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Fall 2011

David Wilson

Photograph by Robert Sutton

The Road Taken

How a one-room schoolhouse and a drafty old shanty led to the college presidency.

Working okra and cotton fields three days a week in his tiny town of McKinley, Ala., David Wilson didn't attend school full time until he was in the seventh grade. But he grew up with an urgent desire to learn. Now president of Morgan State University in Baltimore, Wilson travels home to pay tribute to the places and the people who helped make him who he is.

It is a hot spring day in Marengo County, one of the most rural and poor Black Belt counties in Alabama. David Wilson, Ed.M.'84, Ed.D.'87, pulls over and steps out, his 14-year-old son, Nyere, in tow. The esteemed academic, currently serving as president of Morgan State University in Baltimore, is flooded with memories of hot summer days walking the long miles between the school and his home (often barefoot to save his shoes), of early classroom lessons taught by a strict but caring teacher, of his beloved family members who reside here in great number. David Wilson is home.

Earlier that morning, Wilson was a guest of honor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, a few hours north. He was the keynote speaker at a gathering of the university's Center for Community-Based Partnerships, a cause that is close to his heart.

"I don't think we've scratched the surface of what this speaker will do before he is done," said Samory Pruitt, vice president of community affairs, as he introduced Wilson.

For the next 45 minutes, Wilson captivated the audience with his passion for education and collaboration between institutions of higher learning and their environments. He told stories of his own humble upbringing, his determination to receive the best education possible, and his fight to give students with similar struggles access to the same. As he recounted a memory of his father handing him a $5 bill on the morning he departed for Tuskegee University — all he had saved for several years — the audience at the Hotel Capstone ballroom was more than a little choked up.

Wilson's impressive academic resume boasts both a bachelor's and master's degree from Tuskegee and master's and doctoral degrees from the Ed School. His career path has led him to several distinguished positions, including as chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and the University of Wisconsin-Extension, associate provost and vice president at Auburn University, and associate provost at Rutgers University. He has been at his current post as president of Morgan State University since 2010 and was appointed by President Barack Obama to an 11-member board of advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

His speech this day was to encourage relationships between colleges and the cities and towns they inhabit, and for the students who benefit from their education to find ways to give back and offer others like them the same educational opportunities. But his visit also offers him the chance to pay a visit to his beginnings, to connect with his spirit.

Home for Wilson is a few hours down a two-lane road, to the small community of McKinley, Ala. Growing up, the town was home to scarcely more than 30 residents. Along the way, he makes several stops that are cornerstones in his upbringing. His elementary school, a modest well-kept brick building where he spent first and second grades, is first. Immediately noticeable on the front sign is a large gap between the words: "Uniontown" and "Elementary School." Chiseled off is the word "Negro," an omission that Wilson says isn't all bad, as long as it makes children question why, and if they learn from it.

"Five people in my family didn't even finish elementary school because it was just so hard, it was just so difficult to have that kind of access to school," he says, as he glances up at the building, where his youngest sister, Minnie Wilson Early, currently teaches.

"I have mixed feelings [being here] because on the one hand, I'm very proud of what the school is trying to do to make education possible for so many students in this community who come from similar backgrounds as I came from," he says. "I'm very proud of the fact that my sister is so committed to quality of education. She has dedicated her life to being a phenomenal teacher.

"I do, however, come away from a physical standpoint, from a capital standpoint, that the buildings are not what you want to see in a high-performing school. I have to come back here constantly to make sure that I'm grounded and that I understand that this is where the huge jump started, from here all the way to Harvard initially, and other points from there."

The journey continues on, and after a while he pulls the rental car over to a wide, well-kept lawn upon which a small church building rests, flanked by a few rows of headstones to one side. Hebron Baptist Church is what much of his family still considers their home church, and its cemetery where many of their descendants are buried.

Wilson makes a path toward one of the most elegant headstones, his mother's.

"She was really the educator in the family," he says. "She had an eighth-grade education. At the time, that was pretty decent for blacks. My mom could read and she could write. My dad was illiterate; he couldn't read the headstone right now."

David WilsonHis parents, Minnie and Henry Wilson, receive much of the credit for instilling in Wilson an urgent desire for learning.

"My dad was the most intelligent man I have ever known and my mom was the most loving, caring, and nurturing woman I have ever known," he says. His father's headstone is engraved with a birth year of 1915, though it's a guess, as he never knew his true birthday.

As he pushes away pine straw and dead leaves from their plots, he recalls how they were the glue that held their large family of seven sons and three daughters together. "They raised the 10 of us in a way that created this incredible bond," he says. They were loving, but strict, forbidding curse words, teaching respect for the elderly and one another, and regularly attending church services at Hebron, which often were hours long.

