Dr. Freeman Hrabowski and his school, UMBC (University of Maryland Baltimore County), have been in the white hot national spotlight for the seemingly implausible feat of the men’s basketball team pulling off the greatest upset in the history of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. On March 16, the 16th seeded Golden Retrievers of UMBC, demolished the number one seed Virginia Cavaliers, 74-54.
I remember when it was announced UMBC would face Virginia in the tournament known as “March Madness” and thinking the school had a zero percent chance of winning (I guess that’s why Hrabowski is the mathematical genius and I am not). To my amazement, not only did the Golden Retrievers defeat Virginia, they smoked the Cavs by 20. UMBC made a bold bid for the “sweet 16” round of the tournament, but unfortunately, the team came up a few points short against Kansas State.
Although the white hot spotlight has begun to fade a bit for the Retreivers since the school’s historic win, Hrabowski has occupied the national and international spotlight consistently for more than two decades.
Sean Yoes (Courtesy Photo)
Under Hrabowski’s leadership (he took the helm of the school in 1992), UMBC is constantly mentioned in the same breath as perennial academic behemoths like, Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley, Stanford and Yale. From 2015-2017, U.S. News and World Report named the school in its top five Most Innovative Schools list (along with the aforementioned Stanford and MIT, as well as ASU-Tempe and Georgia St.). UMBC topped the U.S. News, Up and Coming colleges list six years in a row (2009-2014). In 2012, Time magazine named Hrabowski one of its, “100 Most Influential People in the World.”
In Maryland’s political circles, Hrabowski has probably been asked to run for governor or lieutenant governor more than any other person that has never sought either office.
However, beyond that seemingly omnipresent spotlight, Hrabowski extended a hand of comfort to me, somebody he hardly knew, during the most difficult time in my life; the murder of my mother Leslie in 2004.
I met Hrabowski for the first time a few days prior to my mother’s death in June 2004, although he had been a larger than life figure in Maryland for years. During an editorial meeting at the AFRO, our staff engaged with UMBC’s charismatic leader about his work in education, politics and other issues.
The week of my mother’s death on June 22, in the midst of earth shattering grief, I received an enormous basket of fruit along with a card from Hrabowski sending thoughts and prayers to me and my family. I believe it was the same day, I received a call from Hrabowski conveying more messages of comfort; I remember hearing in his voice, a genuine sense of concern for a young man who was literally groping his way through hell. And I believe it was a few days after my mother’s funeral Hrabowski’s personal assistant reached out to me via email to invite me to his house.
I had been waiting in his driveway for about an hour when Hrabowski arrived (he had been playing tennis with UMBC benefactors, fundraising is a full-time job for a college president). But, once inside his home, Hrabowski began to share illuminating chapters of his journey from a child leader of the American civil rights movement in Birmingham, AL., to becoming one of the most influential educators on earth.
Hrabowski explained to me the meaning of his name, Freeman Hrabowski, III. He revealed that his grandfather had been the first man in his family not born a slave, his dad was the second, and he was, “The third free man Hrabowski.” He showed me the photos of him and Dr. Condoleezza Rice, who he had grown up with in Birmingham. He also shared with me the harrowing story that has become infamous.
As a youth leader of the Birmingham Movement in 1963, Hrabowski, a boy of 12 at the time, led a line of children from his church (Sixth Ave. Baptist Church) to downtown Birmingham, when he was confronted by Eugene “Bull” Connor, Birmingham police commissioner and one of the iconic symbols of White racist resistance. “What do you want little niggra?” Connor asked.
“We want our freedom,” replied Hrabowski, his heart pounding with fear. I recall Hrabowski telling me that’s when Connor spat directly in his face and he, along with his young friends were shoved into paddy wagons. I can’t imagine how that diabolical act of race hatred affected Hrabowski as a boy, but ultimately, it seems clear it made him better, not bitter.
Over the decades, Hrabowski has reached out to a myriad of young Black boys and girls and provided them a path towards academic excellence and all of its benefits.
And in June 2004, Hrabowski provided me a few hours of precious relief from the depths of anger, despair and sorrow. I’ll always be grateful.
Sean Yoes is Baltimore editor of the AFRO and host and executive producer of the AFRO First Edition video podcast, which airs Monday and Friday at 5 p.m. on the AFRO’s Facebook page.