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Interview with Dr. Robert Albright

Albright, Robert
Owens, Konya
Date of Interview: 
higher education administration; neighborhood crime; poverty; African Americans; black-on-black crime; racism-South; Jim Crow; segregation; leisure time; recreation; natural disasters; Hurricane Hugo; travel; supernatural; superstitions; riots; March on Washington
Robert Albright talks about his role as the lead administrator at Johnson C. Smith University and the professional and academic paths that led him to that position. Denouncing black-on-black crime and the deleterious effects of poverty, he discusses the state of the African American community in Charlotte that surrounds his university and home. Albright recalls events from his youth such as meeting his wife, his high school and college life in Pennsylvania, and a stinging experience with racism while visiting the Jim Crow South. He talks about meeting the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the impact the civil rights leader had on his life and on the American experience. In this eclectic interview, Albright shares his thoughts on the supernatural and superstitions and even recalls his experiences during Hurricane Hugo.
Charlotte, Philadelphia,1945-1992
Interview Setting: 
Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte, NC
Levine Museum of the New South, Local History Series
(Konya Owens): August the 10th, '92. [Pause] Oh, the interviewer name is Konya Owens and interviewee is Dr. Albright. Where were you born?
(Robert Albright): Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
KO: Where do you live?
RA: I live about two blocks from the university on, right off of Beatties Ford and Oaklawn.
KO: Uh-huh.
RA: 1723 Washington Avenue.
KO: Where do you live--, where, where did you stay when you, where you was borned at?
RA: We lived in--. I was born in West Philadelphia, and we lived in West Philadelphia for most of my life until I went off to college.
KO: When did you come down here?
RA: I came to Charlotte in July of 1981. At that time I was hired by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte as Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, and then I came to Johnson C. Smith University in July of 1983.
KO: What, what did you do as a student, what is it? Student affairs at--?
RA: I was responsible for functions like admissions, financial aid, residential life, the student center, the counseling center, the testing center, all those functions which were described as non-academic but supportive of the academic program, the things students were interested in doing and needed to do to complement their overall studies.
KO: What is your occupation now?
RA: [Clears throat] President of Johnson C. Smith University.
KO: And can you tell a little about the things you do around here?
RA: [Laughter] It seems like I do everything except change the linen, but primarily I'm responsible for the overall management of the university: setting priorities, setting plans for the future, managing the budget, raising money for the university, establishing the academic program, and supervising the overall staff of about three hundred people that work here at Johnson C. Smith.
KO: Do y'all have like any like con--, con--, conflicts around here?
RA: Yeah, from time to time we have dif--. I wouldn't call it conflicts. From time to time we have differences of opinion about either the policies which the university is adopting or perhaps the manner in which we allocate some of our resources or perhaps even some of our long range plans, but basically the university community discusses these matters, and we usually come to some resolution about the differences and debates that we may have over one area or another.
KO: Oh. Tell me about your house where it is now, off Beatties Ford Road. Is it convicted with drugs or anything?
RA: The area around where I live?
KO: Uh-huh.
RA: Yeah, close to us there are several housing projects that people unfortunately are engaged in illicit drugs. We live right in the heart of the black community so we have--. We're, we are victims as most people are who live in the inner city with respect to crime and occasionally drugs and, but more importantly we are concerned about the depression we see around us. People, poor people who just do not believe they can rise above their standards.
KO: Oh, explain to me about your family relations and conditions.
RA: My family relations? I am, I'm married. I have two children. My wife works here at the university; she's a librarian here. My daughter is about to go to graduate school at Ohio State University. She's twenty-four years old. And I have an eighteen, nineteen year old son who will be starting his junior year at North Carolina Central University this fall.
KO: How do you use your leisure time in the evening?
RA: I do three things. I--, during the summer I play tennis a lot when I can, when I have free time. I love to read, and I have a fairly extensive book collection, and I do spend a lot of my leisure time reading. And third I play with the computer. We have two computers at home, and I've gotten to be a computer hack, so I spend some of my leisure time just designing things, occasionally playing computer games, but more often doing work because during the course of the day I can't get everything accomplished that I need to, so I take a lot of work home at night.
KO: Saturday and Sunday, what do you on Saturdays and Sundays?
RA: Well, when I'm not working or traveling, Saturdays and Sundays are the days which I primarily play tennis during the afternoon and early evening, and in the evenings I just relax or read a book or TV, do something like that.
KO: Can you tell about your school life? When you were a kid?
RA: Yeah, I went to Overbrook High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was a school--. It's a good school, but it was probably more known for basketball than anything else, and I always wanted to be a basketball player, so I played basketball in high school. I won a scholarship in basketball.
KO: Uh-huh.