He happily remembers all-night barbecues, celebrations, religious skits performed, and hymns poorly sung by him and his siblings. It was this church community, he says, that helped solidify the family's foundation, offering structure, support, and guidance. Wilson and many of his far-flung relatives are still on the books as members and regularly keep up with donations to ensure that the building and grounds are kept.

Many of Wilson's kin are buried here, including his grandfather, Deacon Henry Spencer. Wilson pauses at his grave, remembering when the crate transporting his headstone arrived when Wilson was just a young child. It was a nice, well-made box, and the family kept it for Wilson to use as a stool.

Though Wilson was too young to have memories of his grandfather, Spencer's legacy was proudly narrated to the family, who learned that the patriarch grew up in the 1800s amid unfathomable adversity. In the face of poverty and strained race relations, he maintained an unshakable entrepreneurial spirit and refused to remain in a subservient sharecropping situation. To that end, he grew his own produce to feed his family and sell at market. He diversified into other industries, such as coal mining, to become a selfmade man. He also pushed the importance of family and togetherness, concepts Wilson believes he would be proud to see carried on.

In 1991, the family began a reunion tradition, held every other year in a different location. Anywhere from 150 to 200 family members regularly attend. "It's our way of saying to my son and to our grandnieces and -nephews that you do have a legacy and you need to know that, you need to be proud of that. No matter what the challenges, don't let those things break your spirit."

His grandfather, he says, "would be proud of the fact that our family has maintained a deep sense of what it means to love each other and what it means to support each other, and that we really understand what it means to be a family."

As he continues walking, a single crow caws in the background as the sun begins to set through the trees. The cemetery is silent, peaceful and serene.

"I have to come here to get centered as well," Wilson says, his voice catching. "I come here when I feel that something is not going right to be recentered and realize what a good life lived is all about.

"I think I've been able to achieve the things that I have achieved because I have never, ever forgotten the humble beginnings, and I will never, ever forget that. Some people kind of run away from the fact that they didn't grow up with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouths, but for me, if I ran away from that, I think I would be like a feather floating in the air with no sense of purpose, no sense of groundedness, with a whole lot of emptiness."

The road continues on, and after a few turns, the now vacant site of the one-room schoolhouse with the potbellied stove appears, the walls inside which Wilson received his first formal education now just a memory. It was not required that black children go to school at the time, so the Wilson children went in shifts, working the okra and cotton fields three days and attending school two, and reversing it the next week. "I was literally in the seventh grade before I attended school five consecutive days," he says, as he shakes his head and turns around, marveling that an open field is all that remains of such an important place.

Wilson's impressive academic credentials are all the more extraordinary considering the seemingly insurmountable barriers he overcame. A good education was not easy to achieve growing up in a sharecropping family, facing extreme poverty, racial inequality in the rural South, and living in a home with 12 mouths to feed.

UniontownTwenty to 30 children representing six grades would pack into the building, with benches borrowed from the church and work done in their laps. Here, children were taught the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, with different blocks of time set aside for each grade. Wilson can remember struggling to keep up because of the many missed lessons when he was working the fields to help his family.

At home, the flimsy, holey walls were patched with a homemade plaster of boiled water and flour spread on pages of back issues of Look and Life magazines, brought to the house by the landowners, and which Wilson would read. "That shanty was [our] elementary school on those days that I wasn't there [at school]," Wilson says. "It was the library that was nonexistent at McKinley."

For the most part, he and others were not aware they were receiving anything less than white students were in other areas; they simply were not exposed to it. It wasn't until high school that he had to pass a white school to get to his own, and saw how it was furnished. "It was so shocking to go past this campus that was well-manicured — new buildings, new gymnasium," he says. "The message that I got from that was that someone didn't think I was equal to the investment. That was very disturbing."

A similar awakening took place when his high school shop teacher drove a group of students to Tuskegee University for an agricultural conference. On the way, the teacher purposely drove them through affluent areas, exposing them to a new world of possibility. "My chin was on my chest," he says. "I could not believe that black people in these United States lived that way. I had never seen that kind of middle class existence, all professors and lawyers and doctors, wonderful homes and well-manicured lawns. It just made me feel so proud.

"So when I came back … , I came back flying. I knew I wanted to go to Tuskegee because I wanted to experience the whole sense of black intellectual superiority and black success at a level that was almost unmatched in this country."

As the hot breeze begins to blow and the sun begins to melt away, Wilson talks about how he left the area with a few scars. "I was angry because I was not special — that there were so many other people in this community who could have been the surgeons, who could have been the senators, who could have been the leading educators, who could have been the leading authors — but they were never, ever given that chance.

"And that was really what angered me, that through this insidious system we had in place, we have lost so many minds. And that's why I'm hell bent on working with young people when I come here now, so we don't continue to lose our best talent."

