27 Sep 2012
- Written by Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis
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Owen College – though short-lived – has an illustrious history now woven into the fabric of The LeMoyne-Owen College. For those with personal experiences, the memories are rushing forward in anticipation of the 60th anniversary of its founding.
In the 14 years of its operation, approximately 4,000 students attended the institution, which merged in the fall of 1968 to form LeMoyne-Owen College (LOC). It is significant that the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Owen College's founding parallels the 150th anniversary of the founding of LOC.
The Owen College History Committee will host a reception for former Owenites and supporters at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13, in LOC's Dorothy Harris Lounge. The OCHC was organized several months ago to research and write a history of the institution in preparation for the 60th anniversary. The committee would also appreciate receiving Owen documents, photographs, and memorabilia from reception participants.
Founded by the Tennessee Baptist Missionary and Education Convention, Owen College was the successor of Roger Williams College and Howe Baptist Institute. In 1946, the Convention bought the former site of Siena College and St. Mary's Academy for $375,000. The plant, located on the corner of Vance Avenue and Orleans Street, included five buildings, constructed between 1902 and 1929, and eleven acres of land, while "about the campus magnificent trees, some a century old, shaded the walks, driveways, and halls."
S. A. Owen Junior College, named for the pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church and vice president of the National Baptist Convention, opened on Sept. 13, 1954, under the leadership of President Levi Watkins. The Watkins administration, which lasted until 1959, was marked by several achievements: the change of name to Owen College in 1957, accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools in 1958, formation of a strong academic program, and a faculty with graduate degrees from Cornell, Kansas State, Northwestern, University of Michigan, and the Sorbonne.
The two-year, liberal arts college offered associate degrees in general education, business, home economics, religious education, and secretarial science; it also offered a training program leading to certification in adult education. There were late afternoon and evening classes, as well as special classes for adults below college grade. Some students chose the terminal program, but the majority selected the transfer program, and, after graduating from Owen, they entered four-year colleges such as Rust, Lane, Howard, LeMoyne, Philander Smith, and Tennessee State.
Isaiah Madison, for example, graduated from Owen in 1962, and received bachelor and law degrees from Howard University. As the lead attorney in the Jonathan Myers case, he won a $503,000,000 settlement. Several faculty members – Mildred Green, Fred Lofton, Donzaleigh Patterson, Reuben Green, Miriam Sugarmon, and Beverly Williams (Cleaves) – later obtained medical or doctoral degrees.
George Grant, chair of the OCHC graduated from Owen, received a B.S. from Morehouse, returned to work at Owen, and eventually earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh.
"Owen College had a strong mentorship program," noted Grant. "I had two mentors from day one: Fred Lofton, Dean of Students, was instrumental in my going to Morehouse, and Bill Jones gave me a job in the library." Most of the faculty and staff were young, enthusiastic, concerned about students, and committed to education.
Owen College was a Christian institution, founded by Baptist clergymen, and many of the graduates were ministers: the Reverends Hubon Sandridge, James White, Roger Pruitt, H. H. Harper, and O. C. Crivens, Sr., among others. The 1957 booklet, "This is Owen College," had as its subtitle "Dedicated to Christian Education," and student Nelle Cleveland wrote: "I chose Owen College because I wanted to further my education in a Christian institution." Among the most important college activities were Sunday evening Vespers and Wednesday morning Chapel Hour, conducted by visiting ministers. A former student from Orange Mound recently reminded Rev. Lofton of his famous homily, "The Tragedy of an Open Nose," in which he cited the example of Samson as a case of unbridled passion.
In 1960, the Rev. Charles L. Dinkins assumed the presidency during a transitional stage in the college's development. By then, Owen had sixteen teachers and approximately 300 students, and the plant and equipment were valued at over a million dollars. Campus facilities included the Administration Building, with offices and a swimming pool on the first floor, classrooms and a gymnasium on the second, and the library on the third; Roger Williams Hall, a dormitory building that included a dining room and College Grill; Howe Hall, which had faculty apartments; and Roger Williams Annex.
"We were like one big, happy family," Mildred Green recalled.
In fact, the president and several faculty members lived in Howe Hall, as did the Greens, whose two sons were born while the family lived on campus. Cultural events such as choir concerts, art exhibitions, dance performances, dramatic presentations, and religious services brought the college community together and bonds were formed. Owen graduate, Doris Brooks Lacy, became secretary to the registrar and met her husband, Sam, at the college, while Lofton married dormitory matron and home economics teacher, Dorothy McKinnie. There were opportunities for student creativity and leadership in organizations such as the Baptist Student Union, Future Business Leaders of America, and the College Choir, directed by Dorothy Graham.
The Green Hornets, coached by Logan Mitchell, won a national basketball championship around 1967-68. The star of the team was pint-sized Jerry Dover, who, after graduation from Owen, became a point guard for the LeMoyne College Magicians, under legendary coach Jerry Johnson, from 1968 to 1971. He went on the play for the American Basketball Association and the Memphis Pros, and retired his jersey in the basketball Hall of Fame. Later, he headed the Memphis Parks Commission and founded the City Basketball Classic, a Memphis summer program.
Owen students also became involved in the city's civil rights movement. In March 1960, a group of students launched sit-ins to desegregate public facilities in the city. As Clyde E. Battles, an Owen graduate who now chairs the Music Department at LeMoyne-Owen, recalls, "We sat-in at the main library on Peabody and McLean, my sister Amanda and I, Arthur James Eberhardt, president of Owen's Student Council, and other students from Owen and LeMoyne colleges. The librarian called the police, who put us in a paddy wagon and took us to jail." The students were released on bail by a group of local black attorneys and had to appear in court the following Monday. Charles Cabbage, an honors student and later president of Owen's Student Council, became co-founder of The Invaders and had several conferences with Martin Luther King Jr. about the Sanitation Strike in Memphis.
In 1964, President Dinkins appointed a committee to draw up a 20-year, $5-million-dollar master plan for the future of the college. The college, however, faced serious problems: inadequate funding, a deteriorating physical plant, lower tuition at Memphis State, and non-competitive salaries. One of the major decisions facing the administration was whether to remain at the Vance-Orleans site or relocate to property on Horn Lake Road. It soon became apparent that relocation was financially unfeasible, and a crisis occurred when Roger Williams Hall was destroyed by fire in 1967, resulting in a $500,000 loss. Although the college had 383 students in 1967, the economic problems became insurmountable.
The following year, the college held its thirteenth and final commencement, with 62 graduates.
(Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis – Miriam "Laurie" Sugarmon – is a former professor of English and French at Owen College, 1960-65.)