Today is the third anniversary of my foray into blogging. I’m celebrating with an HBCUstory because it’s not just what I do, it’s who I am! A week ago, on this day, hundreds of Fisk Family members gathered in the Fisk Memorial Chapel in Nashville, Tennessee to bid farewell to one of their most faithful sons. He was my friend.
When Fisk University Professor Emeritus Leslie Morgan Collins died on the morning of February 23, 2014, not one, but several generations of Fisk University faculty, staff, students, and alumni were bereft.
“The loss was visceral and heartfelt,” said Terry E. Carter ’80.
Even at 99 years old, the largesse of the legend of this “First Class” gentleman, a man who was said to have “walked between the raindrops,” still inspired us. Just knowing that he was in the world gave us a confidence–an arrogance even–that being a Fiskite was something special.
So signature was his greeting “Friend,” it became his own special moniker, remembered Geo Cooper ‘82. “One had only to say “Friend” to identify Dr. L.M.Collins as the subject of a conversation!”
“He was the kind of man whose presence alone would make you sit up a little straighter, dress a little neater, and choose your words a little more carefully,” observed Sandy Wade Johnson ‘99. “He was sophisticated and just by being who he was, he made you strive to be a little more sophisticated.”
Born in Alexandria, Louisiana on October 4, 1914, Leslie Morgan Collins, was unapologetically black. The temptation of passing lured many of his generation to leave Louisiana as black and return as white, or never to return again. Collins, however, never had any desire to be anything other that what he was, except in just one instance.
Reared by his maternal grandparents and his aunt “Idoo” after the death of his mother when he was just three years old, Collins still remembered that the nuns reported to them that he’d been crying in school. “I wanted blue eyes like Papa’s,” he laughingly recalled more than three quarters of a century later.
Collins, who I first encountered while I was a Fisk student, taught me Harlem Renaissance Literature in the spring of 2002. For decades, the class was taught at the 8 o’clock hour. To be late for it, or any of Collins’ classes, was tantamount to sacrilege. With her friend Linessa Walker Frazier nipping at her heels, Candace A. Thompson ’85 once hurried to Collins’ class only to be told, “Ladies, you are either 15 minutes late for your 8:00 class or you are 45 minutes early for the 9:00 a.m. class. I certainly hope it’s the latter!”
By my era, Dr. Collins closed the door to his classroom at the top of the hour; and no student dared to open it for fear of damnation. I still remember my very first day of class. I’d never heard Collins, who always dressed in finely tailored suits, with ties held in place by European pins and topped off with his signature trilby hat, speak above a whisper. From my seat in the back of the class, I watched him greet students individually before taking his place at the front of the modest white-walled library room. He extended his hand to the corner of the desk as if to steady himself for the most grand of performances. His voice, then, rang out in a loud boom, “Welcome to Harlem Renaissance!”
During that semester, Collins, who liked to point out that he was not old enough to be in the renaissance, introduced us to the people synonymous with the 1920s black cultural, social, and artistic movement. A 1888 Fisk graduate, William Edward Burghardt DuBois, who was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, was always Dr. Du Bois, and mastery of Alain Locke’s name was non-negotiable. His connection to them through Fisk’s “Golden Era” as the home of the Harlem Renaissance diaspora was easily impressive. Novelist, poet and librarian Arna Bontemps, a fellow Alexandria native, was his cousin. Having dined in the home of the “Godfather of the Renaissance” Charles S. Johnson, Collins, vividly recalled the day the campus received word that the university’s first black president had dropped dead on a train platform at a stop in Louisville, Kentucky.
Among our selected readings was 1956 Fisk alumnus David Levering Lewis’ When Harlem Was In Vogue (for which Collins had been a consultant), and many of Collins’ collected writings, including “An Honor to Arna,” a posthumous tribute to Bontemps’ life and work. He masterfully told us about having once dined with A’Lelia Walker, the only child of self-made millionairess Madam C.J. Walker, where he watched her eat a whole chicken and then polish off a chocolate cake. He introduced us to beauty of Russia’s deep blue semi-precious stone the lapis lazuli; he demanded dignity for Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Mother,” and hailed the genius of Zora Neale Hurston.
He did for us what he’d done for decades of Fisk students who came before us. Having begun his legendary teaching career at Fisk in 1945, the same year he was awarded the nation’s first Ph.D. in American Culture from Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, Ohio, Collins completed his master’s degree at Fisk in 1937, and was among the first graduates of Dillard University in New Orleans in 1936.