RA: And I went to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Lincoln is the oldest historically black college in the country. And it was an all male school that I frankly loved. It was out in the country. It's a lot like Johnson. C. Smith except that it's fifty miles away from the biggest city, and small, relatively small student body, about 500 people. I played basketball. We didn't win very many games, but we had a good time. And I think that much about too my experiences at Lincoln shaped my life and my philosophy, and so I'm very grateful to them, to that institution, for having given me the incentive and the vision to do what I'm doing today.
KO: Did you know that you was going to become a president of a college?
RA: No, I must confess when I graduated from Lincoln, I didn't know. I wanted to be--. My ambition in life at that time was to become a dean at a college. In fact I wanted to be dean at Lincoln University, that's how much I loved the place. And then fortunately, about seven years after I graduated, I was made dean, and later vice president of the university. And one of the presidents of the university, a person with whom, to whom I was very close, kept saying to me one day you're going to be a college president. And he really started me thinking about being a college president. And so I went back to graduate school and got a Ph.D. and worked for a while in federal government, and then lo and behold, some years later, Johnson C. Smith University offered me the opportunity.
KO: Where were you when Hurricane Hugo came?
RA: The first time, I was struck by Hurricane Hugo in Puerto Rico. I was in Puerto Rico giving a speech. And the day after I got there, Hugo came through Puerto Rico and ruined the island. It took me four days to get back home. I couldn't give the speech because all the electricity was out, and all the houses were damaged. But I couldn't leave Puerto Rico because airport was damaged, and I flew back here on Thursday. And I think I--. Hugo hit here on Friday. So I got--. I'm probably the only person in the world who was hit by Hugo twice. But I was home when Hugo hit. It came about five o'clock that morning, and I remember hearing the wind. And I said to my wife, I woke her up and I said, " Hurricane Hugo's here." And she said, "How can you know that?" And I said, "I know Hugo. I know that sound."
KO: Um-hum.
RA: So I--, we made sure the house was secure, and then I came up to campus to make sure things were OK on the campus. And the electricity was knocked out on campus for about four hours, and we were concerned about feeding students and making sure nobody was hurt. But fortunately the electricity came back on, and even though we didn't have electricity in our house for about twenty days, the campus did not suffer from the absence of electricity.
KO: How did you meet your spouse?
RA: I was going to graduate school at Temple University, and she was a student at Temple University. And we were standing outside of a classroom waiting for the class to--. She was on one side of the hall, and I was on the other side of the hall. And she claims that I winked at her, but I think she winked at me, but.
KO: [Laughter]
RA: My recollection is that she winked at me. And I saw her a little later and invited her out to get a Coke. And we went out and had Coke, and then later I called her up and asked her for a date and that's how we actually met.
KO: How long y'all engaged?
RA: We were engaged for about six months before we got married.
KO: Has anything strange or unusual ever happened to you?
RA: To me?
KO: Uh-huh.
RA: Oh, let's see. I've had, nothing strange, but I've had very good experiences. I've had the unusual experience of being able to travel a lot. And I was invited to places that I never thought I'd see. In 1984, I was invited to go to China, and I spent about twenty days in China. In 1986, I was invited to go to South Africa, and I spent about two weeks in South Africa. I've also been to Japan. I spent three months in Japan in the summer of 1990. I've been to Israel, so I've had a ch--. I went to Russia last year. So I've really had a chance to travel a lot and that's, to me, is unusual because I never thought I'd get a chance to see those places which I've had a chance to see and live in.
KO: We've been talking about ghosts, and so, you know, do you believe in ghosts?
RA: I believe that there are spirits which occasionally manifest themselves. I'm not so sure I'd call them ghosts, but I, I know that there's so much about the world that we don't know that I, I'm reluctant to say that I believe and I don't believe in anything because strange things do happen. And I think that there are people who genuinely believe they have seen ghosts, and I think they've seen something. Now whether you call them a ghost or a spirit or, or something, a memory from the past or perhaps the future, I really can't describe that, but I do believe that there are things in this world that we can't explain.
KO: When you were a child was there a haunted house in your neighborhood?
RA: Yeah, as a matter of fact there was. It was a big old mansion that, in our neighborhood that, the people left and it fell to, into a state of bad repair. And I remember when I was young, kids used to dare each other to go into the mansion and of course, when you go into it you always--. A big old mansion like that which is simply fallen on hard times, you always hear strange things. The floor would creak, the wall would creak, and we'd all come running out because we'd swear we'd seen something in there. I don't know whether there were ghosts in there or not, but when you're young, your imagination is very vivid. And so we all thought there were ghosts that occupied the place. They finally tore it down because it started falling down, and they were afraid people would be injured. So I do recall having been to a haunted house once in my neighborhood-not once, but on a couple of occasions.
KO: Oh, are you superstitious?
