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Conference agenda, 15th Annual Conference on Black History in Pennsylvania, Lincoln University (May 8/9 1992), May 10, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

This time two decades ago, I was driving my way home from a conference at Lincoln University in southeastern Pennsylvania. It was a week of more firsts that had become a small sample of a year of many firsts for me since getting into graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh in April ’91. It was my first road trip anywhere, and the first time I’d been in a car since earning my driver’s license in January ’92 (see my post “Taking the Long Road: Driver’s Delight” from January ’12). It was part of my first visit to NYC, Mount Vernon, and 616 since finishing my master’s degree.

That’s where my road trip began, Mount Vernon, as I’d wind my way to Yonkers, the Bronx, the GW Bridge, New Jersey and Philly (where I got lost twice) before ending up on the bucolic HBCU campus. I was at Lincoln University to present at my first academic conference, the 15th Annual Conference on Black History in Pennsylvania. The theme for that year’s conference was “Empowerment: Perspectives on African-American History in Pennsylvania. Somehow, the conference organizers approved me to present my paper comparing elements of intercultural education, multicultural education and Afrocentric education in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia during the 1930s and early 1990s.

Lincoln University entrance and alumni arch, dedicated in 1921, May 10, 2012. (http://lincoln.edu).

If the road trip and the presentation were the only things important about this conference, that would’ve been plenty for me in May ’92. But there was so much more to this first conference for me than driving a Ford Escort in North Philly or getting on stage for the first time since sixth grade (see my post “Peaking As A Sixth Grader” from June ’11). It was my first time around a large number of Black academicians and activists. I met Julian Bond for the first time (his father, Horace Mann Bond, by the way, had served as president of Lincoln University from 1945 to 1957). Folks from the African American studies department at Temple University attempted to recruit me for their doctoral program. Knowing that Molefi Asante was there, I respectfully declined.

Above all else, I came away with two valuable experiences that would have an effect on me for years to come. One was being in the audience for a presentation from V.P. (or Vincent P.) Franklin, whose work on Black education in Philadelphia in the 1920s and 1930s I already knew. His was an extemporaneous presentation that lasted for well over twenty minutes. It was full of quotes, links between different historians’ research, and stories. It was extremely entertaining, delivered in an engrossing public speaking style, though not like some Southern Baptist preacher, either.

I was blown away by Franklin’s presentation. Especially in comparison to the one that I’d deliver some

Conference agenda (inside pages), 15th Annual Conference on Black History in Pennsylvania, Lincoln University (1992), May 10, 2012 (Donald Earl Collins).

twenty hours later. Mine was a well-studied delivery of ten pages of excerpts from my original paper. It was okay, not exactly a winner compared to anything that I’ve done in the two decades since. For it was with Franklin’s presentation and style from the day before that stuck with me. I decided immediately after my lackluster performance to always present my work extemporaneously, to work on my public speaking skills, to understand that presenting one’s work was a very different task than simply reading from it.

The second takeaway was in meeting my eventual dissertation advisor, Joe William Trotter, Jr. I met him after the first set of presentations on Friday morning, and ended up sitting with him for part of the Friday luncheon. I learned a few things in that first meeting. Up until that day, the only Black historians I knew in the Pittsburgh area were at Pitt or somehow affiliated with Pitt, including my then advisor Larry Glasco. The fact that Joe was across the way at Carnegie Mellon meant that there was at least the hope of gaining a different perspective on African American history than the stiff responses to Whites misconstruing the Black experience.

What made this first meeting even more intriguing was that Joe was in the process of putting together a graduate seminar for the Fall ’92 semester in African American history. It would be the first time that one had been taught at Carnegie Mellon. No such course existed at Pitt, either, at least as a graduate seminar. It meant that I could expect to get something out of my second year of graduate school (and first year as a PhD student) after all. “Where do I sign up?,” I asked after hearing what seemed like wonderful news at the time.

I returned to 616 twenty years ago on this date recharged and ready for another year of intellectual growth. But I should’ve also returned with far more insight into the politics of race, academia, trust, and academic competition than I actually had. The dynamics within the conference were extremely subtle, like an ultrasonic pulse undetected by most human hearing, but there driving the subconscious crazy anyway.

I didn’t see Joe’s invite to his classroom as a competition for me initially because I was obviously all-too-desperate to move on from Pitt, but not desperate enough to join Asante’s Temple of Afrocentricity (see my post “Writer’s Start” from August ’10 for more). Joe got me, all right. I just didn’t know it yet.