Extended Q&A: Charles Terrell '70

 

An extended version of Colby editor Gerry Boyle's interview with Charles Terrell '70 at Terrell's home in Brookline, Mass., on Dec. 8, 2006

By Gerry Boyle '78
 

What was it like when you first arrived at Colby?
I knew I wanted to go but I didn't want to leave my mother....[My English teacher] said, "Your mother is a survivor. You mother will be perfectly fine. You're not abandoning her, Charles, You're just going away to college."
I couldn't afford to visit Colby before so this was sight unseen. The cab driver brought me, and when the cab came in and drove around I said to him, "What are those people doing?" There was a group of guys out on the lawn back there. He said, "Son, haven't you ever seen a Frisbee?" I said, "Hell no." I'd never seen a Frisbee before. Nobody played Frisbee in my neighborhood.

Washington has always been for a very long time what they call "Chocolate City." My world was one hundred percent black. In twelve years of public education, I think I had a white kid in one class one time. Maybe five or six white teachers throughout that time, although the most influential one of all happened to have been white. She provided me with the liberation tools to leave that I did not have.

My mother adopted me when I was two months old. I knew my biological parents and sisters and brothers but they were going through a difficult time. My mother who adopted me did not read or write. She was a dishwasher. She never made more than forty dollars a week. We always lived in these one-room kitchenettes.

I started school at seven years old, which was very late. I was outside an elementary school playing, just playing" and this is why I believe that there were some elements of segregation that worked very well for the black community"the black principal came outside and put her hand on my head as only a black woman can do and said, "Young man. Don't you know you belong in school?" I'll just never forget the way she said it. I said, "No ma'am." She said, "Where is your mother?" I said, "At work at Chamberlain's Cafeteria." The telephone there was National 8760. I'll never forget that. I was a latchkey kid. I knew these things.

She called my mother and my mother went to the school. Having had no education, my mother just didn't know. She didn't know how to deal with bureaucracies and she was pretty much a loner so she didn't have friends with children. So they told her what to do, what clothes I needed, lunch money. I was always tall for my age. I was seven. There were no books in the home or anything. Actually, we still lived in a big house on Virginia Avenue, near the Marine barracks, with no electricity. So I don't think I had even seen television. So they put me in kindergarten"and maybe this started my career. There were these little desks and I was a tall kid. I walked right up to the teacher and I said, "I'm too old to be in here." They put me in first grade.

Washington has always had a very difficult tracking system. You were either honors or basic or college prep. And once you were in it, that was it. For some reason, with no educational background, no reading or anything, they tracked me in college prep from the first grade. And I never missed a day of school. I always did well. My mother never understood homework. She worked all the time so she couldn't compel me to go to school. All she'd say is, "Son, my mother wouldn't let me go to school because she was a sharecropper in Georgia. I had to watch my younger brothers and sisters. So you have to go to school for us." It's sort of old fashioned but that was all the inspiration I needed.

Of course as I moved on and continually did well I was tracked with middle-class students and I began to learn things from them. I would go to their houses. I saw that not everybody slept in the kitchen or ate dinner in their mother's bedroom. I saw that there were pictures on the walls and books. These were things I just didn't know.

As I started to say, this was all completely black. Completely black. So when I was ready to go to college"and somehow I just knew I was going. I didn't know how" Mrs. Kersh, my English teacher, one of three or four white teachers I had, was fond of me and she encouraged me to go away. Once I was accepted at Colby and it was validated for me, I knew I wanted to go but I didn't want to leave my mother. She called me in and she said, "Why don't you want to leave your mother?" I said, "Because my mother doesn't know how to read or write. I deal with the utility companies. If a letter comes in, I read it for her. I help her negotiate things that are difficult for her. She said, "Charles, how old was your mother when she adopted you?" I said, "Thirty-five or so." She said, "Charles, how do you think your mother survived without your indispensable service?" I had never thought about that. She said, "Your mother is a survivor. You mother will be perfectly fine. You're not abandoning her, Charles, You're just going away to college."

That was so liberating for me. I'll never forget mentioning that to my mother. I told her I was going to go to college and I told her where. And she raised me to be independent person. All she said was, "Do you have to go so far?" I said yes. She just said, "Then that's okay."

She never came to Colby. Because she wouldn't fly and that kind of trip would have been culturally very difficult for her to make.
Did you tell your mother stories about Colby?
I was really on my own completely for these kinds of things....When I step back, and some of my African-American colleagues, who are very accomplished, most of them come from families where there was a teacher or a lawyer or a judge. When I think about it, [for me] there was none of this.
You know this is interesting. No one's ever asked me this. We never talked about Colby. When I'd come home, and first of all, I'd become very close to my twelve brothers and sisters that I didn't grow up with. Everybody stays in Washington. Every generation, one person goes.

