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VOL. 127 | NO. 191 | Monday, October 1, 2012

LeMoyne-Owen College Turns Corner at 150 Years

By Bill Dries

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On a beautiful late summer day this month, students and faculty at LeMoyne-Owen College broke ground on a new residence hall that just five years ago would have held much of the school’s total enrollment.

In the five years leading up to the groundbreaking, the city’s only historically black college has doubled its size to 1,000 students from the 2006 low of 500.

When completed in the fall of 2013, the $13.5 million residence hall at Neptune Street and Saxon Avenue will have room for 336 students to live on campus. The presence enhances the new sense of life on the South Memphis campus that has always had porous to nonexistent borders with the surrounding community.

The college dates back to the camps and schools for freedmen that formed around Union Army encampments at the Civil War battle of Shiloh in 1862. It is one of only five historically black colleges and universities dating to the Civil War era that still exist.

“We certainly plan to highlight this year all that this college has to get as many people as possible on campus,” said LeMoyne-Owen President Johnnie B. Watson.

The 150th anniversary began earlier in September as the Memphis Symphony Orchestra opened its season with a concert on campus and played to a large audience.

“This college not only belongs to the black community, but this college belongs to this community,” Watson said. “We have probably more white students than we have had especially since I have been here. You will see faculty and staff on this campus of every color, every race, every creed, every denomination – as small as it is.”

Watson returned to the campus in 2006 as an interim president, leaving a position as chairman of the Rhodes College education department, where he had worked for eight years after retiring as Memphis City Schools superintendent.

He is the 11th president of LeMoyne-Owen College and the first alumni to be president of the college.

“This college not only belongs to the black community, but this college belongs to this community.”

–Johnnie B. Watson
President, LeMoyne-Owen College

Watson defines historically black colleges and universities in terms of small class sizes and teachers and staff who know students by name, and vice versa. In that regard, Watson says LeMoyne-Owen is more diverse racially and religiously. But he said the school’s mission hasn’t changed that much since he was a student there in the 1950s.

“I think it’s pretty much the same,” Watson said. “Let’s face it, when you say the word nurturing – that’s for real on the campuses of historically black colleges. … In that regard, HBCU’s haven’t really changed.”

Rashad Donaldson, a junior business major from Nashville who transferred from the University of Memphis, talked in a separate interview of much the same interaction on the campus as Watson talked about in the 1950s.

“They have different styles of teaching,” Donaldson said. “The University of Memphis prepares you well. They have a lot of resources to help you – internships and practical work. But at LeMoyne-Owen College, the school teaches you business administration and also how to apply that in your community – how it applies to building a family up. The other day we had a lesson in accounting called family budgeting. I don’t think I’ll ever get a lesson in family budgeting at the University of Memphis.”

Donaldson is a student in what is by Watson’s estimate the second largest subject area among students on campus. The largest academic area is in training teachers, including a large number of special education teachers.

The college also has business programs for students 25 years and older to complete their education or get more education while working.

“Students don’t have to wait until the beginning or the ending of a semester,” Watson said. “Whenever there are enough to start a new cohort then a new class is formed and started. It puts adults on a fast track. … I think our academic program is pretty much in place.”

Watson’s initial assignment was to right the school from a financial quagmire. Payroll wasn’t being met and the faculty had taken “no confidence” votes in the school’s leadership.

“Most historically black colleges at some point will run into trouble with finances and that’s what happened at Lemoyne-Owen College,” Watson said of the decision by an accreditation committee to put the school on probation. “The only problem was fiscal instability. That was the word our crediting agency used to say you don’t have any money in the bank. They wouldn’t tell you how much you needed to have in the bank.”

The $1.5 million in local and state government funding that followed was coupled with $1 million from an anonymous donor and a grant from the United Church of Christ, what was once the American Missionary Association that founded LeMoyne-Owen College.

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