CHAPTER 5. DARK DAYS FOR VIRGINIA SEMINARY
Vernon Johns was the father of the civil rights movement of the 1950s in the United States.
He was very much a prophet. Prophets have a message to push and are often seen as "hard-headed" and push. And we know that prophets are always resisted in their own time and place. Johns was no exception to this rule.
Dr. Vernon Johns assumed the presidency of Virginia Seminary in 1929. The Johns administration was beset by monumental problems almost from the first day of Dr. Johns's tenure. And the school's chronic money problems were severely exacerbated by the Great Depression which was spreading its icy tentacles into every facet of America life. In fact, in one year, shortly after Dr. John's resignation, the school's total income from all sources was less than $6,700 dollars. This meager sum is a solid indicator of the depressed state of the nation's economy and it clearly demonstrates that the supporters of the school were themselves feeling the pinch and, however earnestly they desired to support the school, they were simply unable to do more.
Dr. Johns applied himself vigorously to the problems of the school. He traveled far and wide, speaking and lecturing to numerous audiences in his efforts to enlist support for the cause of the school. Johns even got some support from the whites of Lynchburg in clearing the school debt. But turbulent times loomed ahead for Vernon Johns.
The early 1930s saw the outbreak of student unrest at black colleges. Howard University continued to hold the spotlight as the scene of wrangling between opposing elements in the administrative body. There were students strikes at Virginia State College, a threatened student strike at Atlanta University School of Social Work, and a student strike nearing at Howard University Law School. Trouble soon came to Virginia Seminary also.
In December of 1933 students at Virginia Seminary went on strike demanding the resignation of Dr. Johns. The unrest was intensified when the faculty cast their lot with the students and instituted certain demands. (One of the most vociferous of the faculty supporting the strike was the Rev. M. C. Allen.) Vernon Johns was a very determined man with a definite set of ideas on how blacks should improve themselves by various self-help campaigns. The students did not understand this one bit and Johns' forcefulness was interpreted as arrogance and tyranny. The upshot of this turbulence, coupled with the on-going money woes, led to Johns' resignation.
Dr. Johns was blamed for the financial crisis at Seminary, just as my father had predicted. Perhaps I should emphasize here that Dr. Johns was in no sense responsible for that condition. The school during his administration had been so beset with the problems which attended the collapse, the loss of commercial credit, a loss of teachers and students, a sharp cutback in income, an army of creditors clamoring for immediate payment, that Dr. Johns, unable to stem the avalanche, could only stand helplessly by and watch the erosion and deterioration of the school. He was a victim, not the cause of the collapse. (When, years later, I asked Dr. Johns about his resignation and the numerous, damaging charges and accusations with which he was credited in that chaotic time at the school, he replied, "Oh, man! I don't care about those people and their accusations." And knowing him as I did, I believe that he was truly indifferent and untroubled about the matter.)
As a matter of fact, in reference to the student strike, Dr. Johns later wrote in the Beacon Press of West Virginia that:
"Our student body was a mixed multitude but the mixture did not contain any who could pay their bills. The president, not to be beaten by collegiate poverty, conceived the idea of introducing useful work into the ranks of the learned. This innovation sent the whole college community on a rampage. The students got all the cardboard in town to call the president names on. Those whose bills were half paid wore one placard. Those whose bills were totally unpaid wore two; while those who in addition to school expenses owed money to the president personally had a placard over every pore."
With the resignation of Dr. Johns, the office of the presidency was again vacant. After some debate, the trustees held an election to choose their new president from the slate of two nominees: Dr. M. C. Allen and Dr. W. H. R. Powell. The vote went to Dr. Powell.
I could wish my father had paid closer attention to that old adage, "once bitten, twice shy." He should have learned great, important, and significant lessons from the Johns' incident. When the presidency was offered to him a second time, alarm bells should have sounded in his mind and a red flag should have cautioned him: "Beware! Dangerous quicksand ahead!" Having had so recently a close-up demonstration of the true character and the woeful absence of principle and integrity in the men who had orchestrated and participated in the Johns' fiasco, he would have been well-advised to refuse the office.
