My Washington Mission

February 6, 2015

Martin L

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, DC Public Library’s main branch, Washington, DC, November 2013 (never looked this nice in 1995). (

Twenty years ago this week I began the official phase of my doctoral thesis research. But it was much more than reading monographs and finding old papers at the Library of Congress and the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. It was also a long trip, where I would spend the next two months living in Washington, DC, to do my research on multiculturalism and multicultural education, and to find evidence of both in Black Washington, DC and in the segregated DC Public Schools. It was also the first time I’d lived away from Pittsburgh or the New York City area, meaning that I had a new city to get to know.

The trip truly involved my past, present and future, all at once. I spent my first five days visiting with my friend Laurell and her family in Arlington while looking for some temporary housing of my own. I’d eventually run into two Pitt friends and two Carnegie Mellon friends while in DC, and develop at least one new friendship between February 2 and March 24. I talked with my favorite teach in Harold Meltzer during that trip, learning more than I ever wanted to know about some of my classmates and Mount Vernon High School in the process.

7800 block of 12th Street, NW, Washington, DC, July 2014. (

7800 block of 12th Street, NW, Washington, DC, July 2014. (

Mostly though, I split my Washington mission into three phases. Phase one was to find a cheap place to stay. After a day of dealing with Howard University professors-turned-slum-lords in LeDroit Park, I went through the Washington Post to find a series of rented rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens. Finally, I found a place in Shepherd Park, two blocks south of the DC-Silver Spring, Maryland border. It was a three-story house in a decent neighborhood on 12th Street, NW, with Blair Park, the Silver Spring Metro, and a corner KFC within walking distance. The landlord seemed decent enough, and my basement room came to $95/week with a $100 deposit. Those were the days, before gentrification and the housing boom sent the cost of shelter through the roof!

Phase two of my trip began Wednesday, February 8. I organized my schedule based on going to a number of archives and collecting materials first. I started with the Moorland-Spingarn Collection, which had been picked pretty clean by Henry Louis Gates (via buying collections) and by other, less reputable researchers (many who stole materials). I got to meet and talk with the archivist Esme Bhan about my research, which was wonderful. Still, I wondered how much longer Moorland-Spingarn could stay a reputable venue for scholarly research, with its lack of funding and lack of security from vultures emptying records.

The following week I split between the Columbiana Division at DC Public Library’s main branch, Martin Luther King, Jr. Library between Chinatown and downtown, and the DC Public School Archives on 17th and M. The DCPL portion of my work was an experiment in filtering out the smells and the sights of the homeless and mentally disabled. Not to mention the ability to not use the bathrooms in the building for eight hours at a time. The men’s stalls didn’t have doors, by the way. I spent only three days there, and rushed through gathering background on interviews of Black Washingtonians that the library had conducted back in the early 1980s. It didn’t help I had to deal with a peeping Tom at the old Hecht’s department store, where the bathrooms were much nicer.

Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Washington, DC, February 6, 2015. (

Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Washington, DC, February 6, 2015. (

I found a gold mine of materials on formal and unofficial education policies regarding DC Public Schools during the Jim Crow period — especially between 1920 and 1950 — at the DCPS archives. But because they didn’t have a working copier, the archivist there allowed me to take original records going back seven decades to the Sir Speedy on M Street to make my own copies. This was in contrast to my three days Presidents’ Day week at the Madison Building of the Library of Congress, where security was tighter in ’95 than at most airports in 2015.

The Library of Congress part of my data gathering was intriguing. If only because their rubber chicken lunches were expensive ($7), and because I found more material on W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Kelly Miller, Alain Locke, Anna J. Cooper and Mary Church Terrell there than I did at Moorland-Spingarn. Finally, I ended phase two with the Columbia Historical Society in Dupont Circle and a two-day expedition of finding nothing at the National Archives in DC and in Greenbelt, Maryland.

I spent most of March figuring out what to do with two big boxes’ worth of new materials and writing what would be parts of Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 of my dissertation. In between, I did find time to hang out. With my new friend Marya, who was from DC, but was working on her history doctorate from the University of Michigan. In addition to being plied with vegan options for my delicate gastrointestinal tract and talking about our research, we did joke a bit about the idea of my Joe Trotter and her Earl Lewis actually being friends in any real sense of the word. There was also time to go out to dinner with Laurell, take in a couple of bad movies with my Carnegie Mellon friend Tracie (like Losing Isaiah), and even have a quick lunch with Trotter during his own quick visit to DC.

Terrell Owens hauls in 'The Catch II' from 49ers QB Steve Young, Candlestick Park, San Francisco, CA, January 3, 1999. (Getty files via Toronto Sun, January 10, 2013).

Terrell Owens hauls in ‘The Catch II’ from 49ers QB Steve Young, Candlestick Park, San Francisco, CA, January 3, 1999. (Getty files via Toronto Sun, January 10, 2013).

