Soulsville, USA native and retired professor Dr. Bobby Luckett gave important history lessons to a mostly student audience at the recent African American History Month celebration at LeMoyne-Owen College.
Dr. Bobby Lovett has called Nashville home for more than 30 years, but South Memphis remains the place that shaped who he is today.
Lovett graduated from Booker T. Washington High School 55 years ago. He grew up in the Soulsville, USA neighborhood, where he returned as the speaker at the annual celebration of African American History Month at LeMoyne-Owen College. Presented by the school’s Center for African and African American Studies, the event was held Feb. 3 at Metropolitan Baptist Church.
Lovett is an award-winning author, historian, speaker and retired professor of African American history. He taught history in Memphis public schools and served as a senior professor at Tennessee State University for 30 years until his retirement in 2010. He also served as the dean of the school’s College of Arts and Sciences for more than 10 years.
“Harriet Tubman said it best. They asked her what is it like to be a slave and what is a slave,” Lovett said. “She said to be ignorant of the world around you is slavery. I’ve been reading books since the fifth grade because I didn’t want to be ignorant of the world around me. … She also said to not want to know about the world around you is death. A lot of people don’t want to read anything. Well, you’re going to die, intellectually.”
Speaking to a mostly student audience, Lovett provided a few historical facts in African American history as he also talked about the importance of historically black colleges to the fabric of this country.
Schools like LeMoyne-Owen College provided an opportunity for higher education for the city’s black residents despite the turbulent Jim Crow society of the times. A 1961 Booker T. Washington graduate, Lovett said he and his peers experienced many of those roadblocks.
“We’re not supposed to be here today but there is a secret to why we are,” he said. “I told my daughter we’re like the Kennedys. She laughed. I said the Kennedys always said don’t get mad, get even. The way you get even is being successful and rising above in this economy despite all the things that will be done to you. We did rise up because we had something ingrained in us by our teachers that showed us we could go higher than some of the people trying to hold us back in this city.
“I used to tell my college students if you study black history you’re going to get a black eye. African American history is filled with tragedy but also triumph. An institution such as LeMoyne had a bulldog perseverance.”
For the retired history professor, the appearance was a throwback to his classroom days. He mixed in lessons of national black history facts with Memphis-focused moments, specifically how LeMoyne-Owen students were engaged in the movement.
He told how students sent letters of protest to Boss E.H. Crump.
“The police in 1934 were shooting down black men in the streets like dogs,” Lovett said. “The students here sent a letter and Boss Crump ignored the letter. But you can see how brave and courageous they were.”
Lovett told the story of how his father was among the estimated 1 million African American men and women who served in the U.S. military during World War II. When his father returned to Memphis in 1946 he saw a city that offered nothing for him. So he re-enlisted.
“When those 1 million got back home they were still discriminated against in these United States and yet we had fought for freedom and democracy over in Europe,” Lovett said. “So we are still fighting the civil rights movement and we don’t want anybody to put it in our head that we started fighting in 1960. We have been fighting every step of the way. … We have made steps along the way because we kept on protesting. Today, we can’t be complacent. If you think everything is hunky dory and everything is all right you’ll be surprised. Our battle on this battlefield is still going on.”
He stressed the importance of recognizing that in 2019 it will have been 400 years since the first slaves were brought to Jamestown Colony in 1619.
“Our history is a long history but we don’t always tell it so that we will feel proud and stand on that history,” Lovett said. “You only have one history to be proud of and that’s your own.”
Lovett mixed in plenty of life lessons with the history talk, encouraging students to pull themselves up and walk their own journeys.
Lovett spoke of a recent visit to the Economic Club of Nashville, an organization that only this year admitted two black members.
“I took my youngest son to make sure he knew how the network in this country works and so he could get a chance to meet the richest, powerful people in Nashville so he’s not on the outside of this booming economy,” he said. “It’s not who you know but who knows you. So you have to make sure when you’re young you shake somebody’s hand and introduce yourself and let them know who you are. That’s how you get breaks.”
Lovett also stressed the need for more African Americans to go into tougher subjects such as physics and computer sciences to be more involved in the technological advances of today.
“Until we get into the producer side then we’ll always have less freedom than other people,” he said. “Until we become a part of it my people are going to suffer. … People depend on us to be ignorant of the world around us. They bet on it. They don’t put bookstores in our communities because they bet on us not wanting to know about the world.”