But so great was his confidence in divine guidance, so unswerving and unflagging his confidence in God's direction, that when called a second time, he willingly took on the office of president, once again pitting himself against the monumental, almost insuperable task of breathing life into a dying institution. He wrote: " . . . in light of the worsened condition of the school into which I was then called, I decided to use my own judgment and do the only thing which was either sensible or possible -- serve as a part-time president.' Can anyone in his right mind blame me? If so, consider what I was then called to accept -- a world-wide depression, morale of constituents approaching zero, increased indebtedness, student body reduced to forty-four, four members of the faculty intact, neither bedding nor tableware to feed fifty persons, every roof on the campus leaking with one half of one roof rotten and blown away, much of the plumbing broken from freezing, two inches of ice reported to have formed on the floor of the men's bath the previous winter, the heating plant less than one third efficient, the school without academic rating in any of its departments was still without commercial credit, the scale of salaries ranged from $10 to $40 dollars per month, the bank balance turned over was $91 dollars, and a large percentage of the trustees themselves were without faith or hope. How could my family exist in such a situation, to say nothing of the school?"
With the situation at the school so much worse in every respect than it was at the time of his resignation, some further explanation is needed to clarify why Dr. Powell would willingly return to the presidency. Dr. Powell wrote: "The answer lies in the changed psychology that five years had brought about within the ranks both of the creditors and the Board of Trustees. Five years of experience and failure had now convinced them of the impossibility of the situation as it stood. There was no other alternative but compromise -- the very thing I had urged so strongly in Richmond in 1926 . . . And compromise they were willing now to make." Was his optimism justified? Or was it merely a product of wishful thinking? The answer may become clearer as the story continues.
The Allen forces contested the election saying that it was illegal because the chairman of the board had two votes which were sent by wire that were not counted in the tally; that the chairman voted in the election when there was no question of a tie; and because Rev. Allen was not permitted to vote although he was a bonafide member of the board of trustees. The Allen forces claimed that Allen would have won the election if it had been properly conducted.
The Allen forces went further, accusing Dr. Powell and his forces of deception. My father was abroad in the Holy Land, so he could not immediately respond to the charges. When he returned and heard the charges, he was very upset. He responded, "Now, from information gleaned from newspaper releases, there were objections raised to me based upon several things. It is alleged that my election in Washington was illegal; that I was an individual of great indecision; that if called, I would not come; that my actions in the other call' with respect to coming were at least shadowy; and that I was too high-toned for the work to be done. Now, all of these are very grave charges and reflect seriously upon the fitness of the candidate for the office."
Powell had a series of questions for the trustee board about compensation and traveling expenses and the use of an automobile. He said that Vernon Johns had informed him that he had not yet moved his household effects from the president's home. "In this connection, he assures me that such failure is in no sense stubbornness on his part, or failure of understanding. But that such was his financial condition upon leaving the institution last spring, such the school's indebtedness to him, and such his present circumstances, that it has been wholly impossible for him to move. I would like the board to determine what can be done, if anything."
I do not know how the Allen claims of an illegal election were finally settled. Perhaps the chairman of the board and those accused of illegal actions were able to defend themselves before the constituents and the trustees. I have been unable to unearth any information that bears on this situation. I am compelled to wonder why, since such grave charges were leveled, that the whole matter did not end up in a court of law. That would seem to be the logical and proper way to resolve the dispute. Logical and proper that is, if those bringing the charges were seriously interested in resolving the dispute. I have the feeling that the Allen camp was interested only in creating confusion, that the charges brought would not stand up under the kind of scrutiny they would be subjected to in a court of law. I believe that Dr. Allen so greatly desired the presidency for himself that he would have stopped at nothing to thwart and obstruct the administration of whoever occupied the office that he considered to be rightfully his. I do know that most of the difficulties that my father encountered during the twelve years of his administration had their roots and beginnings during his first administration when the cries "We want a full-time president!" were first heard and I believe that Dr. Allen and his gang were the authors and disseminators of that sentiment.
No matter how thoroughly and carefully Dr. Powell analyzed and demonstrated the logic that underlay his program for the recovery of the school, no matter how much patient explanation he employed to clarify and defend his program of action, it was never enough to silence those who had been persuaded to believe that all the problems at Virginia Seminary would be solved quickly and easily if only there was a full-time president. When Dr. Johns took over the presidency, it was necessary to change the strategy. No longer could the "part-time" president ploy be utilized for Dr. Johns was a "full-time" president. Therefore, throughout the Johns administration, the opposition, that is Dr. Allen and his cohort, were compelled to devise and employ a different strategy.