After seven weeks of living in DC, I took the train up to New York to go visit my family in Mount Vernon for a few days. What was great about those two months was how peaceful everything was. I was three weeks away from becoming a Spencer Fellow and somehow earning the ire of my doctoral advisor. My family was a month away from becoming homeless for the next two and a half years. My borrowing to cover the costs of this first major research trip, I’m probably still paying interest on today. But without this trip, I wouldn’t have begun the process of questioning the direction of my career and life, and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to finish my doctorate. Being single-minded about a mission isn’t bad or good. It just means ignoring small stuff, some of which can occasionally turn into a festering cesspool.

Where Audacity Meets Second-Guessing

May 25, 2013

Second-guessing to the extreme, May 25, 2013. (

Second-guessing to the extreme, May 25, 2013. (

I’m a great second-guesser of myself (and of others). But I’m especially hard on myself in that department. Even when I know that what I’m doing is the right thing, that I’m taking the right path and proper course of action. I remind myself of what to do, what to say, how to say what I need to say, and even then, I wonder often if my move was to bold, my words too direct, my tone too know-it-all-esque.

Still, there are plenty of times as an adult where I’ve decided to not give in to my second-guessing impulses, to remain bold and aggressive despite the potential problems with a plan. Graduate school at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon was probably the longest time as an adult in which I did little second-guessing, at least when I was awake.

Something happened on my marathon march to the doctorate the week before Memorial Day ’93, one where, for once, someone did my second-guessing for me. And no, it wasn’t Joe Trotter or any of the other usual professorial suspects. This one came courtesy of Harold Scott, an acquaintance (and now friend) who was a visiting professor at Pitt’s GSPIA (Graduate School of Public and International Affairs) at the time. I met with him twenty years ago to discuss my transition from the University of Pittsburgh to Carnegie Mellon’s history department, to glean insights from a recent PhD and a man ten years my senior.

I’d met Harold a few times before, mostly in the context of joint Pitt-CMU gatherings related to issues of racial diversity and retention of grad students of color. Aside from discovering that Harold was an anti-affirmative action baby, the only other thing I knew about him was that he was the first African American to earn a doctorate from CMU’s history department.

Dick Cheney as an example of Pollyanna Principle, March 16, 2003. (

Dick Cheney as an example of Pollyanna Principle, March 16, 2003. (

So we both asked questions. I learned how Harold suffered at the hands of a mutual leading professor between us and the department, mostly in the form of isolation and arbitrarily bad pay as an instructor once he became ABD. He learned that I had a lot of ambition as a twenty-three year-old doctoral student. My plan at the time was to complete my PhD by the end of ’95, a little more than two and a half years from the date of our ’93 meeting.

Harold laughed, almost hysterically, as I stepped him through all my steps between late-May ’93 and December ’95. He noted that I had at least one year of coursework to complete at CMU before they’d give me their “stamp of approval” to move on to my written and oral comps, much less the dissertation. (Except that I’d already taken my written comps). Most importantly, Harold didn’t understand how I expected to write a doctoral thesis of significant research and girth in little more than a year, assuming that I’d have have to teach at some point, assuming that I had to find literally hundreds of sources.

Then we discussed my dissertation topic specifically. I talked about multiculturalism and multicultural education, about Black Washington, DC and Negro Education Week, about Carter G. Woodson and Alain Locke and W. E. B. Du Bois. I talked about the counter-literature that laid out multiculturalism as either Polyanna or as a mask for Afrocentricity without the Black nationalism that White scholars had ascribed to it.

Somehow in my discussion of the literature, between Arthur Schlesinger and Diane Ravitch, Thomas Sowell and James Banks, and Gary Nash and Cornel West, Harold had but one question. “Are you a ‘racial determinist’?,” he asked. I didn’t know exactly what that term meant, but I already knew what a cultural determinist was. I answered, “Yes and no.” I went on to describe the many situations in which I believed race played a role, if not a dominant role, in American history or culture. That’s not the definition, by the way, as it’s a variant of biological determinism, and very Nazi-like.

That’s when we really began to go back and forth. But I don’t think much of that argument was about racial determinism or where I stood on it at all. I think Harold thought that I was both arrogant and naive. It wouldn’t have been the first time I’ve left that impression, or the last. But yes, at twenty-three, I’d set my sights on a degree, a dissertation and book topic, and a career that I wanted, and had made the decision to not let my over-thinking second-guessing get the better of me. That Harold and others weren’t privy to my process likely made my bold plans and predictions seem ridiculous.

