By BERNICE TELL
H. Patrick Swygert, president of Howard University, one of the nation's premier historically black colleges, spoke at the Library on the achievements of the graduates of these institutions.
The Feb. 7 lecture was the keynote speech of the Library's observance of African American History Month. The theme of the Library for the 1996 commemoration is "African Americans Making History."
Dr. Billington introduced Dr. Swygert and reminded the audience that the Library has one of the nation's largest collections of African American history and culture, including the papers of such outstanding Americans as Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, as well as the archives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other organizations.
Although Dr. Swygert was only appointed last August as the 15th president of Howard, he is no stranger to the school: He began his academic career there as an undergraduate.
In the interim, he has served as professor of law and acting dean of the law school at Temple University in Philadelphia and, most recently, he was the president of the State University of New York at Albany. A lawyer, Dr. Swygert, is a member of the District of Columbia, Pennsylvania and New York bars.
Dr. Swygert began by reminding his audience that Black History Month originated at the Library in 1926, when Carter G. Woodson (a young Ph.D. candidate, later a prominent Washingtonian) inaugurated "Negro History Week." As Dr. Swygert noted, this one week has evolved into a monthlong, nationwide celebration.
Dr. Swygert also revealed his personal ties to the Library. He recalled that he had once worked at the Library as the lowest of the low -- a part-time GS-1 deck attendant. He remembered how proud he felt as he telephoned his mother in Philadelphia to tell her he was a student at Howard University and an employee of the federal government.
The speaker then focused on the historically black schools, colleges and universities, their successes and the achievements of their graduates. Today, there are 117 black schools, colleges and universities in America, and he proclaimed, "each one an American success story."
These institutions were founded in one of three ways. The first group originated as an offshoot of a religious organization, as did Livingstone College, founded by the AME Zion Church in 1879. Others were established as state schools -- state-sponsored and -supported, such as Morgan State University in Baltimore. The third group was a mixture, but mainly dependent on the vision and energy of one individual, such as Booker T. Washington, who founded Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama.
Howard University, Dr. Swygert's alma mater, opened its doors in 1867 as a private university. It received its charter from the federal government and its support from the Congregational Church in the District of Columbia.
Dr. Swygert said that despite these varied beginnings, each school remained steadfast to the principle of inclusion. In fact, the first students enrolled at Howard were four white females. He characterized these black institutions as "islands of tolerance" and "islands of support."
Dr. Swygert saluted "the energy, commitment and foresight" of those who founded these schools. They were people who had neither an example nor a mentor to guide them and yet succeeded with minimal financial resources.
When Howard University was founded, only two years after the end of the Civil War, there was serious national debate and doubt about the wisdom of higher education for African Americans. Some feared whether "newly freed persons could function and grow and thrive in a model of education based on centuries of Western European thought. Could former slaves be taught and could they succeed?" asked Dr. Swygert.
In addition to celebrating the longevity of black colleges, Dr. Swygert said, the graduates who succeed as a result of their college experience must also be lauded.
He told a story about Duke Ellington to symbolize the importance of these institutions and their graduates. Whenever Duke Ellington performed before an audience, he always played a medley of his old hits, such as "Take the A Train." The musicians in his band became bored by the repetition. But Ellington knew what his audiences wanted and never failed them.
Dr. Swygert made the point that the medley should be a metaphor for outstanding graduates of black institutions. Hearing their names again and again would never bore their listeners. For Howard University, the medley would include: former Sen. Edward Brooke (a District of Columbia native), attorney Vernon Jordan, former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, singer Jessye Norman, writer Toni Morrison and actors Ossie Davis, Debbi Allen and Felicia Rashad.
"And, every one of those 117 schools has a medley of achievers," Dr. Swygert declared.
Dr. Swygert then mentioned Herman Branson, a graduate of Virginia State College who rose to become chairman of the Physics Department at Howard and later the president of Lincoln University in Oxford, Penn. Dr. Branson, an eminent educator and scientist, achieved distinction even though he had no role model. He himself became a role model for other African Americans interested in science.
Dr. Swygert reminded his listeners of their own responsibilities to today's youth and the need to help them achieve their potential, especially in fields not usually open to blacks. "We must encourage blacks to be everywhere and begin supporting them at the prekindergarten level. Our young researchers are the future, and our task is to make their way easier. Every day I touch the future when I touch these young people."
Dr. Swygert exhorted the library professionals and others in the audience by saying: "Your responsibility is a sacred one to preserve and protect the records of this nation. Historians of the future look to you. The future is in your hands. Encourage future scholars to speak the truth. Celebrate the medley!"
Bernice Tell is a Washington free-lance writer.