We at Humanities Texas were saddened to learn that Dr. Wright L. Lassiter Jr. passed away on July 1, 2019. A pillar of the Dallas community, Lassiter served on the Humanities Texas board of directors from 1996–2001 and was chair of the board from 1999–2001.
Raised in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Lassiter was the oldest of nine siblings. When speaking about his upbringing, he highlighted that his parents were staunch supporters of higher education and service. These principles guided Lassiter throughout his life. After receiving his bachelor's degree from Alcorn State College, he accepted a teaching position there. Since then, he was continuously involved in improving institutions of higher learning across the country. He served at Tuskegee University in Alabama, Schenectady County Community College in New York, and El Centro College in Texas. Lassiter was the first African American to be appointed as the chancellor of the Dallas County Community College District, a position that he retained for six years. He also served on multiple boards and commissions, including the board for the African American Museum of Dallas and the National Council on the Humanities.
Below are excerpts from an oral history conducted with Wright Lassiter on September 30, 2011, by W. Marvin Dulaney and Alfred L. Roberts as part of the African American Education and History Archives Program.
I was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, a few years after the Depression. I was the oldest of nine children. My father, Reverend Dr. Wright Lassiter Sr., and my mother, Mrs. Ethel Franklin Lassiter, both dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade and started a family. A few months after they dropped out of school, I came along, and, a year later, a brother came along, and then there was a seven-year hiatus of no children. On Christmas Day of 1941, my mother and father were fortunate to have twin boys, and the cycle of siblings proceeded from there until there was a total of nine of us.
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We're all college graduates. . . . All of us listened to what our parents said: if you want to get ahead get something in your head. I was the first person in my family to attend college and landed at Alcorn State College, as it was known then. I received my Baccalaureate degree from Alcorn four years later in business. Prior to graduation, the business manager at Alcorn came to my desk in the President's office where I worked as a student to tell me about a new training program that had been established to prepare young African American men to become college business managers, and he suggested that I should apply for that program. It was a twelve-month internship program at Tuskegee [Institute in Alabama]. I applied, and I was accepted. I graduated in May of 1955, first member of the family to have a college degree, and my parents were there with my other brothers and sisters celebrating my graduation.
As they were preparing to place all of my belongings into the car and the truck to go back to Vicksburg, the chairman of the business department stopped me and asked if I had a job for the summer. . . . I asked, "Why do you ask?" He said, "We would like for you to stay here and join the faculty at Alcorn college." I asked him to repeat the question, and he did. My response was "If you have enough confidence to think that a wet-behind-the-ear college graduate can step into a classroom, I have enough courage and risk-taking to say yes."
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The next day, I went to see Mr. Jimmy King, the head of the business department, to get my teaching assignment for the summer. . . I knew nothing about faculty logs, so I signed up to teach accounting, business communication, and shorthand—all subjects that I made A's in fairly easily. So, I gathered up my books and proceeded to leave his office. He stopped me, and he says, "By the way, there's been a new development. My mother lives in Dallas, and she is quite ill. I have to spend the entire summer with her. So, since you are the only instructor, you have to be the acting department head. . . " I said thank you, went to my room, and began to work on my lesson plans for the next day.
My first class was accounting, and when I went to my classroom to lay out my materials on my desk to teach my class, I looked up and who was seated in front of me but my favorite high school teacher, Mrs. Rosa Parrot, who taught me typing in high school. So, here I am, a rookie teacher, teaching my first college course, before an individual who was unquestionably, in my mind, an outstanding teacher. But, we had a good experience, and, when the term ended, she said, "Mr. Lassiter, I want you to know that you are the best college teacher that I've ever had." Well, whether that was true or not, the affirmation proved one thing to me. If you are a risk-taker and you are prepared, there's very little that you cannot accomplish, and that has guided me.
I served a number of roles at Tuskegee over a period of seventeen-and-a-half years. During that time, I earned both of my advanced degrees and advanced from being a student bookkeeper to senior accountant to business manager to head of the auxillary enterprise of the department. Those seventeen-and-a-half years were extremely helpful in developing me in my career. In Tuskegee, because it was something of an oasis in the segregated South in Macon County, Alabama, I had a number of civil rights experiences. I personally witnessed the Montgomery bus boycott and all that transpired there. When my wife and I went on our honeymoon, we went to the now non-existent Sir John Hotel in Miami, Florida, and there we made friends with Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King, who were also there vacationing. During the civil rights era, Tuskegee was an oasis in Alabama because it was a private institution. Persons could come there and speak freely. . . . All of the notable individuals of the civil rights movement came to Tuskegee, and we gave them a platform for them to express themselves.