I believe that Dr. Allen's loss of the 1934 election so embittered him that he became an implacable enemy of the Powell administration. He opposed, objected to, and attempted to frustrate every single move Dr. Powell made in his attempt to rescue the school. Every project attempted was objectionable to Dr. Allen and was certain to be ridiculed by him, and derided and contemptuously dismissed as foolishly unnecessary. I know of no single accomplishment that was achieved during the Powell years that met the approval of Dr. Allen. So deep and bitter was the enmity that Dr. Allen held for Dr. Powell and his administration, that it is probable that when Allen at last became president of the school, he never again called my father's name except in some negative and disparaging connection. That may partially account for the silence that has obscured for these many years the noteworthy, singularly successful achievements of the Powell regime.
And then to see, just a few short years after my father's efforts there, the sadly deteriorating condition of the school that brought it so perilously close once again to the brink of the abyss of failure, was for me a deeply disturbing, distressing experience. The school's decline, I'm convinced, was hastened by the abandonment of the principles of management that had characterized the administration of my father.
Once re-established in the office of president, Dr. Powell resumed the same grueling schedule that had begun in his first tenure. A typical work week would begin on Monday morning when he would arrive on the campus after an eight hour train ride from Philadelphia. As a rule, the trip on Sunday night would follow two and sometimes three sermons at the church. (Perhaps I need to mention that the school paid the travel costs of the president. He used a clergy pass to reduce further the cost of traveling by train. The records of all travel expenses were carefully documented and kept with the other financial records of the school.)
Monday morning usually found Dr. Powell in the office taking care of correspondence and the financial matters of the school, as well as the numerous other concerns that went with the job. Sometimes these matters presented knotty problems that required close attention and much precious time was consumed in finding solutions. It was not at all unusual to see the light burning late at night in the president's office as he grappled with some difficulty that needed prompt, immediate attention.
Then, typically, he would board the train on Friday evening and return to Philadelphia. Somehow, he found time to prepare his sermons, which were always carefully researched and constructed. (He was proficient in Greek and Hebrew and was thus able on occasion to translate from the original texts.) Once returned to the city, he visited the sick and the shut-in. Somehow, in spite of the strenuous regiment he had set for himself, there was always time for such visits. He took the responsibilities of the pastorate seriously and he was amply rewarded in that he was much beloved by his parishioners. Despite the exhausting schedule he adhered to, he was absent from his pulpit only three Sundays in the fifteen years at Virginia Seminary.
Back in Lynchburg, inch by painful inch, the school began its long uphill journey to recovery. Slowly but surely, confidence in the school began to return. By the most judicious and careful handling of the school's assets, the debt began to shrink, until finally Dr. Powell could write, "The debt in excess of $222,000 dollars as indicated by bills presented at the office of the president of the institution for settlement at the beginning of my administration had been, by adjustment, very nearly eliminated. Of this amount, $129,000 dollars was liquidated through cash and adjustments by the office of the president of the institution. The remaining difference has been adjusted through a committee appointed by the Trustee Board and the Virginia State Convention." (I take by adjustment' to indicate that some of those who had claims against the school were persuaded to settle for a fraction of the actual amount owed.)
He began immediately to repair and refurbish the physical plant at the school, setting the pace for this phase of the work by his own personal example. There are Lynchburgers alive today who remember Dr. Powell, clad in work clothes, carrying a ladder or a hammer and saw, involved in some phase of the repair and renovation program he set in motion. The appearance of the buildings and grounds gradually began to improve as a result of these efforts. (To give some idea of the neglected, run-down, dilapidated condition of the buildings, Dr. Powell tells us that some of the outer woodwork on some of the buildings had not been painted for more than fifty years. One can imagine what the condition of the wood must have been, having been exposed for so long to the elements without the protection of a thick coat of paint.)
"Virginia Seminary has always been an apostle of self-help," wrote Dr. Powell. "In keeping with this, my policy has been to illustrate self-help in the management of the institution, as well as to preach it to others. Thus through the years, I have asked no one for anything that we could do for ourselves. We needed mattresses, we made them. We needed a cellar, we dug it. Walks were needed on the campus, we laid them. A library was needed, we built it. A heating plant was needed, we erected it. Bread, vegetables, fruit and fowl, meat, butter, milk and eggs were needed, we raised and provided them. The policy of the administration is self-help. I beg from others only that which I cannot do for myself and guide the students in doing."
