On the low rolling hills of South Dallas stands a monument to Milton King Curry Jr. His father was a preacher, his mother an educator. He was both.
The monument is not a plaque or a fountain or even a statue, but 385 acres of buildings and roads known as Bishop College. It is named for Nathan Bishop, a white New Englander whose $10,000 bequest in 1881 allowed a group of ex-slaves to realize a dream that began in the basement of a Baptist church in East Texas, the dream of creating an institution that would give freedmen skilled hands, trained minds and a spiritual commitment to the Lord.
But for the past 28 years, Bishop College had been personified by its president Curry. He moved the school to Dallas in 1961 and nurtured it as it grew from 350 students to almost 2,000. In time, he became the first black member of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce and one of the city's most respected black leaders. He developed a network of friendships in the black churches across America. He served as president of the United Negro College Fund. He advised, and sometimes criticized, presidents of the United States. He was an important man.
Last Feb. 29, the board of trustees at Bishop College named Curry president emeritus -- and in effect banished him from the institution. Today, his beloved school, millions of dollars in debt, struggles to survive. And Curry, at 69, faces trial in federal court on charges of misusing federal funds and trying to defraud a local bank. Friends say that, whatever he did, he was only trying to do what was best for his school.
What Bishop College had been through is unique, but the threads of the story are familiar to the more than 80 private black colleges in America.
For more than a century, these colleges have formed the backbone of the black educational system in America, offering a haven and hope for thousands of men and women denied the opportunity for a degree at predominantly white schools. Their ranks included famous institutions like Tuskegee in Alabama and Morehouse in Atlanta, as well as scores of schools whose names were known only in the pews of the black churches in the Deep South.
Life has never been easy for these colleges, but in the last decade, as the civil rights movement opened the doors of white schools to blacks, the private black colleges have faced a struggle of a different kind.
Their best students were recruited away by hungry white administrators at Harvard or Berkeley or the University of Texas. Enrollments stagnated or decreased. Money became scarce. Still, as Christopher Edley, executive director of the United Negro College Fund, says, "It was left to the black colleges the task of educating students who needed remedial help."
The federal government, which helped pry open the doors at the white schools, became a new and difficult master to the black schools. It offered millions of dollars in support at a critical time, but it exacted a price in rules and reporting regulations that these small schools, led by ministers and not educational specialists, were poorly prepared for. The decade left the leadership of these black colleges defensive and angry. "The people who feared federal interference in education are perfectly right," says Edly.
Bishop College had all of these problems and more. The facts of the case are complicated enough to make reasonable people throw up their hands in frustration. One federal jury in essence already did that.
Three weeks ago, after one of the longest deliberations in Dallas history, the jury convicted Curry's heir apparent on two counts of misusing the school's retirement money. Curry and his other top assistant were acquitted on those and other related counts.
But the jury failed to reach a verdict on whether the three men misused millions of dollars in federal aid and misled a bank in obtaining a $2.7 million loan. Last week, the government filed a motion for a retrial on the unresolved charges.
"The only thing these men are guilty of is trying to save the college," the Bishop chaplain said at the first trial.
The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert C. Prather, took a less benign view in bringing the indictments. "These defendants preyed upon the employes, misrepresented themselves to the bank and frustrated the intention of Congress" that "this money is for students," Prather told the jury.
Texan Prather, 36, has been called a racist. Some people believe his indictments have destroyed the reputations of three decent men who tried for 10 years to keep Bishop operating against overwhelming odds, finding money where they could and spending it where they had to. Even the judge ruled that the government failed to prove that the three men had "stolen" any money. Others believed that Prather's relentless pursuit of the tangled finances at Bishop saved the college from destruction at the hands of an autocratic leader.
On the highest of the Bishop College hills stands Carr P. Collins Chapel, named for a wealthy Dallas businessman. It is the focal point of the institution. Ten years ago, when unrest erupted on the campus, students occupied not the administration building but the chapel. "It symbolized what was repulsive," says Harry S. Wright, then the chaplain.
Bishop is a church school.Students are required to attend chapel three times a week.Liquor on campus is forbidden. Women are not allowed in men's rooms.
The students come from all over the country, from Africa and the Middle East. Nearly 20 percent are foreigners. Most of the Americans are poor. Bishop officials estimate that as many as 90 percent receive some assistance. Many get 80 to 85 percent of the total cost of attending the school.
Many Bishop students are there because a relative attended the college. Samuel Williams, 27, came because his parents graduated from Bishop; Arthur L. Smith Jr., 23, because an uncle is a Bishop graduate. Marvis May, 19, looked at other schools, black and white, and settled on Bishop in part because his grandfather went there.
They come right out of high school, or after a year of working. They go to school, drop out and work, return to school, drop out again -- until they eventually graduate or give up. The pattern is an administrator's nightmare.
May explains the attraction of Bishop College. "You get more of a sense of identity here," he says. "At a black institution, there are things I'd learn that I wouldn't get at a predominantly white shcool. There is more opportunity to perform to a higher capacity."
That is what Milton Curry wanted in his college.
Curry was a preacher who never bowled anyone over with his style in the pulpit, but who always had something to say. And people listened. He was comfortable in any surroundings. "He knows how to walk with kings and queens without losing the common touch," says the Rev. S. M. Wright, a Bishop trustee.
