The year was 1999 and I was a newly-minted seventeen year old freshman at Fisk University. I needed to work on very first my term paper and I’d decided on Du Bois and Marcus Garvey as my subjects. After walking into the Fisk Franklin Library’s Special Collections, I asked the archivist: “Do you have any good books on Du Bois and Garvey?” She smiled sweetly and said: “We sure do. And if you’ll go over to the card catalog and look them up and fill out these call slips I’ll be happy to get them for you.”
Beth Madison Howse was sweet. And, yes, she knew the Dewey decimal system by heart. But she wasn’t about to do something for you that she knew you should learn to do for yourself. That was Ms. Howse. Sweet. But she wasn’t by any means a pushover.
While she didn’t know it then, that faithful day was first of at least 1,000 or more visits I would make to Special Collections. Even after writing my paper, I returned to Special Collections to rummage through archival documents and photographs, talking to Ms. Howse all along. She eventually decided to put me to work, getting books for other students, answering the telephone or doing just about anything else she asked me to.
I don’t remember exactly when but a short time after meeting Ms. Howse I realized her special gift. She could get anyone to do anything, in large part because she was nice…I mean super nice…to everyone. If you knew me as a college freshman, you’d understand why I was so mesmerized by her niceness. I asked her one day, in all seriousness: “Were you always this nice? I mean were you born this way?” She laughed and replied, “Well I do try to be nice. But my mother was much nicer than me.” I truly wondered how such a thing could be possible.
Even to this day, I don’t know anyone, anywhere, nicer than Beth.
I don’t know anyone fairer either. Despite being a fourth-generation Fiskite, the go-to resource for all things Fisk, and a expert on black archival resources to experts all over the nation and world, Beth treated everyone’s inquiry with dignity and respect. For more than a decade, I personally watched her serve student, novice and professional researchers with the same zeal, the same professionalism and and the same compassion.
She honestly and truly wanted to help others be their best. Undergirding them with her mastery of black archival knowledge, she encouraged them whether in person, over the telephone or via email, to reach their highest heights.
I know because I was one of them. Many a day, I ventured to Special Collections and just sat in the office with Beth, who I’d begun to call “Aunt Beth,” when graduate school was wearing me down. And Beth would lift me up. “O, Crys-tol!” she’d say, “You can do this. I just know you can!” It was the encouragement that I so desperately needed. She never asked, when will you be finished with the Ph.D., the dissertation, or even a chapter.
She just believed in me unconditionally.
In doing so, she helped me to believe in myself. Nothing made her happier to call me Crystal and then say: “I’m sorry, Dr. deGregory!” I have had no greater responsibility than the day I climbed the stairs of the Fisk Memorial Chapel then stood behind the lectern and paid tribute to her life and our friendship during her memorial service.
And every day since then, HBCUSTORY hasn’t merely been my passion. It has been the way I say thank you to Beth, for inspiring my love for the HBCUSTORY and above all, the way I say thank you for being my friend.
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 department. Follow her on twitter at @HBCUstorian.