The recent controversy arising from complaints by African-American students that they feel unsafe and ignored and have to endure racism at their predominantly white universities caused me to reflect on my college days, but about something completely different.
When I arrived at historically black Southern University in fall 1972, the civil rights movement was gasping for breath, and Black Power was on the rise.
Poetry, conversations, music, fashion and hairstyles all reflected the Black Power/Black Pride movement. The 10,000 students at Southern were about being happy to be in their black skin. Our generation was going to change things.
I was in the journalism program, then in its infancy on campus. About 15 students were in my class.
My main reporting and writing instructor was a mop-haired little white dude named Lucien Salvant. The presence of white professors on historically black campuses wasn’t unusual. But I was not ready for this one.
His way of doing things didn’t mesh with me. He was direct, and he didn’t even deal with my blackness. He was also straight out of Vietnam, so I gave him a little space.
One day, he pulled me aside as I was leaving class. He closed the door to his small office and looked directly at me. “Mr. Pratt,” he said, “you have a lot of potential, but you have a bad attitude in class that is holding you back. You always seem to have a chip on your shoulder.”
“I work between four and eight hours each morning before coming to class. You’re damn right I have an attitude,” I thought to myself.
I wasn’t prepared for this white professor to be so blunt. I glared at him and left. I went to a classmate, Cleo, and told her what he had said. “Ed, he is right. You do act like that,” she said. (Cleo, a journalism professor at Dillard University, is my friend today.)
I was sad that she didn’t side with me. I did, however, begin to give some thought to his comments. Over the next several weeks, I began to let down the walls and absorb what he was teaching.
One day, he told me that a story I had written was so well done that he showed it to other professors. However, when he handed me the story, he said, “I sympathize with you, Mr. Pratt, but you have an F.”
With Mr. Salvant, if you misspelled a name or got the age or address wrong in a story, it was an automatic F. The quality of the story didn’t matter.
I smiled when I got the F because he often handed out papers with Fs. In fact, sometimes we would smile and say, “I sympathize with you” to classmates who received an F.
Mr. Salvant always challenged us to be unafraid of the consequences of a story or editorial if we knew we were right and fair, especially when we wrote for the student-run school newspaper, The Digest. He was the newspaper adviser.
We were about to publish a tough article about the university president. Mr. Salvant knew his job could be on the line if the story was published. But he told us if the facts were right, “Go with it.”
We wrote several other stories and editorials that infuriated the president, to the point that he stripped school funding from the paper. He was doubly angry when the paper continued to publish using advertising revenue from an off-campus bank account.
As predicted, Mr. Salvant was fired. He went to work at a newspaper in Mississippi and later disappeared. As my career developed, I wanted so much to see him and let him know how much I appreciated what he had done for me.
Several years ago, Cleo located him at a conference in New Orleans, where he was representing a national lumber association. Cleo, another classmate, Theresa, and I met him for brunch and thanked him. He said his life was rebounding after taking a terrible tumble. He thanked us for being good students, but he didn’t take credit for our success.
If you read this, Mr. Salvant, I hope that somehow I won’t get an F. But, if I do, it’s OK.
Edward Pratt, a south Louisiana freelance writer, can be reached at email@example.com.