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One notable experience during that time occurred in 1968, which was the time when we were experiencing the tide of relevance in higher education when in loco parentis was being vacated from college and university arenas. Students were vying for voices, and we had a situation in Tuskegee where a number of students took issue with an engineering professor and wanted him to be fired. They protested, and they protested, and nothing happened. The board was in session one weekend, and the students decided to take their case to the board. They could not get into the boardroom, but they elected to do something else. They chose to chain all of the doors to the Dorothy Hall Guest House where the board was in session and would not let anyone out until their demands were recognized and acceded to.
Macon County at that time had the first African American sheriff in Alabama, a Mr. Lucius Amerson. The president came down to talk to the students and said, "Please, we'll talk to you, but take those chains off the doors. That's a safety factor." They ignored the president. The chairman of the board came down and made an appeal; they ignored him. Finally, the president indicated to the students that, if they did not remove those chains, he'd have to call the sheriff. The sheriff came, made his plea, and informed the students that their chaining those doors was a severe safety violation, and, as the sheriff of Macon County, if they did not remove the chains, his only recourse was to call the National Guard and ask the adjutant general to send troops to Tuskegee, Alabama, to rescue those persons who are locked up at Dorothy Hall Guest House. The students did not believe him, but, about an hour and a half later, you can hear tanks coming down the main street of Tuskegee Institute's campus coming toward the Dorothy Hall Guest House led by a two-star general and armed troops coming to rescue us. Well, when the students saw the tanks and the military forces to help, the chains disappeared, [the students] went over the hill to escape, and we were rescued.
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My family and I, in 1964, [had been] visiting friends in Baltimore, and we were returning from Baltimore and driving—me, my wife, and our two children. We were approaching a city called Rome, Georgia, and I told my wife that I was just totally beat and could not go any further. I did not want to do what I would have done had I been alone, and that would be to go to a service station, park my car under a light, and go to sleep there. There was no way I was going to have my family under a street light. So, I saw this Rome, Georgia, hotel: white, stately, Georgian building. I told my wife, "Look, the president just signed this civil rights bill that makes it possible for public accommodations to be available to all people. This is the time we test whether that law actually works." My wife said, "Oh please don't, you're gonna get lynched, and I'm gonna be a widow with two small children." I said, "I don't think they'll do that."
Against her advice, I got out of the car, went up the steps to this hotel, and went in. I went to the registration desk and indicated that I was here with my wife and two children and I need a room. They immediately gave me a good choice of room, so I sat in the registration chair, got my keys, told them we had two children and could they put a crib or cot in the room. They said fine. I went back to the car, and my wife was all wide-eyed and wondering what had happened. I said, "We got a room! We're set for the night."
So, I drove up to the front of the building—not the back, the front—and we unloaded our stuff, went in and went to sleep. The next morning, my wife had a little bit of courage herself, so she called downstairs and asked the clerk if she could get an iron and an ironing board. Five minutes, up comes the ironing board. This white lady brought it to our room.
We got the kids together and went down to the restaurant for breakfast. We went in the front door of the restaurant. We were the only ones in the restaurant at that point, and we placed our order. A white waitress came and took our order. As we were waiting for our order to be filled, I looked over to my right towards the kitchen, and all of the kitchen help were standing outside, looking at us, smiling. For, we were the first African Americans to [stay] in that hotel and the first ones to take a meal in the restaurant. They just smiled and smiled.
I obtained my Doctorate at Auburn University. . .and was invited to come to Morgan State University in Baltimore as a chief financial officer and planning officer. [I worked] in that role for four-and-a-half years and then decided that, if I could manage what I was doing at Morgan, perhaps—just perhaps—I might be able to function effectively as college president and received an invitation to go up to Schenectady, New York, to become the president of Schenectady County Community College.
When I was appointed to that position, I learned something that I was not aware of: I became the first African American president at one of the sixty-four colleges in the State University of New York system. I became the president of a predominantly white college—ninety-four percent white, six percent others—in a predominantly white community—ninety-four percent white, six percent others. It was a very successful experience, in large measure because of my experiences at historically black colleges and having gone through the civil rights era.
I spent almost four years there and was enticed to leave Upstate New York and come to Dallas to serve as president of Bishop College because I was—and still am—an African American Baptist minister. I felt that that was my calling to come down South and rescue Bishop [College]. . . a three-year sojourn that was not successful.
I [then joined] the Dallas Community College District as president of El Centro College. I served there for twenty years, the longest serving president at that college and the second longest serving president in our entire district. I was prepared to retire when I was asked to take on this role as Chancellor for the Dallas County Community College District.