RA: Yeah, I think I am superstitious. I, I think that, that, that it's hard to influence things. But I think superstition is, is a, a kind of a feeling which people have which gives them hope that things will work out right for them. So that when I, when I was playing basketball for example, I always wore wrist bands, because I thought I played better if I had wrist bands on. I always, I tried to keep the same number when I was in high school when I went to college. I asked for the same number because I thought that was my number. As I get older, I guess I've gotten less superstitious, but certainly when I was young, I think I was probably as superstitious as most people are.
KO: Do you believe in good luck?
RA: Yes, I do. As a matter of fact I think my life has been blessed with good luck.
KO: Uh-huh.
RA: I think very few people have had the opportunities that I've had. I mean I grew up, I grew up poor. My, my parents were both laborers. My mother worked as a secretary. My father worked as a clerk for the federal government. And I was, I think, it was good luck that I was able to go to college. I think it was good luck that I went to the right college, Lincoln University, where they really got me to thinking less about basketball and more about my life. I think it was good luck that I was at the right place at the right time to get this job at Johnson C. Smith University. I think it's been extremely good luck that we have been, the university's been very well received by our corporate friends and alumni and so, yeah, I do believe in good luck. I think I'm living, living proof of good luck.
KO: Have you ever been in a fire?
RA: A fire?
KO: Uh-huh.
RA: Not a serious fire. No.
KO: Now, do you think much about death?
RA: I don't think about death now as much as I did when I was young. I was, you know, when you're young the concept of death is very hard to, to grasp, to realize, and I used to worry very much about not so much my own death, but the death of those people that I loved, my parents and my friends. I always felt that I would not want to see them die. And so I, I was absorbed with, in some ways, death when I was young.
KO: Do you have any special wishes for your funeral?
RA: Yeah, I want my funeral to be a happy occasion. I don't want people too upset when I go. I think I've lived a good life, a full life. I would want people to remember me as I was, and I don't want, I don't want an open casket, you know. Just have a picture of me on the casket. I don't want my family to spend a lot of money burying me, because that's money they can spend on something else. But primarily, I just want people not to grieve when I leave here, but just to remember, if they can some of the good things that I think and I hope that I've accomplished.
KO: How, how would you like to die?
RA: Naturally. I'd like to die in my sleep. You know?
KO: Oh. Can you explain to me a time in your life when you were most proud to be black?
RA: When I was most proud to be black. Yeah, I guess there have been several occasions. The most recent which was a year ago in January, I was elected chairman of the board of the most prestigious organization in higher education, the America Counsel on Education. And I was very proud at that time, because I was the first black American to serve as Chairman of the Board of ACE, American Counsel on Education. And I was very proud because a lot of black people in the audience were there. A lot of my friends came to see me inaugurated, and they were very, very pleased that, that I've been able to achieve that. I've also, I was also proud to be black when I went to South Africa, because in South Africa black South Africans are treated very harshly by white people, and I was there. I thought I was really doing something good by going to South Africa, by trying to help create educational programs and trying to get the federal government to give them money. But I was, I was very proud of being a black man as I walked around in a country which is very racist and in which blacks are traditionally not received very well. But in my case, because I was sent over by the federal government, they treated me very well, and they listened to what I had to say and I, and I was very proud to be black at that moment.
KO: Can you, do you remember your first experience with racial prejudice?
RA: Yeah, the first experience that I remember very vividly is when I went to Georgia. My parents are from Georgia, and I went to Georgia because of my grandmother. And I remember walking down the street and my brother, my stepbrother telling me that we had to step off the sidewalk when a white person approached us, because they had the right to the sidewalk. And I was told that I was not to look a white person in the face when I was in Georgia. And when I went to the movie, we had to go upstairs and sit in the balcony. And I was really very bothered by that, because I wasn't used to that in, in Philadelphia where I grew up. Now people had called me nigger and things like that, but I didn't pay much attention to that, because you hear that quite a bit. But I was always struck by the racism in the South the first time I came to the South, which I was probably about ten years old.
KO: What kind of man was Dr. Martin Luther King to you?
RA: Oh, I think he was a great man. I think he was a( )leader; I think he was a visionary; I think he was a person in which black people could, could have a lot of pride. He made us feel good about who we are. I think that he really, beyond being a major figure for black Americans, Martin Luther King was a national leader, and he represented this nation very well, and he had as many white people supporting as him as he had black people. So I think Martin Luther King was a person for all people, not just for black people, and I'm very proud of him and his accomplishments.
KO: Have you ever saw him or met him?
RA: Yeah, I met Dr. King on several occasions. He came to Lincoln University when I was a student there. I saw, I went to the march in Washington in 1963 when we were all down at the capital. On a couple of occasions, as I later grew up and became college president, I had the chance to-not a college president, but, I guess I saw him the last time in 1968, right before he died. I was in Washington, D.C. teaching school, and he came to Washington and we had, we had a rally. I went and met him and shook his hand at that time. And that was probably early in 1968 before he was killed.
