a minority to succeed.

    As a black man I find that cause for celebration.

  3. Let us celebrate Mr. Packwood graduating from
    Morehouse College. His race should not cause us to cast a negative light on either him or Morehouse College. In some ways, it suggests that HBCU’s are being seen by white students as viable choices for higher education. Now is not the time to be critical about school choice. It is now the time to offer congratulations on the educational achievements of all graduates simply because college is becoming a passport to a better quality of life.

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