• By Dr. Paula Johnson Honoring the Arms that Lift Us – Southern Stories from Our Black Staff • February 2022 • Dr. Paula Johnson photo

Dear Prairie View, our song to thee we raise In gratitude, we sing our hymn of praise For mem’ries dear, for friends and recollections For lessons learned while here we’ve lived with thee.

The words of my alma mater ring as true today as the day I graduated in 1993. I was born in San Diego, California, but I was raised on “The Hill.” My college career began at seventeen, 1,600 miles away from my mother and home. Landing at PV made me feel as though I had stepped onto the set of School Daze or landed a guest appearance on A Different World. For the first time on my educational journey, I saw people that could have been related to me everywhere I looked.

I am the product of one Sweetwater Union School District’s gifted and talented education programs. During my schooling from second grade through graduation I only encountered one teacher that looked like me. Mr. Foster taught me computer science all four years of high school. Without him, I’m not sure I would have made the journey to Prairie View or decided to continue my studies in computer science. He made sure to teach me all about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson while I learned about Basic and Cobol programming languages. He convinced me that I could do anything I set my mind to, no matter who might try to convince me otherwise.

The Mr. Fosters of this world stand in stark contrast to the teachers in the same space who have good intentions but screw the pooch more times than not. I wish I could forget the day my English teacher asked me to read a passage from Huckleberry Finn that uses the N-word. Once I finished the recitation, she knelt down beside my desk and asked me to share with the class how it made me feel. I had four other Black GT classmates my entire school age life. And we were usually not in the same classes. So, imagine my shock when asked to express my feelings on the subject at hand.

At Prairie View, we learned under legendary Black professors like Dr. Frank T. Hawkins, founder of the Research Association of Minority Professors. As a student in the Benjamin Banneker Honors College, named for the Black astronomer and mathematician, we learned from noted educators in classes that included Modes of Thought, Colloquium, and a History of Mathematics. We discovered that it was the Egyptians that established the base 10 number system. All of our classes taught us about Black excellence, pride, perseverance and culture.

“Prairie View Produces Productive People” is PV’s motto, and as a proud Panther, I strive to uphold that responsibility in every facet of my life. My HBCU experience gifted me with a strong sense of identity and prepared me to withstand adversity. Now more than ever, we need our HBCUs to continue the tradition of passing on the rich history of our people. Students and families deserve to know their history and see themselves represented in the world around them. I want my children’s education to explore contributions by people of all cultures and identities and leave room for difficult conversations about the same. We owe it to them to tell the truth about our past so they are informed for the future.

[©2022, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2022, special edition of Honoring the Arms that Lift Us – Southern Stories from Our Black Staff by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]