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.