The story of The LeMoyne-Owen College began 150 years ago and, despite declining enrollment and financial woes in the past, the story continues.
Students, faculty, alums, city leaders and other supporters gathered Wednesday (Oct. 24) at the Cannon Center in Downtown Memphis for the sesquicentennial celebration entitled "Magicians' Got Talent." It featured LOC students and a special concert by world best-selling gospel jazz artist Ben Tankard.
The night began with a dramatic dance reenactment telling the story of the college's journey from the roots of slavery to self-betterment through education. Narrated by Memphis City Councilman and college alum Myron Lowery, the "Journey in Justice" outlined the college's tumultuous – yet triumphant – history, including having reached the point of financial stability, expansion and growing enrollment.
"We've come this far by faith, depending on the Lord because he hasn't failed us yet," said President Johnnie B. Watson. "Six short years ago, somebody wrote off LeMoyne-Owen College," he said, making reference to past accreditation issues and financial instability.
"But here we are with more than 1,000 students. And we have some money in the bank."
A recurring theme of pride and appreciation echoed throughout the evening.
"Every neighborhood needs an anchor," said Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. "What would that neighborhood (of South Memphis) be without LeMoyne-Owen College? Your (the college's) contributions transcend education. LeMoyne-Owen has contributed to civil rights here in Memphis. The city is in debt to LeMoyne-Owen College."
Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr. identified the "legacy of LeMoyne-Owen" as educating and retaining Memphis youth and talent. Each mayor presented a proclamation officially recognizing the impact of the college.
Prominent alum Robert Lipscomb, chairman of the LOC Board of Trustees and the wearer of multiple city government hats, introduced a team of dedicated supporters, whom he said created "The" LeMoyne-Owen College.
"We put a lot of work into saving and building the college because we believe in it. LeMoyne-Owen was too important to fail," he said.
The college's gospel choir accented the evening with songs. Later, program emcee and WREG news anchor, Markova Reed, introduced a renowned panel: Larry Dodson Sr., R&B singer with the Bar-Kays and co-founder of Right Now Records; Donald O'Conner, founder of Watoto De' Afrika and the Memphis Cultural Arts Enrichment Center; and Kirk Whalum, Grammy award-winning saxophonist, CEO of Stax Records and ordained minister.
The panel served as judges as LOC students displayed an array of talent from singing to spoken word, comedy to hip-hop, and urban ballet. In true "America's-Got-Talent" form after each performance, the judges offered contestants critiques of their performances and advice on improvement.
As scores were tallied, gospel jazz artist Ben Tankard took the stage, performing a long list of hits before a clapping and singing audience. Tankard also shared his story of success, sprinkling in a few moments of humor.
Among the students in the audience was sophomore chemistry major Gyneva Bearden, who assisted in planning the event. Far more than a concert, she said the event was something she thought she'd never experience.
"I never thought I'd go to college," she said. "LeMoyne-Owen College means the world to me. They welcome you with open arms and help you with anything, no matter what. It gave me hope."
Offering hope is what event coordinator and Director of Career Services, Dr. Denita Hedgeman, said the celebration was all about.
"Tonight was to create a better and solid image of LeMoyne-Owen," she said. "We love the students and help them to grow from caterpillars to butterflies. I'm so happy to see what God is doing with the college, its students and the community. I foresee growth and expansion in LeMoyne-Owen's future."