Dr. Press Robinson is the Lay Leader of Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church, where he has been a member for some fifty-five years. The first African American to be elected to the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board, serving three separate terms as its president, Dr. Robinson is a longtime community activist who believes in equity for all in every segment of our lives. He has demonstrated his interest in impacting the lives of people in our communities through a number of civic and political activities, and more than 42 years of service in the Southern University System as a professor, administrator, campus chancellor, and system vice president.
When the emancipation came along, a lot of those people didn't leave the area where they had been enslaved because they didn't know where to go. They needed to make a living and to eat and to survive. So, they stayed right there, even though they might not have been in slavery anymore.
I can remember back to probably around 5 or 6 years old. My mom and dad were farmers. We lived between Florence and a place called Claussen, South Carolina. Claussen was just a crossroads with one store. But it was where my dad, and mom and all those were born, you know. A lot of the ancestry that I'm trying to do right now with my family, a lot of people were born and raised in Claussen, died in Claussen. Some of them and/or their descendants still live in Claussen. Our church, Salem Methodist, was and still is in Claussen.
I don't know a lot about my grandparents, but from what I can find, they were pretty much born and reared around Claussen, too. Of course, in those days, many of my ancestors were born, lived, worked, and probably died on what was called the McMillen plantation. They called them townships, but there were plantations. That's what they were. There were white owners and there were black slaves who worked the fields and houses of the plantation. And when the emancipation came along, a lot of those people didn't leave the area where they had been enslaved because they didn't know where to go. They needed to be to make a living and to eat and to survive. So, they stayed right there, even though they might not have been in slavery anymore. And many of their descendants are still in those areas.
My family, we were sharecroppers. Tobacco and cotton were staples of our farm. I don't know what the split was. I would guess maybe 60/40, 70/30, which means we worked the farm, and at the time of harvest we would get maybe thirty percent of the income, or maybe forty percent. I just knew that during the year we had to depend on this white man to provide money to us on a weekly basis, monthly basis, or whatever Dad needed to buy the little food that was necessary for us to buy. We didn't buy a lot, y’know, cause we grew everything. We had our own chickens, we had our own hogs, we had our own milk cow. We grew all of our vegetables: sweet potatoes, collard greens, mustard greens, okra, tomatoes, sweet corn. We grew all of that, so I think I got a pretty green thumb, and know how to grow stuff *laughs* But that was a tough life.
I was the only child, but in the house was a cousin of mine who was living with us, and she was pretty much like a sister. Her parents died, and daddy decided to take her in as one of his own. So, in that sense there was at least someone around for the first maybe twelve years or so. During my early years, we moved from one part of the sharecropping farm to another, so we could be closer to the highway *laughs* The first place was pretty far back in the woods, ya know. So, we moved closer to the highway.
My thing was, I stayed at home during the day while everybody else was out working. I was playing around, having fun with the dog or the cat or whatever. I saw and watched who drove up and down the highway, which wasn't very often, because there wasn't very many people who had cars. There was one particular guy I remember very, very well. He was a principal at one of the local schools and this guy would come by just about every day. He had a Chevrolet. I was born in 1937, so I'm figuring it was a 40-something Chevrolet. But the thing that was so interesting about it is he never drove faster than 5 mph *laughs* It would take him forever to get to where you were and forever to leave and go on about his business.
Daddy only finished sixth grade, but he had good common sense and knew how to use numbers. You know he could handle numbers real nicely. So, he never spent more than what he needed to spend. He never went to the white man to get money unless he really needed it. And so, by the time that the harvest came in he was able to pay it off for that year, so he kept current. He never got in debt where he was owing the landowner money for more than one year. He was always able to turn a profit and pay off his debt.
I wanted to be a doctor because that was one of the upstanding persons in the community. Someone who had something, someone who knew something, someone who acted properly and with dignity. So, I wanted to be one of them.
Of course, my mom worked in the fields as well, but she insisted that I go to school. She just told Dad that, "My son’s going to school—everyday. My son's going to school. Now you tell the boss man that he is going to go to school. Now, he can work when he gets out of school or during the weekend or whatever, but during the week he going to school." And I did. I went to school every day. And I walked to school every single day. It was probably about two, two and a half miles. But I walked to school every day, and walked back. To us kids it wasn’t a big deal. We played and all that kinda stuff and had fun. But as we walked, white kids riding the school bus passed right by us and they would say nasty things to us and make fun of us for walking and that kinda stuff. So, I always wondered if there would ever be a time when we got a chance to ride the bus.
In those days, a lot of kids dropped out of school after 6th or 7th grade. There just wasn't an emphasis on education. They didn't have anybody to push them. Mom and dad just let them do what they wanted to do. Most of the Black parents around me were all sharecroppers. There were also people who were Black who were in other areas. Maybe a couple lawyers, couple doctors, school teachers, preachers—those were the people we were looking up to. Those people set the example. They knew how to act, so those of us who were children or other people in the community used them as a model. We wanted to be like them, so they set the standard. And I wanted to be a doctor because that was one of the upstanding persons in the community. Someone who had something, someone who knew something, someone who acted properly and with dignity. So, I wanted to be one of them.
