LORENZO J. GREENE arrived in Jefferson City, Mo., from the East on a sultry September day in 1933. He had not eaten all day, so he went to a drugstore several blocks from Lincoln University, where he had come to teach history. He went to the lunch counter and asked for a hamburger. He was refused. Anger and embarrassment welled up in him.
"You can sell a colored a person a pint of ice cream, can't you, and you do have wooden spoons?" he asked. He took it back to his dormitory room, and crying, made up his mind to leave. But then he met some of the administrators, faculty and students at the all-black school. "And I realized," he said, "that my services were needed."
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Students only occasionally get to know their favorite professors well, separated as they are by age and rank. It is hard for the student to puncture his teacher's mystique, for the student is only in the chorus of the drama, drinking in the words of the protagonist.
Finally, at the end of school, when the student is liberated from the fears of failing the beloved scholar, he can look at his teacher as a human being, with quirks and foibles of his own. And if the professor is really lucky, he will live to see the day when his students come back to say the things they never could tell him before.
So this is a love story of a student for a teacher, one that culminated last week at the Lincoln University Alumni Convention. The lean, erect little gentleman, now 81 years old and retired for 10 years, walked briskly to the podium to receive a "Distinguished Professor" citation. He peered over the lectern and spoke in a voice that was whispery but still strong: "The ones who didn't applaud must have been the ones who got an 'F.'"
But grades were irrelevant to the wizardy Lorenzo Green wove for 37 years at Lincoln. He knew that many of his students hadn't been taught to appreciate the history of their people, so he joyously peppered his lectures on western civilization and colonial history with the deeds of their ancestors. It was long before promoting black history became a cause; he simply wanted to give his students examples they could follow.
Not all of his students adored him. Some chafed as he perched on his desk like a little gnome, beseeching them to believe in one humanity, teaching them why the color of their skin had nothing to do with the content of their minds. "I'm not preparing black students," he would say. "I'm preparing students to enter the mainstream."
His was the era when the black historian had to straighten out the facts of history. And Green was well suited to the task -- he had been groomed by Carter Goodwin Woodson, the man called "the father of black history."
When Greene left the tiny town of Ansonia, Conn., to attend Howard University, he had known only a handful of blacks who were not manual laborers, much less historians. Yet he went on to earn advanced degrees in colonial history from Columbia University and to write a book on slavery in New England that is considered the definitive work on the subject. He served on the staff of Woodson's Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
"I had a feeling it was necessary to give these students pride in themselves," Greene says today, sipping orange juice in the Crown Center Hotel here. "I felt it was my duty because of what Woodson and historian Charles H. Wesley installed in me. They gave me an inspiration to do something for my race, instilled pride that I belonged to a group that had achieved."
Greene's students were not the children of the country's black intellectual elite. Most were from middle-class -- but upwardly striving -- homes in St. Louis, Kansas City, Houston or Louisville. Some were quick and some were slow. But all were crippled in some way by the fact that under the law black students had been treated differently than white students.
His students went on to become lieutenant governors and judges, lawyers and college presidents. "He gave us more than his scholarship," says Lionel H. Newsom, president of Ohio's Central State College. "He worked for a salary far below what he could have commanded. We got a million-dollar education for 15 cents."
So we returned eagerly to bridge a gap that no longer existed, to pay tribute to an artist of a fine teacher. And as the crowd, students over his long career, clapped their hands, his whispery voice filled the ballroom: "I want to thank the students who sat in my class and permitted me to aid them in some little way to achieve some sort of success in life. I am grateful for the love you have shown me today, for you were as happy to see me as I have been to see you. The years I spent in the classroom were the happiest of my life."