For decades he had an office on the second floor of the library; but he’d since transformed a long table on the first floor into his meeting space. Brightly-lit by floor to ceiling windows, one could easily sit and chat with him there–provided you had the patience to toe a long line before doing so.
I suppose it was during my graduate school experiences that I began to sit at Friend’s table more and more. Well into his 90s, it appeared that he was slowing down. The library staff took special pride in looking out for him as he crossed the street twice daily to and from his modest cottage adjacent to the university campus. Like most passersby, our talks began cordially with inquiries about wellness and discussions about the Fisk campus or local news and national politics. Eventually we began talking about my hellish graduate school experiences, and Friend answered my questions about his life and times.
Following the death of historian and Fisk alumnus John Hope Franklin ‘35 in May 2009, I asked Friend about the difficulty of outliving his contemporaries. He painfully responded, “It’s lonely friend. So lonely.”
From that day on, I made certain to stop and chat with him every time I was in the Fisk library. By the time I’d successfully defended my dissertation we were like two old friends, sharing jokes and gossiping about historic and contemporary figures alike.
Two days after I defended my dissertation, Friend, who was seated at his table, rose to greet me. I exclaimed, “I did it Friend! The Ph.D. is mine!”
He already knew. Reaching amid his reading artifacts, he presented me with three books by Langston Hughes–each of which he autographed with a different message. The inscription from “I Wonder as I Wander” read, “To Dearest Crystal, On hearing the good news. She won!”
Opening my dissertation to the dedication page, he tearfully read the inscription, “To Dr. L.M. Collins, the embodiment of the HBCU teacher tradition.”
After graduating with the Ph.D., I hurriedly drove to the Fisk Library; but Friend wasn’t there. I needed to return Vanderbilt’s rented cap and gown, but not before Doc had the opportunity to see me in the PhD regalia. So, I ventured to his retirement home. He greeted me “casually” dressed me in slacks, a pressed shirt, tie, and a Member’s Only jacket.
“O, friend,” he exclaimed. It rolled up and out of his soul. It was joy, in two words.
I asked to take a picture. He agreed, but insisted on changing into a gold-buttoned blazer. It’s a memory I’ll always cherish. He once said that I was a shining example of how he and Fisk loves its students through the dissertation writing process. And he was right.
As one of the last of the “Fisk Immortals,” Friend ate in the cafeteria three times a day. Victoria Leigh Bryant Hamilton ‘07 , a fourth generation Fiskite, described the experience best, “He didn’t simply sit in the cafeteria to dine, he held court.”
I always told him that he was a testament to the nutritional value of cafeteria food. “It might not be good, but it will keep you alive,” I chided, and we’d laugh, and laugh.
You see, Dr. Collins who was the personal secretary to Paul Robeson, a guest in Josephine Baker’s all-white Paris apartment, who saw Egypt’s great pyramids and traveled to Rome to witness Wilma Rudolph win three gold medals in the 1960 Olympics, was happiest when he was on the Fisk University campus, amid his Fisk family.
The last of the great black college teachers, Friend lived among those he taught. He was the embodiment of his generation of black college teachers who epitomized living-learning campuses half a century before traditionally-white colleges began trying to exceptionalize the practice. Dr. Collins cast his fate with the black college when it was not en vogue for fair-skinned blacks to do so.
On the 146th anniversary of the birth of alumnus Dr. Du Bois, Collins peacefully transitioned from Fisk immortal to immortal life. I’d like to think that Collins, who loved a good joke and a great party, couldn’t miss even one more of Du Bois’ birthday parties.
Is this the end of the HBCU teacher tradition?
I surely hope not. We endure friends…We endure!
We brothers and sisters in the family of man neither phrase epitaphs nor chant dirges, nor do we sob painful farewells. Somehow, somewhere beyond this beloved area of academe, beyond the familiar horizon, we shall endure. We, preserving, are braced by the legend: “Arise, shine, for thy light is come and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.
– Dr. L. M. Collins, Graduation, 1992: A Meditation
Live in the sky, my Friend, live in the sky!
A 2003 graduate of Fisk University, Crystal A. deGregory, Ph.D. is the founder and executive editor of HBCUSTORY, Inc. an advocacy center presenting inspiring stories of the HBCUs past and present, for our future. She teaches in Tennessee State University’s department of history, political science, geography and Africana studies. Follow her on twitter at @HBCUstorian.