The school teachers, they were looked up to because they had the same kind of reputation. I remember my elementary school teacher had a very, very annoying habit. It was a good habit really, but to me it was annoying, because she would come to my house and stay for a whole week every year. And, of course, I was afraid. What in the world was this woman gonna tell my parents that I've been doing? I didn't know what she was gonna say. She had a whole week to tell them, ya know *laughs* But it was a thing that she did. She just moved from one house to the other, for a week, and we looked forward to it every year. Or at least my parents did. I was just glad when her stay was over.
There were two churches that I went to. On the first and third Sundays I went to the Methodist Church, which was my dad's church. On the second and fourth Sundays I was at my mom's church, which was Baptist. And ya know my thought is there's not a dime's worth of difference between them really. We sang the same songs. Had the same kind of prayers, and the same kind of preaching. The Baptists were a little more animated than the Methodists were, but we had the same kind of huffing and puffing in both of them *laughs* But I enjoyed that, you know. I really sat and listened to what the preacher had to say and I could tell you what his theme was and what he said and all of that.
My parents and most other parents that I knew of, they didn't question the teacher or the preacher, y’know. Whatever they said was gospel. When I was a kid, day to day interactions were with the doctor, the lawyer, the teacher and the preacher. The preacher came to your house on Sunday and sat around the table and ate dinner with you. You saw the doctor at the store. Or you saw the teacher at the store. So that just rubbed off on you because those were the people who you were in your midst.
I wish we still had more of that today. Today our professionals don’t live in the community with us. I think we'd be a lot better off. I look at Scotlandville, for example. A lot of the professional people who used to live here, a lot of them have moved away. And because of it we don't have any regenerative atmosphere. People don't rebuild their homes. They don't build new ones in Scotlandville, and they don't fix their homes up. People die, and when they die the home goes to pot, and nobody keeps it up. That's not the way communities ought to be. If the younger folks stayed in the community, they would be the ones building the new homes and putting the businesses in and being the entrepreneurs. I just think that things would be a lot better for us if we had that kind of community.
In terms of a social scene, when I was growing up, you didn't have a lot of things to do.You worked all week Monday through Saturday noon. Saturday afternoon you'd probably clean yourself up, take a bath, put on some clean clothes and go to town. Before we moved from the country, town was 10 miles away. But you go to town, you walk up and down the street and see who you see. You see some of your friends and neighbors, you'd talk to them, and maybe you walked down the street together. Your mom and dad would be in the stores. Mom would be going one way, dad would be going another, I would be going a third way. We all had our little journey that we wanted to go on. But that was refreshing and rewarding, because you got a chance to see people and to shake hands and to laugh and what not.
On Sunday, you went to church. Every Sunday. You put on your best—you only had one suit. So, you put on your suit and your tie and you go to church and you pay attention. And sometimes you'd be at church all day *laughs* Because after the regular service was over, they had some kind of program, like the benevolent society would have a picnic or something and, man, people would bring the food, everybody brought a dish, OK? And you talk about eating. And good eating, because everybody knew how to cook. You'd be there all day. But it was OK because you had food and water and you had plenty of people to play with and we'd play and whatnot. "Boy don't you mess up your suit!" "OK!" "Better not get that suit dirty!" *laughs* "Go sit yourself down over there!" And we would sit down for about five minutes and we'd be up again, you know, running around.
Most of the benevolent societies were related to the church.You know, there were the Masons and there was the church Society of Women, and all that kind of stuff. But there were also some other benevolent societies that were more widespread. I don't remember the names of them, but some of the women, mostly, were members of those kinds of societies. Besides having picnics at the church or meetings at the church, they would have quilting outings, where it might be ten or twelve women would come together during the wintertime when, you know, the planting and harvest seasons were over and it wasn't a lot for them to do. They would make quilts and bedspreads and blankets and things like that. Or maybe clothing for the children. And many times, they would come together as ten or twelve women and they would put a quilt together in a day. There weren't any central heating and air and all that, so those warm quilts, man, they were welcome during the cold winters. They were taking care of essential business. And what they were making these quilts out of was cotton, y'know, stuffing it with cotton. But just pieces of cloth that they had saved and gathered. They didn't buy the material, everybody just brought what pieces of cloth they had and they put it together in the quilt. You know, it took a lot of skill to sew those quilts, those little patches.
But that was about it for those people like my dad and my mom. They didn't go to clubs. They had meetings, and the meetings were held after church most of the time. Occasionally there would be a meeting during the week, but, you know, people would be tired during the week because they'd be working in the fields all day. They went to bed at eight and nine o'clock, you know, and got up at five, or four and started to work at daybreak. So that was the extent of the social atmosphere, going to town on Saturday, going to church on Sunday, and then occasionally you would go visit some of your relatives.