I'm now into my sixth year as Chancellor, and it has been an enjoyable experience. I've been able to utilize all the talent and skills that I picked up along the way, many of them from the historically black colleges. A major achievement is that we have completed a $450 million capital improvement bond program where we have built thirty-one new facilities at our several colleges. And, consistent with the mission of the historically black college, we've also built five community campuses that are strategically located in underserved and under-represented populations, such that we can provide services to that population of students.
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My father caused an expression to be emblazoned in my consciousness when I was quite young, and that message was, "Service is the rent that you pay for the space that you occupy here on Earth." I took that to heart. When I became older, he gave me the postscript for that, saying, "Junior, service is the rent that you pay for the space that you occupy here on Earth, and I want you to always live in a high-rent district." As a consequence, because of my upbringing with my father and mother, and also being a product of the black church, service has been a part of my life.
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As I finished college and began to work at Tuskegee, an unusual opportunity was presented to me by my boss, Mr. H. K. Logan, the business manager. He called me in one day and said, "Lassiter, let me tell you something about the nature and the history of the Tuskegee Institute. . . . From the days of Booker T. Washington, we have made a practice of searching out those individuals that appear to have potential and promise. When we see them, we encourage them to become involved in the community because that is the way that the University supports the community. I want you to look around and see where you can be of service. Come back and, if that service requires you to spend some of your normal work time engaged in it, that's okay, so long as your work doesn't suffer."
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So everywhere that I have worked, I have become heavily involved in the community. I was called Mr. Community in Tuskegee. I'm called, by some, Mr. Community down here in Dallas, Texas.
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[In Dallas,] I served two stints as board chair of the Urban League and that is one that is very special to me. The United Way was also special because . . . in 1988, I became the first African American chairman of the board of the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas.
Following my service as chairman of the board, I had the opportunity to put in place in Dallas a National Program called the Blueprint for Leadership. The Blueprint for Leadership was a special training program designed to prepare individuals in the community, African Americans, for service on boards and commissions. That program became known as the Dallas Blueprint for Leadership. So, I authored that activity and served as chair for six or seven years, then I turned it over to my son, who followed me as chair. The activity still exists today, but now it is with the Center for Community Cooperation . . . as opposed to United Way.
The other area of major service for me was the Salvation Army. I was on that board for a long time. And then you could go down the list: the Dallas Opera, the Science Place, the list goes on and on. I've always sought to offer my services in areas of either religion, business, or community service—those are the areas where I've served in. I guess I've been on about twenty-five or thirty boards over the course of my tenure here. Most recently, I have been serving on the board of Dallas Baptist University and am now in my final months as chairman of the board of Dallas Baptist Board of Trustees. I also served on the board of trustees for Parker College of Chiropractic Medicine here in Dallas.
Well, my service extended beyond Dallas. I was fortunate to have received seven gubernatorial appointments for service in Texas. Two notable areas being the Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation and the Texas Council for the Humanities.
My service with the Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation came about rather interestingly. One of my close my friends is Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson. She approached then-Governor Bill Clements and said, "You are not doing an appropriate job at appointing African Americans to boards and commissions here in Texas." His reply was, "I don't know any African American Republicans, so, if you know one send his name in." So, she sent my name in with the recommendation that I serve on the Texas Finance Committee. That was clearly out of the question, so the next best thing from Governor Clements was service on the Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation board.
My service on the Texas Council for the Humanities proved to be pivotal in that because of it, President George W. Bush appointed me to the National Endowment for the Humanities board, a national board. Again, all this came about because I happened to have been a Republican. I should tell you how that came about.
When I served as Schenectady County Community College everybody there was a Republican, and, if you had your wits about you, you also became a member of the Republican Party. So, I came to Dallas with my Republican connection. Well, because of that, President George Herbert Walker Bush appointed me to the [United States] Commission on Minority Business Development. Our charge was to go around the country and find evidence of aspiring African American businesses and come back to him with a major report of things that could be done to enhance the involvement of African Americans in the free enterprise system.
During our service, something happened that many people are not aware of. There's a term that is used now quite frequently in the avenues of business life within the minority community, called HUBs: historically underutilized businesses. We were conducting a hearing in Cincinnati, Ohio, and, as these individuals came before us offering testimony, somebody said, "We need to stop using the term 'disadvantaged businesses' and more accurately describe African American businesses. What they actually are are historically underutilized businesses." So, we put that in our report and, lo and behold, there's one of the first major items that came out of the report that the small business administration embraced.
Lassiter was an incredible advocate for underrepresented minority students, continued education, and the humanities. For his generous career of service and his efforts in support of the NEH and Humanities Texas, we thank him.