Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Education: Undergraduate Years

BUTTS: My mother was the one who encouraged me to go to Morehouse. I wanted to go to Trinity in Hartford. I have an honorary degree from there now, but in those days when I was graduating, we went to the high school college fair and I talked to the guy from Trinity and he said, “Well," he said, "your grades are good enough." He said, "We’ll let you in, but we can’t give you a full scholarship, a partial scholarship.” Well, that wouldn’t do. I couldn’t afford it. He said, “Well, I tell you what, you know, maybe you go to another school and if you get straight A's, we’ll let you in with a full scholarship.” I was distraught, because I’d seen the pictures of Trinity and the beautiful campus. So, I went home and my mother saw I was distraught. She said, “Well, he said if you go to another school,” she said, “Why don’t you consider going to Morehouse?” And I said, “What?” She said, “Yeah, Dr. Mays is there.” I said, “Doctor — ?" She said, “You remember, I would take you to the National Beauty Culturist Luncheon and he would be their speaker.” Now, these were all the black beauticians, and I said, “Yeah,” and she said, “Do you remember?” I said, “I remember him like he was standing right here,” and I did. I remember him telling a story about two men in a race. I remember his little pithy sayings, I just — so, she said, “Why don’t you go there?”

My father chimed in. He said, “Yeah, it’s in Georgia. Your mother and I are from Georgia,” so I applied and I was accepted and I went. I got straight As both semesters of my freshman year, a 4.0. So my mother said, “Are you ready to go to Trinity?” I said, “No, no, I don’t want to go.” I’d met guys from Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, but I met guys from Tennessee and Mississippi and Alabama and right there in Georgia and the Atlanta experience at that time was just marvelous for me, and Dr. Mays retired the year I went, but he was still around and this last story about him, though there’re many more, I was at Citizens Trust Bank down on — it was Hunter Street then on Martin Luther King Drive, and I was opening an account and the young person, the person behind the counter was a bit slow and I’m a New Yorker, you know, come on, what’s going on, and I let my impatience show. I didn’t see Dr. Mays down at the other end, and he looked down and heard my voice. He said, “Mr. Butts.” I looked up and I saw it was Dr. Mays and I quieted right down, but what shocked me was he knew my name. He remembered me, and his presence, his brilliance, his patience, had a profound impact on me. Dr. Mays was — he was the closest thing to God that I could imagine and everybody else around me. I’ll never get over the influence he’s had on my life. Now, he’s major.

Dr. Lawrence Neal Jones who was Dean at Union Seminary and then he became Dean of the Howard Divinity School. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor and Dr. Gardner Calvin Taylor. These are the men in my later years in terms of forming my ministry and what I went on to do in terms of becoming a college president. Between Dr. Mays, Dr. Proctor and Dean Jones, in terms of academia and the college experience, etc., their influence was just overwhelming.