I told the lady that I wanted to register to vote, and she wanted me to read and interpret the U. S. Constitution. I said, "Oh, OK." So, I picked up the Constitution. I started to read it and I read the first line and she said, "OK, that's OK." I guess she figured, He probably knows more than I do *laughs*
I stayed there on the farm until I was about 15, then we moved to town. Florence, South Carolina, it's about eighty-three miles slightly northeast of Columbia and about sixty miles west of Myrtle Beach. So, Dad built a house there, and we moved into that house, and he got him a job at a nursery. The nursery was a nice job, but to me it kept him always ill, because he was outside all of the time. Tending plants, watering plants in a wet environment. Or he was always traveling down to Florida to pick the plants up. Two, three-day trips at a time. And he mostly always had a cold, it seemed like.
At that time, my high school was looking for a janitor. So, I went to the principal and said, “I sure wish you would consider my dad for this janitor job,” not knowing that he would actually do it, or whatever, but he did. He considered him and he hired him. Well, that was pleasurable to me, because now he was out of all that wetness. And I imagine that he worked there for probably another thirty-something years until he retired, and that was the last job that he had.
Another reason I was happy we moved to Florence is because that got us off the farm *laughs* My dad was interested in buying a farm and I said, “Dad, I tell you what, please don't put your money in a farm, because I'm not going to be a farmer, okay. I'm not going to work a farm, so don't waste your money." And he didn't and I never became a farmer.
In high school, I finally got to ride the bus. Because the high school was ten miles away, I even drove the school bus one year *laughs* I was a junior in high school and they asked me to drive the bus, so I had to get up in the morning and drive around and pick the students up and take them to school and come back in the afternoon and drop them all off and come back home. You got paid something for it. It wasn't a whole lot, but I was making more than my dad, y’know. And I often thought about that, you know what I’m saying? Here I am, a kid, and I'm making more money than my daddy is making. I had two jobs, really. One, I was a waiter at a local restaurant, and I drove the school bus.
When we were on the farm, there was often Black families and white families living not too far away. And of course, when we were, say, below 10 years old, we would play with each other. But by the time the white kids got to be about ten, twelve years old, their parents, you know, told them they shouldn't be playing with little Black kids. So that was that in that situation. But we still lived within, I don't know, maybe a quarter mile of each other, or less, sometimes. So you really didn't feel much about the desegregation stuff until you went to town. Then, of course, everything was Black and white, colored, or whatever they wanted to call it. And you couldn't drink at the water fountains that the white folks drank at. If you went to a certain place, you had to go to the back door and all that kind of stuff, you know. But if you stayed on the farm you didn't have to worry about that because there weren’t those opportunities, you know.
When we moved to town, we moved kind of near the airport, in East Florence, and nobody lived out there but us Black folk. Again, we didn't have problems unless we went into town—downtown, to do something. And I just remember the big brouhaha I had about getting myself registered to vote. You know. I went in to register to vote—I'm in college, I think I was at Morehouse, um, because I turned twenty-one while I was at Morehouse—and I told the lady that I wanted to register to vote, and she wanted me to read and interpret the U. S. Constitution. I said, "Oh, OK." So, I picked up the Constitution. I started to read it and I read the first line and she said, "OK, that's OK." I guess she figured, He probably knows more than I do *laughs* And I'm sure I did, you know.
I also had some trouble getting my mom registered to vote. Now, she didn't register to vote until I was 21. I went down with my mom and I insisted that I get registered, then I said, "OK, now I want my mom to register." The Registrar, she gave me a little bit of flack, but she didn't ask my mom to read the Constitution or anything like that. And I told her, "I want my mom to register and I don't you give her a hard time." And my dad registered sometime even after that. Because, you know, they had the poll taxes and all that kind of stuff that you had to pay to get registered to vote. Black folks didn't have no money to pay no poll tax, that's why they put it in in the first place. OK? Same kind of thing they’re doing today, except they're not calling them poll taxes. They're gerrymandering the districts and they don't want you to do mail-in ballots. You know, you got to physically go and show your driver's license or whatever to vote. Same kind of things. It's all designed for the same purpose. That's to keep Black folks from being able to vote.
We fought for, campaigned for, organized for a gentleman running to be the first Black Alderman in the city of Atlanta. His name was Alexander. And we were unable to get him elected […] But we were very proud of the fact that we were involved in such a worthwhile activity. That was my first taste of any kind of involvement in the political arena.
I finished high school in 1955. In those days, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. When I got to Morehouse College in Atlanta, I was advised, "Look, if you're going to be a doctor you need to major in something other than biology, because the medical schools are going to teach you the biology and so on, okay? What they are looking for is someone who is well rounded in other areas—psychology, chemistry, mathematics.” So, I majored in chemistry. I decided to major in chemistry with the idea of being a doctor. My first semester I think there were 300 students in my chemistry class. I remember my chemistry teacher, Dr. Henry McBay , said, "By mid-term, half of y’all will be gone.” Sure enough, by mid-term, there was only about 150 us left *laughs* And by the time I graduated I think there were four of us.
