On a beautiful fall morning in 2007, as I settled in my office for a day’s work, I got a phone call I will never forget. “Dean Gonzalez,” a frail but firm voice said, “this is Dorothy Hawkins-Brooks. I’m an alumna of the School of Education.” She continued, “I lost my home and most of my possessions in Hurricane Katrina.”
I asked what I could do for her, and she said, “I just wonder if it would be possible for IU to replace my doctorate in education diploma.” I was flabbergasted that a woman who had lost everything in such a terrible disaster would take the trouble of getting in touch with me to ask for something of such little monetary value. Yet, that document was so meaningful to her. Later, I found out why.
Dr. Hawkins-Brooks, EdD’68, was one of many African Americans from the South who came north between the 1930s and late 1960s, to pursue advanced degrees in education at IU. At the time of her arrival to Bloomington, most historically black colleges and universities did not offer graduate degrees. Jim Crow laws segregated most of the South, and the civil rights marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were still years away.
But IU President Herman B Wells, BS’24, MA’27, LLD’62, was determined to make the university open and accessible to African Americans, for whom in many cases the only profession available in the South was teaching and education administration in segregated schools.
As a result, today the IU School of Education is recognized among the top 10 producers of African American scholars from the South who attended northern institutions before and during the civil rights movement to prepare for educational and social leadership. IU awarded its first education doctorate in 1934.
The school’s history is replete with examples of African Americans who obtained advanced degrees and had a major impact on their communities. Among several mentioned in a story about this history, published in the Winter 2009 issue of Chalkboard, the School of Education’s alumni magazine, is Dr. Lena Prewitt from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Dr. Pruitt earned her master’s degree in 1955 and her EdD in 1961. Then, in addition to many other accomplishments, she went on to work with Wehrner Von Braun at NASA, helping the project that designed the Saturn 5 rocket that lifted the Apollo spacecraft to the moon.
Willie Everett Combs, who received his PhD in 1964 majoring in secondary education with a minor in general education, social sciences, and health, is also mentioned. He earned his undergraduate degree at the historically black Claflin University in South Carolina, came to IU, and then went on to work in the State Department of Education in Tallahassee, Fla.
And of course there is Dr. Hawkins-Brooks. After serving as a principal in the New Orleans public school system, she became a professor at Southern University and later, Jackson State University, both HBCU institutions.
Moved by what I learned, I didn’t want to just mail Dr. Hawkins-Brooks a replica of her diploma; I wanted to present it myself. As a Cuban refugee who, together with my family, came to the United States with nothing but the clothes on our backs and experienced discrimination in American schools, I understood what that piece of paper meant to her.
In January 2008, I presented Dr. Hawkins-Brooks with her newly-minted diploma at the Edison Walthal Hotel in downtown Jackson, where more than 80 community luminaries, former colleagues, and students gathered to celebrate their friend and mentor. It was a grand affair steeped in southern tradition, sprinkled with a bit of cream and crimson. I will always remember that day.
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of 200: The IU Bicentennial Magazine, a special six-issue magazine that highlights Bicentennial activities and shares untold stories from the dynamic history of Indiana University. Visit 200.iu.edu for more Bicentennial information.