Ángel Cabrera, Big Bethel A.M.E. Church, Atlanta, February 29, 2020. Memorial Service for Ford C. Greene (Feb. 23, 1944 - Jan. 25, 2020). Ford Greene was one of the first three African American students to attend Georgia Tech.
Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to be here, to mourn with you the loss of Ford, and to proudly celebrate what he did to change the course of history at Georgia Tech.
I met Ford this past September. It was my second day on the job as Georgia Tech’s new president and, for reasons that will become clear in a moment, it ended up being a day I will never forget.
A little background first. As you know, Ford was one of the first three Black students to enroll at Georgia Tech. As an institution, Georgia Tech has been proud of the fact that it was the first university in the deep South to integrate without a court order. There were no riots and little controversy as compared to other places. So, for decades, we lived under the comfortable illusion that integration on our campus was smooth and painless.
My predecessor President Edwin Harrison, the official story goes, decided in 1961 that admitting African American students was the right thing to do. Supposedly the majority of the students either endorsed the idea or didn’t oppose it. So, policies were changed, Ford Greene and two other students, Ralph Long and Lawrence Williams, enrolled later that year and that was that. One year later Ronald Yancey was also admitted, and the rest is history. Rosy, happy, easy history.
Also wrong, or at least woefully incomplete, as we would learn 50 years later.
A few years ago, Ford’s classmate Bo Godbold, who’s with us today, reached out to Ford to see if he would join in the celebrations of their 50th class reunion. Back in their day, seating was alphabetical, so Bo and Ford sat together in several classes.
Bo, who is white and grew up in South Carolina, was impressed back then that Georgia Tech had decided to integrate. Like most of his peers, he spent the next five decades convinced of that rosy story of seamless, painless integration. Until that phone call with Ford.
I didn’t know Ford nearly as well as most of you. But in the conversations that I had with him, it was clear that he had no problem calling things by their name. He was blunt and direct. You didn’t have to guess how he felt about things.
So, when Bo called, Ford had no trouble explaining why he didn’t think there was much to celebrate from his standpoint and why going back to Tech didn’t seem to him like a terribly fun thing to do. His experience, it turned out, had nothing to do with the rosy, happy, easy story we had told ourselves.
To begin with, when Georgia Tech decided to admit Ford, it wasn’t out of sudden enlightenment, but out of a practical realization that Ford and the young people of his generation would not stop until their rights were respected. Georgia Tech, like other southern universities had tried all sorts of tricks to avoid accepting Black students. And Ford and the others just would not give up.
A year before Ford was admitted to Georgia Tech, the students of Morehouse, Spelman, and the other institutions in the Atlanta University Center, just across the street from where Ford lived, wrote an Appeal for Human Rights denouncing how their state would rather pay a Black student to attend a school out of state than admit them to the University of Georgia, and yes, to Georgia Tech. Their voice was heard across the nation and became a blemish in the city´s reputation.
It was the determination of Ford and those young people to get in that got them in, not anyone else’s benevolence. It wasn’t that Georgia Tech decided to integrate. Ford, Ralph, Lawrence and Ron integrated it.
And getting there was only half of the battle. Dealing with discrimination and outright racism, isolation and disrespect was even harder. Which is what Ford explained to Bo 50 years later.
After their conversation, Bo began thinking more deeply about what Ford, Ralph, Lawrence, Ron, and others right behind them, went through and how their personal sacrifice had changed Georgia Tech for the better.
Because of what they did, because of what they endured, thousands of people of all backgrounds finally gained access to Georgia Tech, and little by little, Georgia Tech became more welcoming, the student body more diverse, and the caliber of the institution, much stronger. Because of Ford and the other pioneers, hundreds of African Americans now study, teach and lead at Georgia Tech.
Bo and his wife Betsy were so moved by Ford’s story and the impact that it had in making Georgia Tech better, that they commissioned statues of Ford and the other trailblazers to ensure no one at Georgia Tech will ever forget their story. The beautiful statues now stand proudly in the heart of our campus for all to admire and reflect on. Every day when I walk out my office I see people—white and black and everything else—pause, look at the statues, read the plaque and reflect on what they represent.
This past September, we had the immense honor to welcome Ford, Ralph, Lawrence and Ron back to campus. When they were students, they were rarely seen together because of their workload and, sadly, the advice they received not to assemble in public lest they appear threatening to anyone! (Please tell me who should have been scared of whom!). This time though, not only they came together but they brought their families and loved ones with them. And they came to unveil their statues, to be honored for what they did, to be rightfully hailed as heroes in the history of Georgia Tech.
They also came back to tell their stories, their truth. To set the record straight. They related stories of painful isolation, of rejection, of stereotyping, of discrimination, of tactless professors… and also of acts of courage and support, of white students who stood up to others and occasionally lent them a hand.
That day, they corrected the record for good, they burst the bubble of the easy, rosy story, and they replaced it with a much more powerful, more nuanced, more inspiring story that must be and will be told, retold, and never forgotten.
Earlier this week, Ford’s classmate Bo and his wife Betsy who’s also with us today, let me know that they are establishing a Ford Greene Memorial scholarship to support a minority student from their hometowns to study at Georgia Tech. I can’t think of a better way to honor Ford than opening the doors of Georgia Tech in his memory to more people who look like him, who are just as talented and who may need some help to pay for college. I know Ford is smiling right now knowing that the very place that would rather pay for a Black student to go study somewhere else will now be paying for Black students to not go anywhere else!
My friend Ford, wherever you are, I’m here to say thank you for what you did for Georgia Tech, for Atlanta, for Georgia, and for our nation. The journey was lonely and painful at times. You sacrificed. You endured. And because of it, you created opportunity for thousands who came after you. I appreciate you. We are grateful. And your story will never be forgotten.