I enjoyed my time at Morehouse. And of course, you know, the theory was the pride of the south, you were a "Morehouse Man''. Morehouse was pretty much off-limits to Atlanta *laughs* So I lived, ate, drank, slept at Morehouse *laughs* You know, occasionally I'd go into town. But there were still segregated facilities in many instances. So, everything that happened to me, or us, happened at Morehouse College, at Clark College, at Spelman College, or at Morris Brown College. Because those four schools are right there together, and we moved, you know, without any kind of sanctions between Morehouse, Clark, and Morris Brown with ease. Now Spelman was an all-girls school, and you couldn't go over there except at certain times on certain days. But the universities provided pretty much everything we needed. And as I've said, we didn't do a lot of partying and that kind of stuff, or at least I did not. And even if we did, we did it on campus. You know, or pretty close to the campus. So occasionally we would go to a nightclub or something like that. But Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, the president of Morehouse, encouraged us not to do too much of that kind of stuff.
I missed Dr. King at Morehouse by maybe four or five years. He graduated before I got there. I did attend his church, because it was right off the campus. So, I went to his church a few times, and I got involved in—I think this was my first taste of politics—in Atlanta we fought for, campaigned for, organized for a gentleman running to be the first Black Alderman in the city of Atlanta. His name was Alexander. This musta been 1956- '57, in that area. And we were unable to get him elected. But we were very proud of the fact that we were involved in such a worthwhile activity. So that was my first taste of any kind of involvement in the political arena. Didn't pay a lot of attention to it other than that, though, because I was pretty busy in school. Chemistry required a lot of time. Often, I'd be in the laboratory doing my chemistry experiments, and I would be looking out the window and wondering, Now, why can't I be out on the lawn with a pretty girl like this guy has? Golly, I got to be up in this lab watching this experiment. Well, I knew what I had to do, okay? So, my priorities were in the right place. I worried about the girls later.
I almost lost my chance to finish college at Morehouse. I had an initial scholarship to Morehouse, but it was tuition only, and I think, for maybe two years or something like that, so by my junior year I just ran out of money. During the summers I worked, but you could only make so much money during the summer. So, I went to Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, president of Morehouse, and I told him "I need some help Dr. Mays. Otherwise I am going to have to leave school, because I'm just flat out of money. I don't have any way to stay in school." He said, "Well, let me think about it. Let me see what I might be able to do." So, he came up with a scholarship for me again, and that one semester made all the difference in the world for me, because I was able to stay in school that semester. I earned enough money to finish my senior year. Had I not gotten that extra money, I'm not quite sure what would've happened to me.
After Morehouse, I was able to get myself through graduate school at Howard University. That was a turning point in my life. September of fifty-nine I got accepted. I applied to several schools and Howard was one of the schools that gave me admission. I decided to go there primarily because they gave me fellowship. I had to work for the money, but I got money. And I was a lab instructor, you know, at the undergraduate level, since I was now in graduate school. And that's how I lived for a while.
At first, it took them about one month, or a month and a half to pay us. Man, I ate a hamburger and a cherry coke every day for lunch for a month, a month and a half. I lost weight. Oh, and fries *laughs* But that's all I could afford, you know. That's all I could afford, man *laughs* Good lord. I was living in a dormitory room and the dormitory was a good ten, twelve blocks from school. But it worked out. You know, when they finally started to pay us, I was able to then move into another place. A friend of mine and I got together and we rented a house, and that's how I learned how to cook, because I had to feed myself. So, I learned how to cook and I cooked whatever I wanted, otherwise I wouldn't eat, you know *laughs*
It was a different world once I got to Howard because I was in graduate school and I didn't get the opportunity to mingle too often with the undergraduates. We were about business. I mean, here you are, you're getting a master's degree in chemistry. I mean, you got to do research. You got to do your classes and all of that, you got to pass exams. You've got to take German and French and all that kind of stuff. It was busy. And we were a bit separated from the undergraduate campus because we were down the hill and they were up the hill. I had a couple of undergraduate girlfriends, but, you know, they were usually younger and that didn't work out too well. So, it was business, business, business until I got my PhD. And I left Howard in September Nineteen Sixty-Three, headed for Baton Rouge and Southern University.
One of my roommates said to me, "Oh, you just got a call from Southern University." I said, "Southern University? Where in the world is Southern University?" I'd never heard of Southern University before.
When I was at Howard, there was a couple of young ladies who worked at Southern in the English Department. One of them was a friend of the chair of the Department of Chemistry and so on. He was looking to build a chemistry department. And from what I understand, she told him that there was a young chemist getting ready to graduate with a PhD from Howard University, because she and her friend would come to Howard during the summer, for summer programs, and she found out that I was graduating. I don't know how she knew about that. I knew them. I'm not sure how I even met them. But I just knew about them and I knew their names, at the time. So, she told Dr. Vandon White, the Chemistry Department Chair, that I was graduating with a PhD, and he called me up.
