Thursday, December 15, 2011
In a provocative presentation, “Prophets of Optimism,” Dr. Larry D. Watson, associate professor of history and president of the South Carolina State University Faculty Senate, used his expertise as a historian to enlighten Black Males Project (BMP) participants at their fall dinner gathering in the Robert Shaw Evans Dining Hall. BMP is a component of the Student Success and Retention Program (SSRP).
Sharing brief biographies of distinguished African American men and women whose impacts have changed the world, Watson imparted how Black males could evolve. “Changing the Prevailing Perceptions of Black College Males” was the theme for the gathering. From Frederick Douglas to Martin Luther King Jr., Watson discussed the “common thread” that each of these African Americans displayed in their lives: abiding optimism, fearlessness in the face of danger, love for humanity, grounding in spirituality and vision beyond their times.
In addition to Douglas and King, Watson included other visionaries like Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells, Carter G. Woodson, Thurgood Marshall, George Washington Carver, Elizabeth Evelyn Wright and The Little Rock Nine. Watson espoused that all these African Americans were “timeless” in their contributions, characterizing each as existing in a “perpetual state of optimism.” Watson weaved a story of educational, social and financial challenges that catapulted all of these prophets of optimism to greatness.
Most of the Black males present were unfamiliar with many of the biographies but were in awe of these life contributions, especially when considering their meager beginnings like that of Douglas who was self-educated and full of wisdom, writing that “one must believe in self, take advantage of opportunity, and work toward the common good.” BMP participants asked questions of Watson and began to see the common threads.
Watson described Booker T. Washington’s early life as a janitor at 16 years old while attending Hampton Institute, chronicling that Washington became a minister, teacher and politician. Likewise, Elizabeth Evelyn Wright founded Voorhees College in Denmark, S.C., and by 34 years old, shortly after marrying, she literally “worked herself to death” trying to educate Negro youth. Watson focused on each of their qualities like fidelity, persistence, self-discipline, honesty, intelligence and morality that BMP participants could use to empower their lives and the lives around them.
Watson rhetorically asked the group: “Will you build on their legacies? Will you add to their legacies, or will you detract?” Many of their legacies are described in the hope and optimism found in several of these African Americans’ quotes, like: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” “What’s possible for me is possible for everyone,” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” “There are no crops without plowing” and “There is always a price to be paid.”
Watson earned his doctorate in history from the University of South Carolina with areas of specialty in African American, Colonial American, Civil War and Reconstruction and Early American Literature. Watson holds a master’s degree from SC State University and a bachelor’s degree from Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. The associate professor and coordinator of history at SC State presently serves as project historian for Orangeburg School District Five, Williamsburg County School District and Charleston County Public Schools (The Palmetto Project) Teaching American History grants. Watson has presented and published several scholarly papers to include his most recent publication: “Martha Schofield and Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, Women Founders of South Carolina Black Colleges” (University of Georgia Press, 2010). His other scholarly papers include: “History as Stories-The Art of Teaching History Through Field Studies” (2011); “Inseparable-Freedom and Education, A Historical Perspective on African American Racial Uplift” (2011); “Lincoln on Slavery, Contrabands, Fugitives, Black Soldiers, and Sherman’s Special Field Order 15” (2011); “Jemmy and Jehu Jones, the African American Experience in Colonial South Carolina”(2010); “The Cotton Club: Jim Crow Comes to Harlem, 1920-1933” (2009); “The Negro, the Grand Jury and the Law in Colonial South Carolina: An Index” (2005) and “Multiculturalism in Colonial South Carolina: Different Shades of Red, White and Black” (1999).
Terrence M. Cummings, executive director for student success and retention, lauded Watson for his presentation, commenting that “the depth and breadth of Dr. Watson’s presentation is timely, for it reaffirms the need for ‘intermediaries of humanity.’ Clearly, Professor Watson’s message confirmed that there certainly was no dearth of African American humanitarians in our storied past. These prophets worked for the common good, and this ought to be inspiration and example for all of our work at the University today” said Cummings.