Preserving Philander Smith College: Q&A with Dr. Roderick L. Smothers, Sr.
The HBCU Cultural Heritage Stewardship Initiative derived from a need to cultivate and uplift historic Black colleges and universities across the nation. This work is in tandem with the standard set by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to protect and restore places where significant Black history happened and highlight the key roles they have played in American society.
In 2021, eight HBCUs were awarded more than $650,000 in funding to develop cultural heritage stewardship plans for their campuses and historic sites. The sole goal of this initiative is to partner with HBCUs to empower and preserve the legacies of the campuses and ensure that the stories of their foundations are upheld to educate and inspire future generations of students to pay it forward. As part of this work, we conducted a Q&A with each grant recipient to learn about the history and work at each of these significant institutions.
Philander Smith College, located in Little Rock, Arkansas, dates from 1877, deriving from the first attempt to make education widely available to formerly enslaved African Americans of the Mississippi River. Then known as Walden Seminary, it was renamed in 1882 following a gift by Adeline Smith in honor of her late husband Philander Smith, a generous donor and supporter of the Methodist Church in the South. Today Philander Smith sits adjacent to Little Rock’s historic Dunbar neighborhood and contains numerous historic buildings that make up the Philander Smith College Historic District, including the Cox Administration Building (1915), Sherman E. Tate Recreation Center (1936) and Kelly Hall (1952).
In this Q&A Dr. Roderick L. Smothers, Sr. President of Philander Smith College, discusses the history of Philander Smith, its campus, and the vision for preserving the Sherman E. Tate Recreation Center.
What is the significance of Philander Smith, and why is it important to preserve?
In April, Philander Smith College will celebrate its 145th Founders’ Day. I can say that institutions that have been around that long clearly have done something right. Philander Smith has always been around at the right time and in the right place, aligning with the times in which it has existed.
We are currently in the middle of a global health pandemic, as well as an ongoing racial epidemic in this country where it is still trying to reconcile with respect to its original sins and what happened to Africans, who were ultimately enslaved in this country from 1619 to the Great Migration of African Americans in the 20th century. Places like Philander Smith College have existed and helped throughout these times, in respect to the systems in this country, providing the leadership that holds those systems accountable.
So, we are a beacon of accountability, a beacon of hope for many, and more importantly, we are a beacon of access, for the young people who have historically been denied those opportunities and have not realized that a place like Philander Smith College is the right place for them.
It is important to me that the elements of history continue to be maintained, whether it is buildings or infrastructure, so that as students walk through these halls, they can feel the spirit and the ethos that has kept this institution afloat for 145 years.
What inspires you about preserving the Tate Center and Philander Smith’s other historic buildings?
The Tate Center is interesting architecturally. It looks like an airplane hangar, but when you walk into it your eyes immediately go to that amazing ceiling. It is unexpected.
At the time that I became president, the Tate was in disrepair with peeling paint and water damage to the ceiling. Mrs. Mary Louis Williams, an honorary graduate of Philander Smith, took me into the building, held my hand, walking on her cane, and said, “Now this building is named after my friend Sherman Tate. And it is one of your oldest buildings on this campus. Before you leave this institution as president; you have got to make this building look better.” And so, through support from the National Trust and private donors, we were able to engage in the first phase of doing just that.
Last year at homecoming, after we finished that first round of initial repair, I took her in to see it, and it brought tears to her eyes. Mrs. Williams turns 95 years old this year, so to be able to deliver on something that is an anchor in this community, that a community mother asked me to do as president, and then to talk to her about future plans, and the fact that partners, such as the National Trust, are helping to make that happen—it brings tears to my eyes as well.
We are delivering and committed to making sure that our students and the community will be a part of preserving Tate and all of Philander’s historic buildings. It is absolutely amazing.
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How do you envision role of the Tate Center in engaging students, faculty, and the community based on the needs of Philander Smith in the 21st century?