When I got home one afternoon, one of my roommates said to me, "Oh, you just got a call from Southern University." I said, "Southern University? Where in the world is Southern University?" I'd never heard of Southern University before. And he said, it's in Louisiana. I said, "Oh, shoot. I don't want to go to no Louisiana, man.” I heard a lot of bad stuff about y'all. Louisianans were bad folks, man. Segregationists and all that kinda stuff. So, I didn't want to go to Louisiana. But anyway, he called me back again. I finally talked with him and he said, "Look, we'd like to offer you a job at Southern University. So I said, "Well, where is it? Tell me where Southern is."
I couldn't understand how I could have gone to Morehouse for four years and not have heard of Southern. You know, I'm right there in Atlanta, it's not that far away. But I found out later that my major professor at my PhD level, Dr. Kelso B. Morris, used to come down to Southern in the summer and teach. He came down on numerous occasions and he said to me, "Well, you know, you will like Southern because it's on the outskirts of Baton Rouge in Scotlandville. And even though things are segregated in Baton Rouge, because you are a professor at Southern, you will have some leeways that other people won't have.” And I said, "Well, I don't know if I want those leeways or not because everybody ought to have the same ones." He said, "Yeah, I know, but that's the way it is." He said, "But you'll do fine at Southern, you'll be okay."
I also had a classmate from New Orleans who kept telling me about all these beautiful women and the good food in Louisiana, and how I ought to come down and sample it. Well, when I got that call from Dr. Vandon White, I said, You know what, this is a good chance for me to go down there and see what this guy keeps telling me about New Orleans. I'm going to go see what that's like. I had a job offer at a chemistry research laboratory in Virginia. And I had an offer at Morgan State University in Maryland, in Baltimore. Well, I didn't want to teach. I always said I didn't want to teach. I didn't want to teach, I didn't want a Cadillac, I didn't want to be in politics, but I'm going to come down and try this thing out so I can see what these women and food is like.
Man, I got here about the middle of September and the first food I ate was just like heaven *laughs* And I got to Southern and Southern was just loaded with all these beautiful women man, and I'm twenty-six, twenty-seven, y'know, so I'm not too much older than they are.
Oh, man, I can hardly keep my eyes in my head. Then I soon realized that here I was, I'm a teacher, I got to be very careful. Because, you know, if I date someone in my class, the first thing that’s going to happen is, they're going to want me to give them grades, or somebody going to accuse me of giving them grades. So, I made a pact with myself that I would never have anything other than the student teacher relationship, or friendship, with anybody in one of my classes.
So, I never did that. I never had a girlfriend that was in my class. But then I had this problem with my teeth. So I wanted to go to the dentist and I asked somebody to recommend a dentist to me and they recommended Dr. Valerian Smith on East Boulevard. And so I went down there, and, man, there was this receptionist in there that just took my heart right out of my chest. Within nine months, we were married.
So, you know what happened with that. Out went the job in Virginia, and that one year I came to stay down in Louisiana went out the window. We had two kids, and I ended up staying at Southern forty-one years. And I've been in Louisiana almost fifty-eight years. But you know, I've really enjoyed my stay in Baton Rouge. When I came here, I didn't want to teach. I did not want a Cadillac, and I did not want to be involved in politics. And I ended up doing all three. I taught, I have had two Cadillacs, and I spent thirty-plus years in politics. So never say never *laughs* You never know what life holds for you. You shouldn't limit yourself. Leave your choices open and take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. Obviously, you're not going to be able to take advantage of every opportunity. Some of them are just not meant for you. That's OK. The ones that are, you'll get them.
I did all of that, and by the time of the Bayou Classic that year, we had the College of Education accredited. We had the school accredited by SAACS, and we enjoyed the Bayou Classic. We got all that done in five months.
I taught chemistry and physics at Southern for thirty years. In the meantime, I was anxious to find out what Southern was doing out in the community of Scotlandville. Turns out nothing. I kept egging the dean of the university on about that. "Why aren't y'all doing more?” And, apparently, I was one of the few people doing that. But I ended up getting together with about eleven engineers, I was the only non-engineer in the group, and we formed an engineering consulting firm. We were looking for a name for it, and I suggested that we use the name Minority Engineers of Louisiana. The symbolism was MEL, and that company is known by that name even today, MEL Inc. I worked in that company for 20 years while I was still at Southern. At some other point in time, in nineteen eighty-one, I think it was, I went full time with MEL and worked part time at Southern. So, I taught courses in the evenings at Southern. I never gave up my faculty status, but I worked full time at MEL for 11 years, and I served as Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for the company all those years. My engineering friend Morgan M. Watson, who is in our Kiwanis Club, was and still is the president Of MEL, Inc. and that's the only president we've ever had. So, he and I ended up, in the final analysis, owning the firm, because we bought the other people out. And I retired from MEL in 2013.