KO: What do you think was Dr. King's greatest accomplishment?
RA: I think his greatest accomplishment was in convincing black Americans and in convincing America that you can bring about a peaceful revolution. Prior to Dr. King, the only person who had really preached peace as a means of revolution was Gandhi. In fact Dr. King took a lot of his own philosophy from Gandhi. But he was able to really bring this nation to its knees with respect to racism simply by telling, teaching us to turn our cheeks, to love, to love people that hated us, and showed us that you can achieve truth and justice and equality without having to resort to violence. And I think that was his greatest contribution to mankind, not just to black people.
KO: On the day that he got killed, did anything happen around your neighborhood?
RA: Um-hum. I was in Washington, D.C. when he was killed, and people took to the streets. It was a riot. Probably the worst riot in Washington, D.C. since the, the only riot, riot that's been worst in my view is the riot in Los Angeles when the Rodney King verdict was announced. But I remember there was so much anger among people, particularly many of the young black students who were not much younger than I was, because they'd all been affected by Dr. King as I personally been affected by Dr. King.
KO: What do you think has been our most important black man of your lifetime?
RA: I think Dr. King has been the most important black man of my lifetime.
KO: If you could live any, anywhere, where would it be?
RA: If I could live anywhere?
KO: Uh-huh.
RA: I think I'd like to live in Africa. I think I'd like to, to go back to--. I say go back to Africa, we all came from Africa, but there's so much that we don't know about our culture. We know about being black in America, but we don't really know what, what it's like to be black in Africa. And I think I, having visited South Africa, which is not black Africa as Ghana, Kenya, and places like that are, but it's just there's almost a spiritual occasion for me to be back in Africa to see black people doing things and controlling things. To travel through the, the villages and to travel through the bush, it was just--. It's a place I think I'd like to live.
KO: What is the worst thing you can imagine happening to you?
RA: The worst thing?
KO: Uh-huh.
RA: Oh, probably blindness would, from my perspective, would be the worst thing that could happen to me, because I'm a person who enjoys sights, you know. I enjoy seeing things. I enjoy reading. I know that blind people can read through Braille, but I just enjoy things. So my eyes are so much a part of me and what I do that I think if I ever became blind it would be, it would just to me almost be the end of the world.
KO: If you had one wish what would it be?
RA: If I had one wish?
KO: Uh-huh.
RA: Oh, I'd like to--. Gosh, there's so many things I want. If I had one wish it would be that we could eliminate racism in this country and have people treated as equals. I'd like to see the poor people in this nation--. I mean I, I, I really feel so bad when I go up and down Beatties Ford Road, for example, and I see people who are poor, who have no hope. When I see kids who are growing up in poverty, growing up around dope and crime and things like that. I think if we could eliminate racism in our society and give everybody an equal chance for success, that we'd, we'd have a much better world, and that would be my one wish for mankind.
KO: What do, what do you have to say about the black-on-black crime going around Charlotte?
RA: I think black-on-black crime is horrible. I understand why it happens, because we, most of the people who commit crimes, commit crimes in their own neighborhood. I mean, very seldom see black people going out to southeast Charlotte, or south Charlotte, because they would be immediately suspect if they went out there. And I think that black-on-black crime occurs because, again, black people are poor, they're disadvantaged, they, there's a tremendous anger and they take the anger out on the people closest to them. And that unfortunately happens to be other black people.
KO: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
RA: If I could change one thing about myself what would it be? Probably to be a bit more patient and tolerant. I'm a very impetuous person in many ways. I'm a person who when I want something, I want it right away. When I think something has to be done, I want to do it right away. And so I think if I could change myself, I'd like to be a bit less impetuous and, and a bit more tolerant.
KO: If you could--. In ten more years in your life, what would you like to be doing?
RA: If I could do what? I'm sorry.
KO: Is ten more years in your life, what would you like to be doing?
RA: Oh, I'd like to travel. I'd like to write. I'd like to do the things that I've always wanted to do. I'd like to, to be on a boat sailing around. I'd like swim, I'd like to play with my computer. I'd like to stop working and just enjoy life more, because all of my--. Since I was I guess twelve years old, I've been working. And while I think it's been good for me, you reach a point in time in your life where you just want to stop working and just enjoy life a little bit. And that's what I'd like to do.
KO: If you had a motto, motto or slogan for your life, what would it be?
RA: Slogo, a motto? I, mean-slogo [Laughter]-a motto?
KO: Uh-huh.
RA: It would probably be, Be All That You Can Be.
KO: Well, it was nice interviewing you.
RA: Thank you, thank you.
KO: And I hope--.