The current Philander Smith Master Plan was developed during the administration of former president Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed and identified two building for demolition: the Tate Center and the M.L. Harris Building. I thank God that Dr. Reed had the wisdom and foresight, which was passed on to the next president, Dr. Walter Kimbrough, that we could not tear these buildings down.
The Tate Center is one of our most beautiful structures on this campus because of its proximity and meaning in the center of the campus. Originally known as the “Old Gymnasium,” it was renamed after Sherman E. Tate, alumni, prominent entrepreneur, and former chairman of the Philander Smith Board of Trustees. Mr. Tate always gives credit to Philander Smith and how it helped to catapult him, as a young man who came from poverty—and using basketball as his entree to the institution—preparing him with an education for life and living. It is at the Tate Center where we can recreate this experience for a new generation of students.
As we think about the iterations of our master plan, we want to look at Tate as a student success center that maintains it as the nucleus of the campus while allowing it to support increased recreation and serve as a place where students can find themselves. That is why I get excited thinking about the opportunities for preservation, but also the experiences many students will have there for generations to come.
What is the role of Philander Smith within Little Rock's African American community and the historic Dunbar neighborhood?
There is a triangle in this community where you have the historic Dunbar neighborhood, the site of so much [Black] excellence and then you have the Little Rock Central High School neighborhood, synonymous with the 20th century struggle for school integration. Philander Smith is right in the center and connected to those communities. It is the reality that in 2022, we are still dealing with the issues of social justice, which are woven into the historical fabric of these neighborhoods.
Philander Smith has always had a justice-charged mission, and it is our responsibility as an anchor institution in this triangle to not only support the other points of the triangle, but to be the leader, and to produce students through our justice-charged mission who will stay in this community and go into those points of that triangle and make sure it continues. The Philander Smith impact can be in many places, whether it is educational equality that produces Black teachers who have the knowledge, the skills, and cultural competencies to go into schools of color—no matter where they are, but especially in this community—making sure those children are thriving.
For example, we are getting ready to occupy some space in the 12th Street area, which is right around the corner from Little Rock Central High School, and we are making sure that from a justice standpoint, that those students are trained to be able to tackle the issues around the criminal justice system and how people of color are treated so unfairly. With that, we become responsible for training those advocates for justice, who are not afraid even of that system.
Finally, we recently acquired another piece of property which will hold our Dr. Jocelyn Elders School of Allied and Public Health, where students will be trained and equipped to make sure that, when the next global health pandemic hits, we have minority students and leaders who are prepared to go out and fill voids in our communities. This can be done, all while ensuring the triangle stays intact and Philander Smith remains an anchor.
What do you see as the greatest challenge to HBCU leaders in preserving their HBCU campuses in the 21st century?
If you asked my fellow HBCU presidents, what were the top issues facing our institutions, at the top of that list would be affordability and finding the resources for students; second would probably be related to faculty support and technology; and third dealing with the severity of the deferred maintenance and the condition of the historic buildings on our campuses.
Those same presidents would [also] tell you that if they had their way, they would not demolish or tear those buildings down, they would try to preserve them, bring them up to code and make sure that they have a contemporary representation of what is needed on their campuses for their students, while at this same time maintaining their historic relevance. That is the same case at Philander Smith, and it has to remain at the forefront of the preservation agenda.
Last year we held a HBCU summit at Philander Smith with Rep. French Hill (AR) and Rep. Alma Adams (NC) to discuss how to help Arkansas’ four HBCUs (Arkansas Baptist College, Philander Smith, Shorter College, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). From that conversation they introduced the H.R. 3294 IGNITE HBCU Excellence Act, which is designed to give HBCUs the much-needed resources to address historic preservation and infrastructure related issues.
The legislation is pending, but I am hopeful that it will pass and coupled with the work the National Trust is doing, it will give us and other HBCUs a much-needed injection of supporting resources. It is critically important, and until more resources are made available, preservation and infrastructure will remain one of the top priorities for all HBCU presidents and leaders.
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