In 1991, we ran into some real difficulties and we had to lay off just about everybody at MEL. At that point, I left and went back to Southern full-time. But I didn't go into teaching, I went back into administration. I was offered the position of Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. You know, I had not done any real administration, other than at MEL, and I had the MEL experience, and I had done a lot of other stuff throughout the country in terms of the National Science Foundation and things of that nature. But, university administration, I had not done. So, I was offered this job, and this is the second, I guess, the third job that I have had in my life, counting Southern as a teacher and MEL as the Operating Officer, and I hadn't asked for either one of them. You know, I didn't seek the initial teaching job at Southern. I didn't seek the job at MEL either, you know. It just came to me. Well, so did the Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs.
I was asked by the Vice Chancellor if I would come and work with him. And I said, "Well, yeah, OK, I'll do that.” And it was very timely because, as I said, we had to layoff everybody at MEL, including me. I went in as the Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs and immediately got involved in some heavy stuff, man. I think a week after I was on the job, or maybe even three days after I was on the job, I was asked to go to the biology department, inform them that the chair of the department was being fired and a new chair was being named and who it was and what they had to do *laughs* And they tried to give me a hard time, but, you know, I told them, "I am the just the messenger. I'm not the one who did this. I can't tell you why it was done. I'm just telling you what I was told to tell you. If you don't like what I'm telling you, then you go see the Vice Chancellor.” But the Vice Chancellor didn't want to tell them, that's why he sent me. But anyway, I weathered that storm without any problems and enjoyed working as the Associate Vice Chancellor, which I did for about three years.
Then the president of the university, who was Dr. Leon Tarver, asked me if I would come to the system's office, to the President's Office, as the Vice President of the System for Academic and Student Affairs. At that time, I was trying to do some things in academic affairs on the Baton Rouge Campus, I was trying to change the culture of the faculty and the deans and all that, you know. I was working on that very hard. And I was making headway with that because I got along well with the deans and the department chairs. You know, I mean, people could come talk to me. I didn't make them feel intimidated when they did. I could go and talk to them. I didn't care whether it was in my office or their office, you know, that kind of thing. So, I was making real headway. But he wanted me to come, and I say to myself, "I'm trying to do this stuff in academic affairs at Baton Rouge and I don't know if I want to go to the system level or not." But he kept at me, man, so I decided, OK, I'll do it. It was a raise in salary. I said, OK, OK, everybody wants to walk up the ladder, you know? So, I went to the President's Office as the Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs. And I did that job for about three years, too.
In the meantime, I was sent to SUNO in New Orleans as the interim chancellor from March 1-31, 2000. So, I served as the interim chancellor and then when they got to look for a chancellor in Shreveport, they sent me to Shreveport from September 2000 through November 2000 to serve as the interim chancellor there. When I came back from Shreveport, a year went by, or so, and they were looking for a chancellor in New Orleans again, asked me to go down and hold the ship together while they looked for a chancellor (February 11, 2002 through May 12, 2002). While I was there, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), which is the accrediting agency for colleges and universities in the southern region, came to Southern New Orleans and they walked out and said that they were not going to evaluate SUNO because every position at the university, with the exception of one Vice Chancellor, were interim. They had not appointed permanent people. So, I told president Tarver, "I know I'm here on an interim basis and you know, I don't want to give up my job as a Vice President. But you need to make me the Chancellor of SUNO, otherwise we're going to lose the university.”
At the same time, we were in the throes of trying to get the College of Education accredited, because in a twelve-year period it had not achieved accreditation and the Board of Regents had not only threatened but they had sent a notice that Southern University of New Orleans could no longer take any students in the College of Education after the current class. So, at the end of that year, the College of Education was going to go away. That was in May. Well, the first thing I had to do coming in as Chancellor, I had to find a dean for the College of Education, and appoint that person as a dean. I had to appoint all the other deans and department chairs, because the department chairs were interim, too. I did all of that, and by the time of the Bayou Classic that year, we had the College of Education accredited. We got all that done in five months. And then after that, of course, my goal was to elevate the enrollment at SUNO. When I got there, they had one person in the admissions office. So, I kept saying, "How can y'all expect to recruit students with one person in the office? It's ridiculous. So, I put together a recruitment team and stayed at Southern New Orleans until 2005 when I retired from the system.
You know, of course one thing that teachers always seem to believe is that administrators don't do anything. That they get a big salary, compared to the teachers *laughs* and they don't do anything. Well, you know, I'm a young teacher, I'm listening to the other folks tell me that. Well, I think that, too. I found out much differently when I got into academic affairs than what I thought before I got there. There wasn't a moment that I wasn't busy in that office. And there were things to take care of. There were lots of headaches, lots of things that administrators have to be concerned about outside of the university, because you got a board of regents, you got a board of supervisors, you have the government itself, and you have other institutions. All of these things interact.