So when I came back, we'd talk about what was going on at work or in the neighborhood. We never talked about Colby. She never asked me about Colby. We never talked about school. These things had no meaning to my mother at all.

I was really on my own completely for these kinds of things.

When I step back, and some of my African-American colleagues, who are very accomplished, most of them come from families where there was a teacher or a lawyer or a judge. When I think about it, [for me] there was none of this.

It was massive culture shock when I arrived at Colby. I only saw white people on television or once in a blue moon when we went downtown to go shopping. Otherwise everything was black. Black undertakers, black lawyers, black doctors. Everybody black. So when I got to Colby, of course the landscape was completely foreign. It seemed like it was completely rural. It's more suburban now. It would be politically incorrect to do this now, but Colby put all of the black men"in my class, it was a huge class. There were twenty of us. Only two of us graduated. I would say in the other classes, maybe fifteen to twenty black students"but all of the black guys started out in Pepper Hall. And they tended to stay in Pepper Hall. I'm pretty sure that was a conscious decision to put us all together. .. It was easier, though some of the conversations you would have, when you're in the bathroom and you're trying to comb your hair and they're looking at you like .. and I'd do the same thing.

So I say this because it was a difficult cultural transition but there was just enough of a critical mass of black kids that I didn't feel completely alienated and the guys in Pepper Hall were incredible.

We had a fraternity there. We had a wonderful time. It was very easy to find a niche.

I worked for Ian Robertson, the college editor, for four years. I was the voice of WTVL [Radio] on Sunday nights. It was easy listening. I played Montevani and Johnny Mathis. . I remember standing on so many Sunday nights at what was the ride corner [at Gilman and Pleasant streets], people picking me up and taking me to campus. I was able to find my own way. It felt like I had found what I was meant to do.

Interestingly, I was vice president of the freshman class. I was president of the sophomore class. I was president of the junior class. People tend to forget that I was a citizen of the institution. And I ran for president of student government"lost but I was always actively involved. I was always interested in issues. I wasn't focused on the issues we raised with the chapel [takeover] until senior year.

Quite frankly, what happened was Alpha Delta Phi, that group of guys in Pepper, we had to disband the fraternity in 1969. My roommate and I"we were going to have this wonderful suite in Pepper Hall"both of us got apartments downtown. I lived on Front Street. I lived above Senator Mitchell's parents. They were so wonderful to me. Very sweet. All I did was go up to campus to class, study, work. I still had two jobs.

Sebsibe Mamo ['70] and I were good friends. He said, "There are a lot of things happening. We have quite a cohort of black and Latin students." He said, "They've started quite an organization." I said, "I've made my contribution." He said, "Come to one meeting for me."

The meeting that we went to was the meeting that they were holding the elections for SOBU (Student Organization for Black Unity). We were just talking about things as a group and I was nominated and Terry"I forget Terry's last name"was nominated. I said, "If elected I will not serve. I have other things to do." We had about three or four ballots and Terry and I tied. The next ballot I won by one. For some reason I couldn't keep my promise. That's when, as a group, we started coming together [about] what we thought we needed. Now there was a critical mass of us.

Our primary issue"and this tends to get forgotten"we felt there was disparate treatment of students on scholarship and those who were not. If you were on scholarship, you had to maintain an increasingly high GPA to keep your scholarship. I saw a number of black students leave. If they needed a 2.4, they got a 2.3. I always made it but just. It was a very stressful thing we lived with. Every semester I wondered if I was going to be allowed to stay, just because I might fall below.

That central demand for us was why not treat us all the same? If we're here on a scholarship, if we're negotiating an environment that may be more challenging for us than for others, if we're required to work ten hours a week and some of us have other jobs and our friends don't have to work at all"we're not saying we should not have to maintain satisfactory academic progress, but why should we have to maintain a higher level than these other kids who have no responsibilities? That was key for us. We saw many of us who didn't make it.

In Earl Smith's book [Mayflower Hill], he writes that the trustees took up the issue and didn't want to water down standards for the minority students. How can that be? We weren't wanting to water down standards. We just didn't want to have to pack our bags if we fell below a certain standard, and other students could stay with a 2.0 or 2.1 It was a challenge to the College and a challenge to {President] Strider. That's what happened. I got involved in it unexpectedly with a critical mass of black and Latin students who wanted to make changes.

We picked the chapel because we felt that it symbolized the College and we felt that if we tried to do Eustis we'd really be disrupting the central functioning of the College. We said, "Let's pick the chapel. It symbolizes the College. It will upset them but it won't stop anything."

So I have some great memories of blasting the Temptations and Motown across the college, of students trying to help us. We had meeting after meeting. We were very disciplined. We had newspapers and radio and television people calling. No matter where I was, no one spoke until they found me. We were struggling. There were campus meetings and a support group outside. We were always thinking, what are we going to do? We knew we could only be in there for so long. When we were served with the injunction to vacate, we were told if we left voluntarily we could go back to class and finish out the semester without repercussion. But if they had to force us out, that would not be the case. We were really torn. I would say about half the people felt that we would fail if we left on our own accord.