Dr. Powell planned a new building, the Mary Jane Cachelin Science and Library Building. He not only conceived the idea, he drew the plans, arranged the financing, and awarded the project to a local contractor. My father, aware that his administration faced an uncertain future, devised a plan with the agreement of the contractor to pay for the construction in stages. As each stage of the building was completed, the contractor was paid for that section before moving on to the next stage. The result of this arrangement was that my father resigned before the building was completed, but the financing was held in such a way that only the contractor could receive it upon satisfactory completion of the building. This rather awkward arrangement was entered into to assure that the contractor would be fully paid. I think my father saw that it was necessary to make such an arrangement for his protection as well as that of the contractor.
There was considerable confidence in Dr. Powell in the larger community. It became obvious that some white Lynchburgers who had no connection with the school followed with interest the affairs of the school. This interest manifested itself in a meeting at the school at which a white gentleman, a stranger to the gathering, arose from his seat, and asked permission to address the assemblage. Permission granted, he spoke most admiringly of the improvements at the school and he closed his remarks by saying that W. H. R. Powell could borrow $50,000 dollars from him whenever he chose to do so. What a demonstration of the esteem in which my father was held!
Dr. Powell withheld from the income of the school the amount he was promised as salary and when he had accumulated enough, he purchased a fifty-two acre farm in Rustburg, Virginia (about eleven miles south of Lynchburg) for the institution. As a precaution against any possible accidental death, he put the farm in his wife's name. Powell never lived at the farm and he finally deeded the farm over to the school. But his own figures clearly showed that the school was the owner and the beneficiary of Powell's philanthropy. The farm was a valuable asset to the school. It provided the table board for the entire student body of more than 100, the faculty and other members of the school staff. The farm more than paid for itself. (J&G November 4, 1939:4)
My father said that the farm was a Godsend to the school during the Depression and World War II when times were so hard economically. He often said: "What would the school have done without the farm?" as it provided so much of the needed foodstuffs for the seminary which was often having problems with too little to eat. The school farm was a great help in providing extra work for worthy and needy students and table board at the school thus reducing the cost of the boarding department. The meat butchered at the farm last school year was valued at more than the cost of the farm operation for other purposes. (J&G Jul. 20, 1946:3)
In the fifteen years of his administration, my father never accepted the salary that was promised him. When after several years it seemed that some of the trustees were uneasy about this arrangement, my father wrote a receipt for $26,000 dollars, the amount owed to him according to the agreement, and presented it to the trustees. In effect he made a gift of $26,000 dollars to the school.
The Costs of Being President
Dr. Powell's involvement at Seminary imposed a double responsibility upon his wife. She had to act as mother, and as far as possible, father to a brood of six, active (in the case of my brother and myself, make that devilish and mischievous) children.
Mama did a good, perhaps even an outstanding job of shouldering this awesome burden. Far from complaining, she seemed to take it in stride. This was possible I think because she believed in my father and she believed in his dream. (There seems to have been a strong psychic bond between my parents and it manifested itself sometimes with uncanny, even eerie results.) So that, the lion's share of whatever modest successes her children achieved must go to my mother, Mrs. Oscelletta Davies Powell.
Understandably in the circumstances, it is only natural that we children did not develop the closeness with our father that all of his children desired. Yet, we were all aware that he loved us and we loved him as well. As children, we could not understand why our father was gone so much of the time. Nor could we grasp his fatigue or the terrible stresses, both mental as well as physical, that contributed to that fatigue.
We children, each in his own way, were affected by my father's involvement at Seminary. I don't presume to gauge the extent or the effects of his absence on the others, I can only speak for myself. My father's involvement at Seminary was for me a bewildering, unfathomable mystery whose meaning I could not decipher. Again and again, over the years I have asked myself, "What did it mean? What was it all for? Was it all for naught?"
It is not only positive effects that shape our personalities, but negatives ones as well. And, in a strange way, I owe much of my accomplishments to some of the negative effects of my father (modified by the positive effects of his being a role model to emulate in his dealings with others). As a youth I engaged in considerable mischief. In a way, I think I was engaging in what today is popularly called "acting out." I became the "prodigal son," filled with ambivalent feelings toward my father. And I think this ambivalence delayed my intellectual development somewhat for I was a late starter in life. I was a poor student in school. I did not marry until I was thirty-five years of age and I did not start writing until I was sixty-three (and this as the result of serendipity).
It was my writing that brought this prodigal son to intellectual awareness of not only the history of black people but also of my own personal history. And this intellectual awareness brought the son back home to a fuller, better, and more loving understanding of my father.
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