It wasn't so much about the plan, they just didn't want Black kids in the schools with white kids. Same thing like we're fighting today. The same reason that we had the insurrection on January 6th, in Washington, D.C. […] Same thing. White power, staying in charge.
As a teacher though, I had noticed that my students were having trouble in chemistry. But the trouble they were having was not with the chemistry concepts so much as it was with just plain old reading, writing and arithmetic. You know, they couldn't use numbers, they didn't know how to interpret what they read, and so that's why they were having trouble. So, I got the bright idea, that if I could impact the students while they were in high school, then perhaps they would not have such problems with the chemistry concepts in my college classes. Well, somebody mentioned to me, “You ought to run for school board, Press. They only meet once a month, that's all there is to it.”, they said. Boy, I'd like to smack that guy in the mouth right now *laughs* But I said, you know, If I can affect what happens to my students before they get to Southern, by the time they get to me in chemistry at Southern, and then they know how to read and know how to write and they'll know how to do arithmetic and they won't have so much trouble with chemistry. That was my driving force for running for the school board.
Well, once I got there, I found that there was a whole lot more to being a school board member than what I was told, and than just getting my students ready to come to Southern. But I enjoyed my school board service time. I did it for twenty-two and a half years, from 1980-2001, and I never expected it to be that long, really. But time flew by and I was, I thought, making a contribution to the community and to the school system, so I kept doing it.
I initially ran for the school board in nineteen seventy-two. At that juncture in time, all the school board members were running ward-wide. It was Ward 2 from Airline Highway to the East Feliciana Parish line, and there was ward three out in central and Southeast Baton Rouge. Well, whites, of course, outnumbered us in each of those wards. So blacks could never get through to win. In nineteen seventy three, Governor Edwards appointed Lawrence Moch to fill the unexpired term of school board member Melvin Geller. So, Moch was the first Black to ever sit on the school board, but he was appointed. When Melvin Geller's term was up, Moch ran for the seat and lost to a white person.
In nineteen seventy-two I ran in ward two because I was living in Scotlandville and that's ward two. We had just finished getting Dick Turnley elected to the state House of Representatives. And we elected Jewel J. Newman to the city-parish council. So, I ran for school board and I ran against J. O. Claudel. I know I ran against Claudel and he beat me by about two-hundred fifty-three votes, ward-wide. I ran for a second time against him, four years later, and he beat me again by about 1,760 votes. Well, at that point, I decided to file suit against the school board, asking them to apportion themselves into single-member districts, which we currently have now. Well, that fight went on and on and on until about 1977. And in 1977, Dick Turnley introduced a measure in the legislature calling for Baton Rouge to have single-member districts on the school board, pretty much as the council had done previously, about six months earlier. So, combined with that pressure from the legislature—it had not yet been put into law but it was going to happen, and I think they knew it was going to happen—plus my suit in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans and the local district court had pretty much indicated that they needed to do something.
So, they decided to negotiate with me to settle the suit, and their negotiating offer was we'll offer you a position on the school board. Well, you know, I'm saying to them, "Hey, I'm not doing this because I want to be on the school board. I'm talking about Black folk having the chance of being elected. OK? I mean, the people decide who sits on the board, not me. I don't want to decide who sits on the board." But I also realized that if we only got one seat, that there was going to be this conflict between Scotlandville, Eden Park, and South Baton Rouge. Because Joe Delpit was strong in South Baton Rouge and Louis Jetson was strong in Eden Park, and Turnley, and us, SAAC, we were strong in Scotlandville. So, I told my lawyer, and my lawyer was Walter Dumas, I said, "You tell them we will accept their offer if they make it three seats on the board." He went back and he told them that and after some haranguing and back and forth, they finally said yes.
In 1980, I ran for school board, Eva Legard ran for the school board, Frank C. Millican ran for the school board, in September. Well, I was elected September 13th, 1980. Frank and Eva had a runoff. So that gave me the distinction of being the first Black elected to the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board. Because we were in the middle of the desegregation negotiations, the board wanted to seat me as quickly as possible to help with the desegregation negotiations. So immediately following September 13th, like the following two weeks or so, I was seated on the board. So, I also became the first Black to be elected and the first Black to be seated on the board. Frank and Eva ran in November, in the run-off election, and they got elected as well.
After that election, there were nine whites and three blacks on the school board. What they did was increase the board membership by three. They didn't carve the three seats out of the nine. I wish they had, that would have been a lot more powerful. But they didn't want to do that, okay? So they came up with the districts and they added three districts to the districts that they came up with. That's how I got on the board. And I tell you, that was a rocket ride, as well as a very difficult ride, because the desegregation was a tense, terse, sometimes hostile environment. It was basically the old, what is it? "All deliberate speed"— that the Supreme Court had decreed, and Baton Rouge, as many other Southern cities were doing, they weren't going at any speed at all.