It may have been self-serving, in retrospect, but they did tend to listen to me and I just suggested that"many of them were freshmen"I just said to them, "What are we gonna do if they evict us?" I said, "I don't have anywhere to go. Do you guys have anywhere to go?" We made our point. If they evict us, we're not going to get any more than we're going to get if we leave on our own. Let's just go. We can keep our careers. We've done something courageous. We had a quite a battle but finally they agreed to do that. After all these years, I'm glad it happened that way instead of the other.

So I'm pleased with the points that we tried to make. That [requirement] was changed. I view that as our legacy and our gift to students. The focus of my career in higher education is to provide access for the underserved, low income and unrepresented students. I think that's what we were trying to do and I think we did that.

My whole life has been in higher education, though in a strange branch of it, in medical education, which wasn't my plan. But again, my job is to change the face of medicine and make it like the face of America. {These are] the same issues that we're dealing with on undergraduate campuses like Colby and other places.
How much progress do you think has been made?
...until we begin to view all children as our own, and the educational system as a failure unless it educates all of us well, I don't think we're ever going to succeed in this country.
I think the progress reminds me of Sisyphus. I think we keep pushing this rock up and it keeps sliding back and we keep pushing it up. I think we were doing well in that period of the late 60s and early 70s and continued to do well. I think we go through cycles. I think for underrepresented minority students, I think we've suffered through maybe two or three generations of children raising children, and I think the great similarity between underrepresented students and low- income and poor students is that poverty may be much more of the issue than race or ethnicity.

When you look at what needs to be done, it's extraordinary. It's incredible being back in Washington, D.C. I have my Colby and my master's and my doctoral degrees in my den. Framed here. In my office in Washington D.C. I have my junior high school diploma and my high school diploma because all kinds of people come into my office. I don't give a damn about what they think about where I went to college but I want them to know I'm a product of the Washington D.C. school system. Quite often, they will look and they'll say, "You went to McKinley?" That's important to me because now people don't typically say that with any kind of pride at all.

And I'm hoping with the new mayor, and a school superintendent who's been here a few years, that they're going to be able to provide a level of education that will allow black and Latino and low-income students to be competitive in higher education and graduate and professional education. Otherwise, in 25 years we're going to be a majority minority or a majority minority country and I don't know how we're going to continue to provide the kinds of services or be as competitive as we're going to need to be if you're going to continue to have undereducated black and Latino and native American and sub-Asian populations"what are we going to do? I should stop. I get going and I sound like I'm on a soapbox. But until we begin to view all children as our own, and the educational system as a failure unless it educates all of us well, I don't think we're ever going to succeed in this country.
In this issue of Colby, we have a story about Heather Johnson's book [The American Dream and the Power of Wealth], about the ways wealth opens doors in education and other areas.
...all of the decision making is done by one particular tradition of people....Until we begin to broaden that involvement to others who have an interest in Colby and may have experienced Colby, I don't think it's going to change very much.
There are other impactful books out there now. One is Colleges Unranked [Ending the Admissions Frenzy, Harvard University Press]. But both authors talk about higher education admissions standards and the importance of legacy wealth and tradition in gaining access to particularly elite institutions in this country. So I couldn't agree with her more.

Another thing that I found striking in reading [Earl Smith's] book, is you look at Colby, we don't have much of a tradition of people of color being a part of the fabric of the institution. There was the wonderful section on the janitor, but time and time again, when Colby is looking for a president or is trying to make a major decision all of the inquiries and all of the decision making is done by one particular tradition of people, based upon who they are, what their experiences have been. Until we begin to broaden that involvement to others who have an interest in Colby and may have experienced Colby, I don't think it's going to change very much.
Is that why you've continued you're involvement?
I went to Colby because of my own reasons. I struggled and stayed because of my own reasons, so I think I got a wonderful education. I think I've taken the name and the sense of the institution places where it just doesn't go, so it is as much a part of my life and my fabric as anything else.
I've continued my involvement because Colby was a great choice for me. One of the things that I've told admissions officials over the years, when we've talked about admissions and minorities, one of the things I counsel minority students to do is to not let an institution choose them, but for them to make that choice because once you make that choice it's like signing a contract. That's it. I reminded them that Colby did not find me. Colby did not recruit me. I found Colby. I went to Colby because of my own reasons. I struggled and stayed because of my own reasons, so I think I got a wonderful education. I think I've taken the name and the sense of the institution places where it just doesn't go, so it is as much a part of my life and my fabric as anything else. And I try to give back. And I don't have enough money. I give what I can. I do think I have expertise and experience that can be helpful. And I'm not just talking about in the area of minority student affairs. I'm an educator. I've spent my whole life in higher education so I bring an interest and an involvement and a background that might be helpful.

