By Joan Tupponce
Charles McLeod was only 14 when he met Martin Luther King Jr. at a church in Petersburg. It was a watershed moment for McLeod.
He accompanied his mom, Nellie Jane Hinderman McLeod, a civil rights activist and one of King’s lieutenants in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to the much-anticipated event.
“He was bigger than life,” McLeod said of King. “His voice was booming. He was eloquent.”
When McLeod got up to shake his hand, the teen was floored by King’s size. “He was small in stature but a giant of a person,” McLeod said. “It helped me understand how powerful you can be without being overpowering, and that what you do with your life and how you live your life is what matters at the end of the day.”
A VCU graduate, retired educator and now an educational consultant and motivational speaker, McLeod has held on to that philosophy, as well as his mother’s teachings, in all of his endeavors. In 1966, he transferred from Virginia State College to Richmond Professional Institute, and became the first black basketball player at the school. Two years later, after RPI merged with the Medical College of Virginia to form Virginia Commonwealth University, McLeod and five other students founded VCU’s first black student organization and challenged the new university to embrace its identity as an urban institution.
“My mom instilled in me a lot of the principles that galvanized a lot of goals and thoughts I’ve had,” he said. “She was a fighter and she had a passion for justice and equal treatment of folks.”
As McLeod, along with the rest of the country, celebrates Black History Month, he is hopeful that the progress he has seen in equality since his childhood continues to gain momentum. Students need to continue to be involved in activism, he said. “You have to continue to be vigilant about democracy and our rights. I see a lot of changes, but it still has a long way to go.”
Growing up in the South McLeod grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s when Virginia was part of the Massive Resistance movement, established after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education declaring segregated education systems unconstitutional. The South, including Virginia, was a segregated society at the time and had no intention of changing.
That stance came with legal authority, said Karen Sherry, museum collections curator at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. “There were laws on the books that required public spaces had to be segregated. It was part of the culture.”
McLeod remembers his mother crying when the 1954 Supreme Court decision was made. “You won’t have to go to segregated schools anymore,” she told us.
However, the decision didn’t “mean a thing in the Southern states, Virginia included,” McLeod said. “They did whatever they could to avoid letting these kids go to school together.”
His mother led the movement to desegregate Chesterfield County schools by suing for her children to attend an all-white elementary school. But McLeod attended all-black schools until his junior year of high school when his mother enrolled him in the newly opened Matoaca High. “It started out integrated, unlike most schools in the area,” he said.
The experience at Matoaca High for McLeod was quite different from most African Americans’ experiences in the days of desegregation. It was inclusive. “We participated in clubs, organizations and sports,” he said. “I was captain of the basketball team and we had a black quarterback in 1964.”
However, one day his mother came to school and noticed that all of the black students were sitting on one side of the cafeteria. When McLeod got home, she said, “We didn’t file lawsuits for desegregation just to have the black students go in and resegregate the school.”
She wanted to see full integration, McLeod said. “So we had a meeting on the bus the following day and told kids to go to the cafeteria early and instructed them to sit one at a table. What struck me was how some of the younger white kids did go to the tables but some of the older white students came and told them to move.”
After graduating from Matoaca High School in 1965, McLeod opted to go to Virginia State to play basketball. But his time on the court was limited. “I sat on the bench,” he said. “It was a humbling experience. It was humiliating. At Matoaca I was all district, all region and honorable all state. I couldn’t deal with sitting on the bench. I was uncomfortable with it.”
After the last game of the first semester, McLeod approached the coach about not playing and he made the comment that the school had wasted a scholarship on McLeod. He said his first thought was, “I may not be as good as I think I am, but I am a whole lot better than you think I am. I left that night and got Mom to call Richmond Professional Institute, which had recruited me. Coach Ed Allen said, ‘you made my Christmas,’” McLeod said.
McLeod enrolled at RPI in 1966 and played for three years after sitting out the remainder of his freshman season. “They called me Charlie Mac the jumping jack,” he said. Two years later, he was one of six founding members of VCU’s first black student organization, Students for Afro-American Philosophy. “We wanted our group to be open to anyone,” he said. “We didn’t want to replicate what we were fighting, i.e. exclusion. We wanted to all be on the same page.”
‘We were tolerated’ At the time, the number of African Americans at VCU was small, but growing slowly. “I saw that the university was not moving at the same pace and we were dissatisfied,” McLeod said. “We represented the angst
of a lot of kids of being admitted but not welcome. We were tolerated. There was a sense of estrangement.”
There were a few “black professors but no black administrators or any large collection of books by or about African Americans,” McLeod said.
The demands McLeod and the group presented to VCU in 1969 represented their frustrations. They advocated for the creation of an African American studies department and an increased emphasis on recruiting more
black students, faculty and staff.
“Our frustrations and the frustrations of African American students was the fact that VCU really didn’t reflect the community at all,” McLeod said at a 2018 symposium commemorating the 50th anniversary of the MCV-RPI merger. “[We were] six young black men who were just determined to make this place different.”
VCU, the group noted, was established as an urban university by the Wayne Commission, which had set the framework to connect the city’s two colleges.
“It was supposed to represent the urbanity of the surrounding area but that was in name only and not in spirit,” McLeod said.
“We couldn’t see how there could be a predominantly white public school in the predominantly black city of Richmond. We wanted it to represent the urban constituency.”
McLeod didn’t see VCU reflect that intent after the group presented its frustrations. After graduating in 1970 with a degree in sociology (he later received a master’s degree in school counseling and a doctorate in education from the University of Virginia), McLeod started a job in the VCU admissions office, where he served as a minority recruiter and assistant director of admissions. He worked in that position for three years. He later came back to VCU and worked as director of the Academic Counseling Office for Student Athletes from 1985 to 1988. During his years away from VCU, McLeod held several positions in education.
The present and the future
VCU has changed dramatically in the 50 years since McLeod and his classmates challenged the university to embrace its urban identity. Efforts to elevate equity at VCU are numerous, including grants to increase female faculty recruitment and advancement in STEM fields, projects to help more black men get into medical school, and expanded research in LGBTQ studies. Today, 33% of first-year VCU students are the first in their family to attend college and VCU is recognized for its cultural diversity. McLeod hopes it will continue to work on making the
experience more meaningful for African American students.
“I am hopeful that VCU will continue to be challenged to make greater strides to ensure that it is representative, relevant and inclusive for all students, faculty and administrative staff.”
McLeod believes that students today need to continue to raise questions and challenge anything they view as wrong. “A true democracy depends on people who are activists. They keep the country honest,” he said. “When
people become complacent, we slip back to unfavorable times.”
He remembers the quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that says, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
“I would add, ‘but it doesn’t bend on its own,’” McLeod said. “It bends on the weight and pressure of those who continue to pursue justice and equality for themselves and for others.”