Here in Baton Rouge, a judge, Judge West, had declared the Baton Rouge school system integrated. But the NAACP, of course, and the Justice Department, objected to that because the school system was not. And so they kept the story alive. Soon after Judge West retired, and Judge Parker became the chief federal judge, he said, "No, the school system is not desegregated. Y'all come up with a plan and I'll implement it." Well, we could never come up with one, because there were two, three people who kept shooting it down. It wasn't so much about the plan, they just didn't want black kids in the schools with white kids. Same things like we're fighting for today. The same reason that we had the insurrection on January 6th, in Washington, D.C. White power, staying in charge.
But, we worked on that and worked on that and worked on that. I am still not convinced that we really, honestly and sincerely came up with a desegregation plan because there are things that could have happened that would have worked a lot better than the bussing plan that was done and some of these magnet programs, the way they were implemented.
Well, my church is interested in the community, I'm interested in the community, Together Baton Rouge is interested in the community, this is a perfect fit.
When I was a younger man, I said I would never drive a Cadillac. Well, I ended up with two kids and two Cadillacs! My kids were born, the first came in 1966, second one in 1970. They both attended the laboratory school at Southern, and they both graduated from Southern University. And I always told them, "It doesn't really make a whole lot of difference what school you go to. It's not the school that makes you. You make yourself. It's the effort that you put into your work at the school that will make you.” So, they both went to Southern and they're both doing well today. I know there are schools that have higher ratings and all that kind of stuff, but it's what you put into it. There were plenty of people who didn't make it through Morehouse College because they just didn't put the effort in. You know, there are people who don't make it through Southern University for the same reason. Or through Howard University. I mention these schools because I graduated from Morehouse and Howard, and I had a successful career at Southern.
My oldest boy went into engineering, he's an electrical engineer but is a Senior IT Project Manager for The Alliant group in Houston, Texas . My youngest boy went into engineering also, he's an electrical engineer. But he's a Vice President in marketing for a heating and air conditioning firm called Star Services in Houston, Texas. He started here in Baton Rouge, but then they moved him to Houston. And that's where they both are today. My oldest son has three kids, two girls and a boy, and the youngest one has two boys.
My wife and I were married for 53 years, until she passed away in 2018. The rest of my life has been kind of quiet. You know, I don't go a lot, I don't do a lot. I do a lot of Zoom, all that kind of stuff. And I'm trying to do my ancestry, write my autobiography, and just continue to make a contribution, if I can, to my community. Still living in the same place that I've been living since 1964. I built my house, I like my house, I'm still in my house.
I joined Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church probably about fifty-five years ago. Simply because it was close to the campus, it was the Methodist Church, which I was already familiar with, and I liked the Methodist Church a little better than the Baptist, you know. The Baptist was doing a little too much whooping and hollering for me, so I liked the Methodists a little bit better. They did a little bit of that, but not to the extent that the Baptists did. Since that time, I find out that Methodist pastors are schooled, and they're taught. Baptist, almost anybody can just decide they want to be a preacher. You know, I didn't quite like that. So, I was satisfied with the Methodist faith. But that's why I initially joined and for the first 40 years or so, I just attended the church and I didn't get involved very much, although I was President of the United Methodist Men for a number of years, chaired some committees, and sang in the men’s chorus. In the last, say, 15 years, I've gotten a lot more active at Camphor. That's when I became the lay leader for the church, a position I’ve held for the last six-plus years. And that's equivalent to the head deacon in the Baptist Church. I'm still doing that today.
I'm not quite sure how I discovered Together Baton Rouge. I don't remember. Maybe somebody invited me to a meeting. Because I knew Reverend Lee Wesley very well, I knew him back in the 60s, which is when I first met him, when we worked together at Community Advancement Incorporated, which was an Anti-Poverty program back in the 60s. But I didn't know anybody else, you know. And frankly, I didn't know that Rev. Wesley was even involved in Together Baton Rouge. And I really don't know how I got involved with it, but I liked the idea of what they were doing.
I liked what Together Baton Rouge was doing and found out that they were soliciting organizations, like churches, civic organizations, social organizations and whatnot. I said, You know what, this is something that could help my church. Because we've always been community minded. And, you know, my being a part of SAAC—Scotlandville Area Advisory Council—and in politics, my goal was always to do what I could for the community. Well, my church is interested in the community, I'm interested in the community, Together Baton Rouge is interested the community, this is a perfect fit. So, I went to the minister at the time, who was Reverend Clifton Conrad, and I said to him, "There's this organization called Together Baton Rouge, which I'm a member of," because I was initially just an individual member, "I think that Camphor should join." And he checked it out and agreed with me and we joined and we've been members ever since.
Together Baton Rouge is right up my alley in terms of the kinds of things that I think ought to be going on in the community. And to share that with other people—especially the kind of groups and persons that make up Together Baton Rouge, you know, mixed in every sense of the word—is just awesome. Not just race, but, you know, religion and all other kinds of ways, social and whatnot. That’s what we need in Baton Rouge. And so I'm glad to be a part of it.
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