Lisa Mitchell Senaar

Lisa Mitchell Sennaar (Courtesy Photo)

By Lisa Mitchell Sennaar

In this season of national and local elections, we continue our fight for justice even through a pandemic. It’s critical that we recall some of our past leaders that sustained our young people’s spirits and helped to build our communities through some of the most challenging times in our history.

I’ll start with some past presidents of our Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Most HBCUs were established in the late nineteenth century to educate Black Americans who, though freed from enslavement, were denied access to public and many private predominantly white colleges and universities, simply because of their race. HBCUs have fulfilled the mission of seeing the potential in all of our children seeking higher education and nurturing them to become local, national and international change agents.

Fortunately for our community, many of our HBCUs have attracted some of the most visionary leaders of their time. I’ll highlight three of these legendary HBCU Presidents: Dr. John Henry Bias, Rev. Karl Everette Downs and Dr. Martin David Jenkins, I challenge you to discover others. I can recall my elders sharing their memories about the triumphs of these servant- leaders. 

My maternal great-grandfather, Dr. John Henry Bias was president of Elizabeth City State College (now University) from 1928-1939 through the Great Depression. Dr. Bias spearheaded its transition from Elizabeth City Normal School to become Elizabeth City Teachers College. His philosophy of education: “I am in favor of a type of education that leads to complete living which includes an education of the Head, Hand, and Heart.” In 1931, he began to shift the curriculum to become a baccalaureate, degree granting four-year college. Achieving that goal in 1939, the first four-year class of 26 students graduated shortly before his death in July 1939. President and Mrs. Frances Lane Bias raised seven children on the campus. 

My great-uncle, Rev. Karl Everette Downs, became president of Samuel Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson University) in 1943 at the age of 31. Rev. Downs more than doubled student enrollment and launched an aggressive building plan during his short tenure from 1943-1948. A Methodist minister, author and college president, he also served as a mentor to young men including Jackie Robinson. Rev. Downs, who had been close to Robinson since he was a teen, hired him as the college’s athletic director before Robinson joined major league baseball. His widow, Rachel Robinson was quoted in a 2013 interview in the Austin American-Statesman, remembering Rev. Downs, “Karl was the father that Jack didn’t have,” she said. “Jack was so close to him. He kept saying that Karl changed his life.” Rev. Downs’ tragic death at the age of thirty-five, caused by Jim Crow medical treatment, ended his life, but not his legacy.

And then there was the legendary president of Morgan State College (now University), Dr. Martin David Jenkins, from 1948-1970. In his inaugural address, Dr. Jenkins condemned racial discrimination. He said that he agreed to head a college in a Jim Crow State, because he knew how important education was to our people. President Jenkins envisioned what Morgan could and did become during his tenure. Among his achievements was helping to establish the Morgan Institute for Political Leadership in 1959. Morgan became ground zero for student leaders who wanted to effect change in their Baltimore community. In the 1950’s when several hundred students were arrested for protesting public accommodations where Blacks were denied access, Dr. Jenkins reportedly warned the Mayor “…That if the students were not released, by tonight, there would be 2,000 more. “It was reported that the students were released that afternoon. I believe President Jenkins would be heartened that Morgan State University unveiled a permanent exhibit in the Student Center in 2011, memorializing its students’ participation in the early Civil Rights Movement.

As parents of a college freshman, my husband and I are proud that our eldest chose Morgan State University after witnessing the leadership of current President Dr. David Kwabena Wilson. 

Lisa Mitchell Sennaar’s career includes a decade in television and radio production and broadcast. Her family, the Jackson/Mitchells of Maryland left their imprint on the Civil Rights Revolution of the 20th Century, serving and helping to build local, state and national organizations; also, in serving simultaneously at every level of government: The United Nations, House of Representatives, Maryland State Legislature and Baltimore City Council. Lisa works in state government, is married and the mother of two teenagers.

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