Arriving at the family homestead, a party is brewing. Gravel driveways leading to a row of houses each owned by a Wilson family member are filling up with cars. Children of all ages spill out of trucks and SUVs, arms laden with preparations for the night's catfish fry. Nearly 50 brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, and spouses are suddenly everywhere, filling what they jokingly call the family compound with bear hugs, laughter, and chatter. Wilson shares a hug with all of them, showing off how much Nyere has grown. Every niece and nephew he greets is questioned about their schooling — how are their grades, will they attend college, what are their future plans. They expect it from Uncle David, and the answers are impressive, from degrees already or nearly earned at college to middle-schoolers declaring they will attend Harvard, just like him.

His own son also answers without hesitation when asked that he, too, will attend the Cambridge institution. "I often say to my son, 'You have your pick of the litter. You can go to school any place you want to in the entire world. That choice is clearly up to you — but you have a choice.'"

It is the choice, he says, that is most significant. A family once struggling to survive is now full of college scholars, professionals, and students, each with dreams they know they will achieve. Niece Kiara Nicole Wilson is preparing to receive a degree from the University of Alabama. Nephew Kalen Early is a ninth-grader in the gifted program at Robert C. Hatch High School. Nephew Ed. Jamaal Hunter, who is the mayor of nearby Uniontown, says, "Without education, I could not be in the position I'm in today. Education can serve as the great equalizer." He remembers watching Wilson excel academically and drew upon him as an example. "I looked up to him; if Uncle David can do it, I can do it."

Wilson picks up a tiny family member, infant Jeremiah, perhaps the newest addition in attendance, and says, "This is the future, here."

Inside, the family is busy laying out a feast of fresh fruit, coleslaw, baked beans, corn on the cob, and potato salad. Tray after tray of golden fried catfish is carried in, and the family joins in prayer before digging in. The main house is a flurry of activity, as plates are filled and refilled, older children chase smaller ones as they happily shriek and thread through the tables.

David WilsonAt a family party, David talks with his sister-in-law, Ruby Wilson. His oldest brother, John Henry, and various cousins are in the background.

Lapolean Peterson, the principal of Marengo County Training School for 34 years, where Wilson attended high school, and a friend of the family, shows up to the party. He and Wilson reminisce about former teachers and students as if it were yesterday. Wilson was a recent commencement speaker at the school, and Peterson says he is referenced often as an example to students today. "He would always come back, and we've always been just like brothers," Peterson says. "[Students see that] they can do the same thing — he was one guy that was totally determined." The school has other success stories, too, in the many professionals, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and others who passed through. "It's a good feeling to know you touched a life in some positive way. It's my biggest reward."

Wilson's youngest sister, Minnie Wilson Early, seconds the emphasis on education. As a teacher at Uniontown Elementary, she often steps beyond her role as teacher, getting to know the parents of her pupils and ensuring that they understand learning is a partnership. "We all buy into their education," she says. "I follow up on my students." It warms her heart when they come back years later and thank her, and a good many do. But most important, she says, is that after the students move out of their environment, better themselves, and become whatever it is they choose to be, that they bring back what they have learned for the next generation.

This is precisely how Wilson has dedicated his career — to stressing the importance of education, making sure students have access and opportunity and following through to their success. He says he got into the system to fight the red tape and clear the way for students and educators.

"I certainly see as a part of my success removing that which is unnecessary, that will stand in the way of progress, in the way of a good-quality education, and that will stand in the way of innovation and creativity," he says. "And that's personal."

He vividly remembers the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and the realization of what he stood for. It was 1968. He was 14 and in the eighth grade. There was sudden confusion and sadness. His family went across the street to his uncle's place, where they watched King's funeral on television. "I think that was a huge awakening for me," he says. "A social awakening.

"It really, really brought into focus why he was out there marching and advocating and fighting for equality. Because I looked around and I realized all of a sudden, I'm not equal, in terms of the way we are living, in terms of the way we are being schooled."

He continues to further his mission, putting out the call to arms one college at a time. "I see my work as purposeful. It's about transforming lives, it's about putting students in a position where they realize potential that sometimes they don't think they have, and coming back here is a good connection to try to make that happen.

"I can't forget about these communities, because these communities are so much a part of me," he says. "How can you forget that? It's so special."

— Janet Sudnik is the editor of Tuscaloosa Magazine in Tuscaloosa, Ala., a few hours north of David Wilson's hometown.

— Photos by Robert Sutton

The name says it all: The Five Dollar Scholarship Fund. David Wilson started the fund to support students at Morgan who have potential but few resources. It is dedicated to his parents. For more information, go to www.givetomorgan.net/fivedollar.