Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Setting Educational Goals

BOND: Now, some time along the way you meet this Ph.D., and -- tell that story.

HRABOWSKI: Oh, yes. That was the summer at Tuskegee University and it was a National Science Foundation program and he would do it -- he’d come in and throw out a problem that was much harder. Mr. Bell’s problems you could solve in a day. This guy would come in -- this was a program that summer in mathematics and the kids came from -- they were the smart kids from the south, from Montgomery to Atlanta and Richmond, I remember. And then there were all these really smart kids from the Northern schools and some from private schools, some very prestigious private black schools and then private white schools and they were really well prepared. They were better prepared than we were. The difference, first of all, I have to tell you, was they felt fairly ordinary about themselves. They did not feel they were really special because in those very prestigious places they did well but they were not outstanding. We were the best in our little schools and that’s when I began to understand that sometimes even if you don’t have as strong an academic background, if you have been made to feel like the leader, the special one, you’ll go far beyond what people ever expected, so we were much harder working, much more humble quite frankly, than they were and in the end, we ended up doing quite well.

I tell you that because when the professor came in and he started coming in -- he was a dean at Tuskegee -- to give us a problem just to see what we could do, it became clear after a few days that he gave us problems that we necessarily could not solve in twenty-four hours which was unheard of. You know, you’d think you’d do it like that [snaps fingers] and we’d be working on it together and somebody was calling him Doctor. I said, “What kind of doctor is he?” thinking physician, and they said, “He’s a Ph.D.” “What’s a Ph.D.?” “It’s as high as you can go. That means you know a lot.” People look up to you and I said, “Ah ha, that’s -- " Because I knew I didn’t want to be a physician because I don’t like blood.

BOND: Yes, that would be a barrier.

HRABOWSKI: I’d already said, no, I don’t like working with dead people and I don’t like blood, so I can’t do a physician thing. No, I don’t want that, but I did -- I loved teaching children to read and compute and to think. And I always was trying to figure out how to get students to stop being so bored by this world and that’s what he did. He came in and we were fascinated. This man could be so smart. He could talk for a moment, frame a question, and say, "Here’s the question for you." And then walk out. And it was as if he was saying, "I dare you to be smart enough to get it." Oh, I got goosebumps every time. I just got to the point I just- I admired this man so.

BOND: So much so that you began looking at yourself --

HRABOWSKI: In the mirror every day I said that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to inspire people and show them just how challenging it can be to do this stuff so every morning when I’d get up, I’d look in the mirror and I said, “Good morning, Dr. Hrabowski.” I looked at my fat little face. “Good morning, Dr. Hrabowski.” And so when I was in college and my girlfriend, who’s now my wife, heard me do that, she said, “What did you just say?” And I had to admit to her that I said that. She said, “You know, you really are crazy.” True story.