Brett Farve and yet another interception, 2009 NFC Championship Game, January 24, 2010. (Ronald Martinez/

Brett Farve and yet another interception, 2009 NFC Championship Game, January 24, 2010. (Ronald Martinez/

Yet there was more going on here, much of which wouldn’t become apparent to me until the end of ’95, when I was six chapters into my eight-chapter dissertation. Harold was my warning that the grad school process alone could beat the living hell out of me, that the professors at CMU — White or Black — had an old-fashioned attitude about how long it ought to take someone like me to finish. Harold went through a gauntlet to finish his doctorate in ’90, only to struggle to find work.

In being the second African American to go through the same gauntlet, I eventually realized that my speed and strength of purpose didn’t really matter in the lily-White thinking of the powers that were at CMU. And by the time I started second-guessing my decisions, I practically already had my degree.

“The Dying of Black Women’s Children”

March 27, 2013

Infant mortality rates by country (2004), March 27, 2013. ( In public domain.

Infant mortality rates by country (2004), March 27, 2013. ( In public domain.

That was the title of a research paper I wrote for an independent study course I did with my former Pitt advisor Larry Glasco. It was a paper I wrote during my last semester at the University of Pittsburgh, undergrad and grad school. It was the last paper I would write for any professor at Pitt. But it was a paper that would address a bunch of common themes about me as a historian and scholar knowingly, and a writer unknowingly.

I began this paper without a course and on my own time in the Fall ’92 semester (see my post “December Doctoral Decisions” from last year). I had to fulfill a quantitative methods requirement in order to take my PhD comprehensive examinations at the end of my coursework, which at my pace would’ve meant taking them in the fall of ’93 at Pitt. Why they never included a qualitative methods requirement, I’ll never know. Of course, this digital humanities movement of quantifying the heretofore unquantifiable was but an embryo in the early ’90s.

With my language requirement taken care of the year before, I had no choice but to build on my existing statistical knowledge. Luckily, I’d inadvertently minored in mathematics and had been a computer science major before switching to history. I’d already decided on the topic of comparing infant/child mortality rates among White and Black Pittsburghers between 1900 and 1920, coinciding with the Great Migration period for Blacks. This meant census data from 1900, 1910 and 1920. This meant public health records from the same twenty-year stretch. It meant looking at neighborhoods like the Lower Hill District and Bloomfield, the occupations of the men and (in the case of Blacks) women living in these communities.

And it meant that I had to learn how to use SPSS, the most powerful number-crunching statistical software package on the planet. At least as far as I was concerned. It took me from September ’92 until the end of January ’93 to get comfortable enough with SPSS to plot and correlate different points of data. By then, I could generate reports and make sense of them. I knew that race, poverty/neighborhood and occupation (in that order) correlated best to the 2.5 to 1 ratio between infant/child mortality (death between child birth and the age of five) rates for Black families versus White families.

I used Lotus 1-2-3 to construct the tables, charts and graphs for my statistical correlations and data. Why Lotus 1-2-3? Their charts and graphs looked like “arts and crafts,” to steal a phrase from David Letterman. SPSS’s visuals were boring. Between the numbers crunching, the translation of correlation data into Lotus, and the actual writing of this paper, I completed my work for this independent study and quantitative methods requirement at the end of February ’93.

By then, I had two issues. One, I didn’t know what to title my paper. Most of my titles were inspired by cultural references from music, sports, TV shows, catch commercial jingles. I’d titled one paper “‘Sittin’ On The Dock of The Bay’,” an homage to Otis Redding and in reference to the topic of Black migrants finding permanent economic degradation after leaving the Jim Crow South for places like New York, Chicago and L.A. Another one, which I’d presented at several conferences, was “‘The Evidence of Things Not Seen’,” a prelude to my “‘A Substance of Things Hoped For'” dissertation (thanks to Hebrews 11:1 and James Baldwin).

Pitt Honors Convocation program, (March 1, 1994), March 27, 2013. [Ironic, given that I received this honor when I was at CMU]. (Donald Earl Collins).

Pitt Honors Convocation program, (March 1, 1994), March 27, 2013. [Ironic, given that I received this honor when I was at CMU]. (Donald Earl Collins).

I solved this title problem while simultaneously dealing with the second issue, which was that I knew I was about to transfer to Carnegie Mellon to complete the doctorate. Joe Trotter had invited me to attend the job talks of a young professor who had recently earned tenure at the University of Chicago, I believe. I remember her being fairly attractive and found her work interesting, if not fascinating. While we walked up and down the factory floor, um, second-floor corridors of Baker Hall, I walked by a flyer for an upcoming talk on “The Dying of Young Women’s Children.” I decided that this would be the scaffolding for my paper’s title, right then and there. Only, I’d change “Young” to “Black” and give a footnote of credit to the flyer title.

