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2011 News Releases

Longwood students urged at MLK Symposium to be compassionate

January 26, 2011

Barbara Howard speaking at the 2011 MLK Symposum
Barbara Howard speaking at the 2011 MLK Symposium

Longwood University students were urged at the university's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium to reject materialism and self-centeredness.

"The racial barriers have ended, but there are other challenges," said Barbara Noble Howard, a native of apartheid-era South Africa who is the first lady of Hampden-Sydney College. "Economically, we have the haves and the have-nots. There is still a big gap, though it's not a racial gap. The question is: How are we going to close that gap? Are we going to continue to be caught up in the attitude of 'It's all about me'? We should stop thinking about 'me' and start thinking about who among our friends can help us through difficult times. Unfortunately, communities don't help each other as much as in the past, and we have become self-centered. Please think about your community and not just about 'me, me, me.'"

Howard is all too familiar with racial barriers. In the MLK Symposium, on Jan. 20, she spoke about the challenges of her life in South Africa, where she grew up during the country's former system of rigid racial segregation. She had to endure racially-inspired disrespect in nursing school - she was the first black admitted to an all-white nursing school - and while working as a nurse, as well as in her everyday life.

When she went shopping for a dress at age nine and couldn't try one on, she asked her mother why and repeatedly was told "Barbara, those are the rules." She wasn't allowed to enter the white nursing home where her great-grandmother, who "passed" as white, lived. "All we could do was stand outside her window and wave, which made us feel like monkeys," she said.

The government spent $10 on education per white child, $4-5 per "colored" child (those of mixed-race ancestry), and $1 per black child, she said. Black students had to share textbooks; the ratio was five students for each book. Despite this disparity, the value of education was instilled in Howard by her family.

"My mom always told me, 'Be safe, make wise decisions, and remember your education.' I was told the key to a better future is education. I was fortunate to always be surrounded by educated people who stressed education. Our television was a small black and white TV, and all we could watch was the news at 6 and 8 p.m., and we discussed politics."

When she was 14, her father was given the option of being laid off or accepting a 40 percent pay cut. He chose the latter, which caused the family some financial hardship for the next two years. "Still, we had lots of laughter, we didn't miss a meal, and we had Christmas and birthday parties. Money is important, but family and morals and faith can pull you through tough times."

In nursing school, Howard faced a "racist Afrikaner curriculum" and was disrespected by the house mother in the dining room, who refused to let Howard address her as "Aunt," as was customary in South Africa, and refused to call her "Nurse" Noble. However, the house mother's superior treated her with respect and supported her.

"I was scared at first in nursing school," she said. "I was petrified. I wanted to quit. Nobody, including any of the patients, looked like me. I sometimes think we judge people. We never know where our source of help will come from. Help can come from various sources. For example some of the Afrikaners in nursing school took me under their wings, and when it was time to end apartheid, many Afrikaners voted yes to moving forward. It's important to give individuals the benefit of the doubt."

She also had trouble when beginning her nursing career, which lasted for 10 years. "It was awful, it was miserable, it was hell for three to six months," she said in response to a question from the audience. "I had cancer patients who refused to take treatment from me. But a lot of friends helped me."

Howard moved to the United States after marrying Dr. Christopher B. Howard, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel who became Hampden-Sydney's 24th president in July 2009. Longwood President Patrick Finnegan, who introduced her, called her "a great source of inspiration who enhances this community in so many ways."

In his remarks, Patrick Finnegan noted that it is "especially fitting for us at Longwood to celebrate Dr. King's life because his life's work was dedicated to the same principles of citizen leadership that we embrace. One of my favorite Dr. King quotes goes to the heart of this idea. He said 'Life's most urgent and persistent question is what am I doing for others?' Longwood's students, staff and faculty have a long tradition of answering that question by their actions, including participation in many local service projects. In fact, earlier this week, on Martin Luther King Day, 63 students, including the entire men's soccer team and nearly a dozen staff and faculty members, participated in our MLK Challenge. The local public service projects included yardwork and spring cleaning at preschools and The Woodlands, bagging food for the FACES food pantry - more than 300 bags' worth - and working with Clean Virginia Waterways on roadside cleaning along a quarter-mile near Sayler's Creek State Park."

SGA President Ben Brittain, who also spoke at the MLK Symposium, said that the Longwood community is "firmly rooted in the mission of this university and the message from Dr. King: citizen leadership."

"As students and educators, we are privileged to be immersed in an environment open to the dissemination of information, enlightenment, and groundbreaking ideas," Brittain said. "As people afforded this great privilege, we inherently take on great responsibility. We have a responsibility to give a voice to those who have none or speak up for those who cannot do so themselves. This can be as simple as addressing someone's use of derogatory language or, more challenging, establishing a community tutoring program in a county that has one of the lowest literacy rates in the Commonwealth...I challenge you, I challenge myself, to continue to make Dr. King's ideology a reality, to become an active and positive citizen leader."

Longwood also celebrated Dr. King's life and legacy with a reading Jan. 19 of a speech on disability awareness that the late actor Christopher Reeve gave at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. In addition to be the speech being read by volunteer readers, Clint Mooney, a Longwood freshman who was paralyzed from the chest down in a car accident in October 2009, and his father, Farmville Police Chief Doug Mooney, talked about their personal experiences relating to the accident.

The MLK Symposium was co-sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Parents Council. The MLK Challenge was co-sponsored by the Office of Leadership and Civic Engagement, the Black Student Association, and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.