Beyond that, it's a promise that I try to keep to Earl Smith. When in April or May of my senior year, I knew I wasn't graduating because I was failing French. I wasn't in class. I was in class enough in the classes I could do well in to make it, but I was terrible in languages so I was failing French. And the only graduate program in African American studies in the country that I knew of was the one around the corner at Boston University. I'd done great work with Professor Foner at Colby in African American studies. So I contacted Dr. Cromwell at B.U., she's 85 and a good friend now, and indicated that I wanted to apply to the program. It was a small program or about 10 students. She said, "Young man, you certainly do have nerve, don't you. You're not even going to graduate. I'm not going to admit you to this program. You're saying you're failing French."

I said, "Here's my plan. I plan to go to BU in the summer to pass French, which I had done for beginning French. This was intermediate. I said, I'll pass French in August and I'll be ready to start your program in September." She said, "If you can do that, I'll admit you but I won't give you any scholarship."

In the trajectory of my life, all I need is a way. I can find it. That didn't bother me at all. So I go to Earl and I tell him this and I say, "I've got to go to BU to study French." And I always spent the summers in Cambridge. I said, "I need enough money to rent an apartment, to pay tuition for the French class. I'll pass and I'll start graduate school in the fall. I can always get a great job. I can pay Colby back." I said, "Would you lend me" I don't know what it was. Five hundred dollars. I don't know what it was. He just said, "No." He said, "Charles, it would be criminal for you to go through life without a Colby degree." He said, "I'm going to give you this money." He said, "The only thing I ask is if you're ever able to contribute to the college, then you contribute to the college."

I've never forgotten that because, again, without that help, I would have succeeded in something else but I certainly wouldn't have been able to pay tuition. I wouldn't have gotten into graduate school at that point in time. And it allowed me to leave Colby. I've gotten three degrees since high school. I've not been to a graduation ceremony. I don't give a damn about that. I could have cared less. My mother wasn't going to be there anyway. All I wanted to do was get on with my life and Earl gave me a chance to do that.
Have you spoken to him about that?
I have not, no. I haven't seen him.

My life's work is higher education. Why wouldn't I want to be involved in my own institution? I'm just glad that they're welcoming and appreciate my willingness to be on the board.
So you didn't leave Colby disgruntled? Some people might think that, hearing stories about the chapel takeover, that you left Colby with hard feelings.
I left Colby with a $500 gift. Colby gave me a huge amount of money over four years I'll never forget. When they announced my scholarship at the awards ceremony in high school, people were just amazed. It was a huge amount of money at that time. But no, I left feeling great about myself, about Colby, about my future"absolutely.
Your story may resonate with today's Colby students, including those who are first-generation college students. You overcame so much.
I believe that when I was in college in that era, there was an American will that seemed to be invested in people like me succeeding. I worry that we have lost that will, and that shared sense that we need to make a way for everybody.
I would think they would know that, from their primary, secondary and Colby education"they've been exposed to literature and history and sociological theories, tracts that tell them that this is not unusual. So I don't know what my story will mean to them. But I do think that the world continues to shift. The world is so much different today than it was then. We only had so many influences. We had television. We had radio. We had newspapers and magazines. But look at the influences now. Isn't it absolutely incredible?

So it's hard to know what young people are dealing with and struggling with beyond their own background because they are exposed to so many other things. And I believe that when I was in college in that era, there was an American will that seemed to be invested in people like me succeeding. I worry that we have lost that will, and that shared sense that we need to make a way for everybody. Some of the things that you read and you hear, and from people in campuses now, make me worry how that affects us. The sense that [people are asking], "Why are you here? Do you really belong here? And are you taking the place of someone else.

I ran track in high school. I wasn't particularly good but good enough to be on the track team, and may have been good enough to make Colby's track team. But from the moment I got to Colby, people, other students, one of the first things you heard: "What sports do you play? Are you going to be on the basketball team?" I'd always say, no. "Are you on scholarship?" I'd say yes. I'm on an academic scholarship. That completely discouraged me from thinking about sports. I did not want to be pigeonholed as someone who was there for athletic reasons. Across American higher education, particularly black and Latino students, have to confront this question about whether they deserve to be in places like Colby. So I don't know how much my experience helps with what they're going through right now.

[Terrell gets up from his seat and goes to stand before a photograph hanging on the wall. It shows an African-American man in front of a modest house.]

One hundred-year-old George Dawson, at the age of one hundred is learning to read. That inspires me. That was the sense that my mother gave me, because she couldn't. So I'm hopeful that my story and others will inspire other students. Because when you see that [the photo} you know that, for me, is what it's all about.
 
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