Over mountains and through valleys, The LeMoyne-Owen College has endured all types of financial, social and economic terrain. Today – after 150 years of weathering storms – faculty, students and alums agree that the college is strong as it breaks ground toward continued growth and improvement.
A story that began with society's "least of these" in 1862, LeMoyne-Owen – operating under a different name – was a school and safe house for runaway slaves and freedmen. After moving to Memphis in 1863, the institution experienced one of its first setbacks when a fire consumed it during race riots. Conflict and civil unrest remained after the withdrawal of federal troops in 1866, but the college – then called Lincoln Chapel – was rebuilt and reopened its doors in 1867 with 150 students and six teachers.
This same open-door policy persists today, as the institution continues its mission to "provide a transformative experience educating students for urban-focused leadership, scholarship, service and professional careers."
John Harris, Ph.D., has walked the grounds of LeMoyne-Owen for more than 50 years as a student and then a professor. He has served under eight of the college's eleven presidents, witnessing its history firsthand.
"We're contributing to the economy to yield competent professionals to several disciplines," said Dr. Harris, a mathematics professor and grant project director at the college. "Without LeMoyne-Owen, I can't think of how Memphis might be... We care about each other here, we care about students' success, and we work to make them successful."
Former Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. government and LOC alum, Dr. Herman Henning, is one of those success stories. Although LeMoyne-Owen did not offer the curriculum he needed to pursue foreign affairs in the 1950s, he said dedicated professors at the college helped him pursue and attain his career goals.
"The relationship of the faculty to the student body was memorable. They went out of their way to help," Henning recalled. "I don't see myself as an exception. I saw people around me doing the same thing in their fields....Since you can't see everything ahead of time, you need a solid foundation and LeMoyne-Owen College prepares you with that."
The college's foundation was sometimes shaken, however, due to fiscal instability and accreditation woes. It's a time Dr. Harris said he remembers clearly. The tumultuous 1970s and early 2000s brought several challenges for the institution. Calling this time a "roller coaster," Dr. Harris said some years were prosperous.
"Even when finances were not good, the programs were always strong," he noted, "and the school has grown considerably over the years."
Sophomore mathematics major Bianca Henderson said she benefits from the college's rich history as she builds her own future.
"It (LOC's history) actually opened my eyes. I see I can do anything to accomplish my goals and dreams," said Henderson.
"As a student, LeMoyne-Owen helps me to grow. I've become more mature since I've come to the school. The professors actually care and I like the small class sizes. I can stay in touch with my teachers, and I have a good relationship with the president."
Dr. Kusum Singh, assistant professor of economics, has only experienced one year of the college's history, but she echoes the prevailing sentiments.
"We are very focused on student success," she said.
In addition to professor-student relationships, Dr. Singh noted the bond faculty has with administration.
"President Watson seems to have an unusually close relationship with his faculty, even including faculty in the decision-making process. I feel informed and valued when the president shares with us or asks for our suggestions in various decisions for the college," she said, referring to the president's inclusion of faculty in this cabinet.
Dr. Harris said "shared governance" did not exist at LeMoyne-Owen until President Watson came.
"Decisions were made at the top and were sent down from there," he recalled, speaking of a time before the current president's arrival when the faculty took a vote of "no confidence" in the college's administration.
"When 'Johnnie B.' came, he opened (his doors) immediately. The animosity that existed between president and faculty has completely dissipated."
Michael Robinson has taught social work at the college since 1996 and will begin his inaugural term as president of LeMoyne-Owen's faculty organization in January 2013. He serves on the president's cabinet and acts as a liaison between administrators and professors.
"Transparency helps to create calm and a better mood among faculty and staff because we're all participating and playing a role in the college's development....The college has stability and direction....The president listens; he's fair and can be trusted," Robinson said.
"There is a buzz in the air about LOC....We are producing human capital to be an asset to the local community and globally. The college continues to offer opportunities to students, who may not have had a chance to achieve an education at an institution of higher learning."
Education is important but, more than that, LeMoyne-Owen prepares you for life, Dr. Henning added.
"What you carry out of there that's intangible has the greatest value."