Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Teachers

BOND: Now, obviously your parents had an enormous influence on your life because of your father's profession, both as an educator and as a minister and his father before him, and your mother's experiences as an educator, and her family background coming from educators – but aside from them, and I know they must have been an enormous influence, what other adult figures influenced your early life?

GRAY: Oh my goodness, the list is so long. I mean, you know, if I go back and describe living on a college campus, Florida Memorial College while I was in St. Augustine, Florida; Florida A&M College while I was in Tallahassee. I mean, I saw role models every day. I saw African Americans who had Ph.D's, master's degrees, very learned people who were discussing concepts, theories, and things that just gave me a great kind of exposure. I saw students, you know, struggling to survive in a college. I saw great athletes. You've got to remember that when I was at Florida A&M, all the great athletes in black America, went to black colleges. They didn't play at Florida State University or University of Florida or the University of Alabama. When the pro teams came looking for star athletes, they came to black colleges, and drafted them from the football team. I mean, I saw these people, and were they people who were role models? Absolutely. Coaches – Coach Gaither, I remember, was a role model. I remember some of the professors, who I just admired and thought so much about. And then when I came to Philadelphia, a new set of role models. School teachers – Sam Bass, who is one of my elementary school teachers, who is just a great role model for me. And then, John Glenn, who was one of my middle school teachers at Cooke Junior High School and was my track coach and cross-country coach. And throughout life, I had the opportunity to run into people who were just wonderful examples of human accomplishment, excellence, and from all walks of life.

BOND: And then you go from Gratz to Franklin and Marshall, and get a BA there, and while you're there, you serve as an intern for a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania congressman, Robert Nix, who was just a fixture in black politics then. What was that experience like?

GRAY: Well, Franklin Marshall, it was five black students out of about 1,200 white students. And it was all male. Now it's co-ed. And it was a great school, great education. We had our problems, though, in terms of, you know, racial attitudes. It was a school where all the social life was in the fraternities and none of the fraternities would pledge blacks, except one. And so therefore, we who were black had no social life, other than going to the black community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I ran up against professors who demonstrated prejudice and bigotry toward me, and you learn to live with that and adjust and deal with it. And I was a history major, and decided in my senior year that I was going to become a minister. And I think one of the – some of the guiding figures for me at that time in my life were – well, let's see, one of them was a coach, a guy named Woody Sponaugle, who was the basketball coach. And he and I had a difficult time for a while, because I was a city basketball player, you know, behind the back, between the legs, all that kind of stuff, and you know, he – that was not his kind of game. So, we kind of had a conflict, and he wanted fundamentals, and I had professors like Norm Zacour in the history department. And one professor in particular, Gene Wise [Sidney Wise], who I never took a course from, but I greatly admired him. And one day after a basketball game and he came up to me and said, "You know, you're not a government major in my department. But you know, I'd like you to consider becoming an intern down in Washington." And I said, "Why?" And he said, "Because I think you have leadership capabilities, you know, you're the leader of the basketball team." I was the point guard who called all the plays. So I said "Okay," and he essentially lined up the internship, and the internship was between my senior year and my going to graduate school, which was to Drew Theological Seminary to start my work on a master of divinity degree.