Morehouse Professors Retire After Successful Careers That Span More Than 100 Years CombinedDate Released: May 26, 2017
By SHANDRA HILL SMITH
It’s not going to be easy for Tobe Johnson ’54, the longest-serving faculty member in Morehouse history, to leave the College after 59 years. Even after he retires this semester, he will still be a Morehouse professor. Johnson will teach one class next year.
But it won’t be the same for the acting chair and professor of the Political Science department.
“I’ll keep my hand in the till,” Johnson said. “It’s very difficult for me to get away from these young men.”
Morehouse is losing a significant portion of faculty history as Johnson, along with African American studies and history professor Marcellus Barksdale ’65, and computer science professor Kenneth Perry, have decided to retire. Altogether, their teaching careers have spanned more than a century of the College’s history and scores of Morehouse Men.
‘Helping Students to Become People With a Purpose’
The year has been a special one for Johnson. Not only because of the College’s momentous 150th anniversary, but also for the fact that in this year of his own retirement, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the retirement of his mentor, legendary Morehouse president Benjamin E. Mays.
“Morehouse really is an idea about helping students to become people with a purpose,” said Johnson, who was also a good friend of civil rights legend Martin Luther King Jr. ’48. “To seek to do work in the world that’s beyond their own individual needs. That’s what gives us purpose — the way Dr. Mays put it: is the world somewhat better that you came into it.”
Johnson started his own studies at Morehouse as a 16-year-old who knew little about college life, but was a stellar student ready to compete with others.
He briefly left school to work in a steel mill in Birmingham and then joined the military, spending a few years in Japan. After he was discharged, he immediately returned to Morehouse where he earned a political science degree in 1954. He went on to earn a doctorate in political science from Columbia University, thanks to a stipend he received from his native state of Alabama.
Johnson credits his own Morehouse professors — in what was then a political science curriculum housed in the history department — with igniting his interest in teaching. His teaching philosophy, he said, is one in line with that of the institution — to train Morehouse Men to go into the world to serve a purpose bigger than themselves.
In his time at Morehouse, Johnson has been interim dean of humanities and social sciences, as well as professor and chair of the political science department. He has significantly shaped the political science curriculum, and the department as a whole, with each political science major over the past 59 years likely having taken a class from him. (And he has also shepherded the graduation of thousands of Morehouse Men while serving as the mace-bearer and chief ceremonial marshal for Commencement for years.)
Some of those former students include former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson ’79, Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell ’91, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard ’72, and Harvard Law School professor Ronald Sullivan Jr. ’89.
That list will also include senior political science major Cremeithius Riggins. A first-generation college student, Riggins will finish his Morehouse coursework this summer and then attend the University of California, Berkeley in the fall.
As the only student in Johnson’s senior thesis class during the spring semester — meeting on Tuesdays and Thursdays — Riggins reaped the benefits of the one-on-one attention. It is that kind of customer service that helped to earn Johnson the Vulcan “Teaching In Excellence” Award for 2017. He was surprised with the recognition at Commencement on May 21.
“He’s definitely made me a sharper student,” said Riggins. “He challenged me as a thinker. He makes me go back, think about what I’m trying to say, and make sure that everything I’m trying to say is expressed in my writing in a clear and concise manner,” he said, adding that he applies that mindset to other areas of his life.
‘The Most Important Thing to Me’
African American studies and history professor Marcellus Barksdale has also changed the lives of scholars who sat in his class eager to learn more about black culture and themselves.
What he will miss most is the bond he created with students. The way Barksdale sees it, the mentorship between a professor and his class is enhanced by laughter and a good meal. End-of-semester dinners at Paschal’s in Atlanta have been a ritual in his class for decades.
Recently, the professor hosted his final night out at Paschal’s with his class. Sixteen of the 21 scholars enrolled in Barksdale’s final class at Morehouse, Social and Cultural History of Morehouse College 1867-2017, met over hot plates of soul food to reminisce about days gone by.
“It’s been a great ride” said Barksdale, 74, known as “Dr. B” after teaching at Morehouse since 1977. “I’ve been teaching almost 50 years and I have no regrets.”
Barksdale recalls his path to the classroom. It began during his sophomore and junior years at Fair Street High School in Gainesville, Ga. That’s where Barksdale studied history under his first mentor, Mattie Leo Moon.
“I was just absolutely enthralled when she would lecture or talk to us,” said Barksdale, Morehouse’s Vulcan Teacher of the Year in 2010. “To this very day, I remember her spending several days talking about, in 1787, when the Constitution was drawn up in Philadelphia — all of the details that went along with that. She did it in such a deliberate way I was just captivated.”
After earning his Bachelor of Arts degree from Morehouse, Barksdale got a master’s degree from Atlanta University, and doctorate from Duke University. He has taught as a secondary teacher in Gainesville, at Clark College, Emory University, Atlanta University, the Morehouse School of Medicine, and Tuskegee University.
He considers his students — the thousands of Morehouse Men and others he’d taught along the way — “the most important thing” to him.
Along with his trademark the end-of-semester dinners at Paschal’s, he also leaves behind what he has dubbed “the Barksdale style” of teaching.
That style is student-centered where the student learns by doing, through writing papers, giving oral presentations, working in groups, and other interactive involvement.
Barksdale is grateful that he had an opportunity to return to his former high school teacher to make her aware of his career choice that she’d influenced years prior. He even shared a copy of his dissertation with her.
“She was so proud of me,” he said. “Before she died, I told her how important she was in my life.”
Barksdale’s students also are letting him know the impact he’s had on their lives.
“His request for excellence is insatiable, and as a student you become enthused by the conquest of high expectations that he has set forth,” said senior economics major Douglas A. Bowen, one of his final students.
“He has prepared me to tackle future endeavors with quality in mind, and if ever I deviate from that formula I know his voice of reason shall serve as guidance,” Bowen said.
The College’s Sesquicentennial celebration is one in which Barksdale has had a very special part.
For five years, he chaired the committee that completed projects for the Sesquicentennial celebration. Barksdale also is completing a 700-page book on two centuries of the College’s history, “The Cross, The Candle, and The Crown: A Narrative History of Morehouse College, 1867-2017.” This tome that he calls a “labor of love” will be his crowning achievement, he said, once it’s published.
It’s a fitting end to his illustrious Morehouse career, one in which he has touched thousands of students. Just as his mentor Mattie Moon did.
“When I entered Morehouse in 1961, I was determined to follow in her footsteps — and I did,” Barksdale said.
Add Seymour, a writer with the Morehouse Office of Strategic Communications, contributed to this report.
Last Modified: June 8, 2017, 13:06 PM, by: Synera Shelton