I submitted my paper to Larry for my independent study, which I was now taking purely as pass/fail (or satisfactory/unsatisfactory), and not for a specific grade. After Larry learned of my departure, he never gave me feedback on the paper. As the end of the semester approached — and I became short on cash — I submitted the paper to the Women’s Studies Program’s Student Research (undergraduate and graduate) contest.

Pitt's Women's Studies Program Annual Prize for Student Research on Women and Gender, June 1993, March 27, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

Pitt’s Women’s Studies Program Annual Prize for Student Research on Women and Gender, June 1993, March 27, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins).

Two months later, in June ’93, I learned that I’d finished second in the graduate student category, and earned a check for $75, a week’s worth of groceries! My friend Matt, upon learning of my good fortune, said, “You won that prize because of that title,” adding that I “stole it” from a flyer.

Matt was right, of course. But I also learned something important through “The Dying of Black Women’s Children.” That all writers borrow from others’ words and ideas, and then make them their own.

Cream on the Brain

December 12, 2010

A Brain Floating in the Heavy Cream of Obsession with Academic Excellence, December 13, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

A quarter-century ago, education scholar and Ford Foundation education program director Jeanne Oakes published Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. Oakes’ groundbreaking, definitive work on the educational inequalities created or reinforced by ability grouping has led a whole generation of scholars to examine the viability of tracking in K-12 education. In a 2005 edition of her book, Oakes wrote that “through tracking, schools continue to replicate existing inequality along lines of race and social class and contribute to the intergenerational transmission of social and economic inequality.”

I picked up Oakes’ Keeping Track for the first time in ’90. By then, I already knew from experience how true her words and research were. Six years in Mount Vernon, New York’s public schools via the Humanities Program had taught me all I’d need to know about the tensions between creating a class of students whose level of academic performance was par excellence while simultaneously addressing segregation and diversity in the school district. The magnet program and the district failed at one and succeeded at the other, which in turn reinforced its failure.

I worked on a paper some twenty years ago for the late Barbara Sizemore, my professor at the University of Pittsburgh my senior year (and a former superintendent of DC Public Schools) looking at how magnet school programs actually created resegregation in individual schools and Pittsburgh Public Schools because of the exclusivity that comes with tracking or ability grouping. It was an easy paper for me to do, guided in no small part by my experiences in Humanities at Davis Middle and Mount Vernon High School. Easy, but not easy to get a handle on beyond the obvious demographics of race, class and test scores.

I managed to wiggle myself into the culture wars of the early ’90s and the debate around multiculturalism and K-12 education soon after that paper. It seems obvious now that the unacknowledged diversity of Humanities was what enabled me to takes sides in favor of multiculturalism. That led to my dissertation looking at the historical development of multiculturalism among Blacks in Washington, DC (“A Substance of Things Hoped For,” Carnegie Mellon University, 1997 for those who want more information), and eventually, my first book, Fear of a “Black” America from six years ago.

But it took my memoir Boy @ The Window to bring me back to square one. I realized about a year ago that I’d done nearly thirty interviews of former classmates, teachers and administrators for the manuscript. There was much more material to mine beyond their impressions of me and how to shape their descriptions of themselves — and my memories of them — into characters for Boy @ The Window. I decided to work on an academic piece that looked at the benefits and pitfalls of high-stakes schooling — not just testing — in the form of a history lesson via magnet schools, specifically my Humanities experience.

After a quick rejection, I redoubled my efforts a few months ago. I decided to look at the education psychology and sociology literature, as well as Oakes again, to see how these interviews and my experiences could be useful in our testing-obsessed times. I finally realized what had troubled me about Humanities for the past three decades. It was the reality that all involved with Humanities had taken on the e pluribus unum identity of an academic superstar (much more than just a nerd, by the way). Beyond Black or White, and ignoring the realities of poverty in our district and (at least for me) in our program, Humanities was all about sharpening our academic personas above all else.

This fueled the major success of Humanities during its existence between ’76 and ’93, which in turn would define its failures. In successfully nurturing the idea of academic excellence as identity, as evidenced by so many of us attending and graduating from college, this magnet program failed in its other major educational functions. It failed to embrace diversity, to help its students understand the diversity that was Humanities, to nurture creativity and imagination beyond A’s and college acceptances. It failed to develop the whole student, which aside from its charge to help desegregate Mount Vernon public schools, was its original mission.

Humanities failed because its teachers, administrators (including the former superintendent of schools) and many of the most vocal parents (mostly affluent and White) refused to deal with diversity seriously. Academic excellence without significant parental engagement or the humility necessary to discuss issues of race, gender, class, sexual orientation led to a severe overemphasis on calling us the “creme de la creme.” All of this would have a negative impact on our development as students, and as emerging adults.

I don’t think that it’s asking too much of parents, administrators and teachers to work together in both striving for academic excellence while building programs that embrace difference and nurture creativity and imagination, and not just an addiction to A’s. Or is it?


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