Curry was warm and approachable and, more than anything else, he cared about the education of poor black children. When he was president of a small college in Tyler, Tex., in the 1940s, he would let the parents of his students pay the college with hogs or crops if they had no cash. "He would find some way for you to go to school if you wanted to go," Wright said. w
He went to Morehouse College and Atlanta University, became a minister, taught school and ran a church. In 1952, he became the second black president of Bishop College.
Nine years later, he engineered the school's move from Marshall, Tex., to Dallas. It was beneficial not only for the school but for the city's white establishment. Whites supported it in part to relieve the pressure on Southern Methodist University to intgrate. It also taught Curry how to maneuver between totally different worlds.
The Sixties were marked by unparalleled growth. Harry S. Wright describes coming to the campus in 1967 to become chaplain. "Bishop was flourishing," he recalls. "The federal money was flowing like water. Buildings were going up left and right. It was booming."
Enrollment hit 1,968 in 1969 and Bishop's master plan called for a college that eventually would accommodate 2,500 students.
Then came the effects of integration. Competition for students increased and Bishop officials began to reach into the ghettos of northern cities like Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles to fill the dormitories and classrooms, using federal money. The school's gleaming new physical plant became a financial burden.
Sometimes in the early Seventies, things began to unravel. Students received work-study aid without having actually worked. The university received aid for students who apparently were never enrolled. Or the school took student aid money and diverted it to general operating expenses. Retirement funds were used to pay current bills. The school's bookkeeping procedures became a hopeless snarl. Millions of federal dollars could not be accounted for.
Another side of Milton Curry became apparent. "He could be stern, autocratic," says a Bishop official. "Most people who would come up against him in controversy would find him stubborn and dogmatic."
Curry hired a man to help straighten out the finances and then, according to the man's own testimony, refused to listen to him, eventually fired him. Curry once received an audit of the school's books recommending that outside investigators be brought in. Instead of sending it on to the trustees, Curry shipped it back to the auditors to evidence presented at his trial.
A routine federal audit turned up irregularities that investigators pursued.
The school's problems came to Prather's attention in the fall of 1976. In July 1977, he brought his first indictments. By the end of the year, 17 persons had been indicted. Nearly all were convicted.
Still the school's problems grew, Teachers went unpaid. Bills piled up. At one point, some soda machines on campus were repossessed.
HEW auditors continued to pursue the trail of undocumented dollars. Bishop scrounged for money. Curry called on an old friend, Martin Luther King Sr., for help. King called President Carter, who in turn asked Joseph A. Califano Jr., his secretary of health, education and welfare, to meet with Curry. Shortly after the meeting, Califano approved a $43,000 payment to Bishop College. It didn't help.
In early 1979, Califano warned Bishop that unless it could account for the money it had received the government would turn off the spigot -- and for the next seven months Bishop got no money from the federal government. "A weaker institution would have collapsed overnight," says Edley of the college fund.
On May 29, 1979, Prather indicted Curry, Curry's former chauffeur and heir apparent Reginald Leffall, and an assistant vice president, Walter Johnson, on charges of embezzling $306,000 in retirement funds and falsifying documents to obtain a $2.7 million bank loan. They were granted leaves of absence and two months later they were indicted again on charges of misusing millions of dollars in federal aid.
Harry S. Wright is a friendly, open man and, say the students at Bishop, a rather flamboyant preacher. Today he is striving to lead Bishop out of the wilderness.
On June 9, 1979, 11 days after Curry's indictment, Wright was named Bishop's acting president. A year later he says that his greatests accomplishments were opening the school last fall and conducting graduation this spring.
At last fall's opening enrollment had fallen from 1,500 to 926 and the faculty was smaller by a third. But the school had taken an important step by signing an agreement to repay government money it could not account for. The agreement opened the way the renewed federal support of Bishop College.
At the same time, a coalition rallied behind the school. Federal officials offered advice and support. The United Negro College Fund gave Bishop $600,000. The Ford Foundation underwrote the cost of a consulting team sent in to put the books in order. The Dallas Citizens Council, an arm of the business establishment, helped hold off creditors while providing technical assistance.And perhaps most important, the black chuches in America raised $700,000 in cash.
Officials are still trying to find ways to pay off the debt, which is estimated as high as $13 million. Some empty dorms will be converted to other uses. Excess land worth several hundred thousand dollars will be sold. The trustee are preparing to run a leaner institution. The number of degree programs will be cut from 34 to 15 and budget will be set at $5 million, half what it was a few years ago. Enrollment is projected conservatively at 1,000 students.
The school will no longer try to attract students from the North, concentrating instead on the Dallas area, the state of Texas and perhaps the Southwest.
"We're going back," Wright says. "We're trying to discover our roots, trying to put our fingers on those distincitive traits that made us what we were."
In the spring of 1981, Bishop College will mark its 100th anniversary. Though there is still some doubt, college officials and students hope to celebrate the rebirth of their school.
As for Milton Curry, whose phone is unlisted, a friend reports that he is "very optimistic, never head down. He believes he is right, and when he believes it, he moves ahead undaunted." CAPTION: Picture 1, MILTON KING CURREY JR., . . . charged with misusing funds; Picture 2, HARRY S. WRIGHT . . . "trying to discover our roots"; Bishop College, which flourished in the '60s, faces a rocky future because of debts that could reach $13 million. AP