Commemorating the Frank Hale Legacy

When Ohio State University named its standout Black cultural center after the civil rights activist, professor and vice provost who championed such a place, it was commemorating what Dr. Frank W. Hale Jr. stood for. He promoted academic rigor, those who knew him say. He was a lover of art and oratory. He spotlighted the hallmark differences among people, but also their common humanity. He believed every person specialized in something and that such specialties should never be ignored.

“He’d say, ‘Have you seen how well so-and-so polished such-and-such floor.’ And he’d say it with the same energy and respect as he would about someone who had just published their third or fourth book,” said Dr. Valerie Lee, a Hale protégé and OSU’s vice provost for diversity and inclusion.

“In a lot of cases,” added Lache´ Roach, a senior sociology major, “with someone so important, you’d think he’d walk right past. But he took time to say hello, ask us how our days went … and it wasn’t this scripted thing, because he was so genuine. He made us love him without even trying.”

Roach is one of 100 students employed at the 20,000-square-foot center named for Hale in 1988. Hale is credited with helping OSU graduate more Black Ph.D.s than any other U.S. college during the 1970s. During a 24-year tenure there, he had been an associate dean of OSU’s graduate school and graduate fellowship committee chair, vice provost for minority affairs and special assistant to the president. Hale subsequently became a professor emeritus at OSU, venturing regularly to the campus — despite a battle with pancreatic cancer — until a few months before his death when doctors advised him to rest at home instead.

The Frank W. Hale Jr. Black Cultural Center operates seven days a week and, by the most recent count, receives roughly 120,000 visitors and tourists annually. Around early 2013, the Hale Center is slated to move into even larger quarters on the bottom two floors of Enarson Hall, OSU’s first student union, a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

A Place All its Own

The Hale Center’s rarity among student centers initially launched for a certain constituency owes its uniqueness to its blend of cultural aesthetics and in-center academic instruction. Replacing what then was OSU’s Black Cultural Center, the Hale Black Cultural Center is outfitted with the works of internationally-known artists such as Paul Goodnight and Elizabeth Catlett, sculptures from the West African Ife tradition and pieces from other genres and regions of the world and Ohio. Women’s studies, history, comparative politics, African-American studies, Swahili and art are among its 28 course offerings. Upward Bound, Hispanic Student Services, Student Alumni Council and dozens of community groups also use the space, which includes two state-of-the art computer labs, research and reading rooms, a tutorial lab and the MLK Lounge that, interchangeably, also is a conference room and theater for staged events.

“We found out, through a study, that students wanted this type of environment,” said art historian Lawrence Williamson, director of the Hale Center since 1989. “If we put classrooms in here, students would have to come. If we put a computer lab in here, students would have to come. … We not only attract African-American students but other students as well. That creates a certain type of environment.”

“When you teach there,” said Dr. Horace Newsum, sculptor, painter, literature and political economy professor and chair of OSU’s African American & African Studies Department, “and get a reputation there, you attract more students to you. You’re going where they are. … Sometimes students have issues and problems and concerns that require the deeper participation of faculty. That kind of interaction is taking place at [the] Frank Hale Center.”

That’s the type of enlarging, expanding, transcultural experience for which Hale, holder of University of Nebraska bachelor’s and master’s degrees, aimed, Williamson said. Earning an OSU doctorate in speech and political science in 1955, Hale, who died in July 2011 at the age of 84, has been cemented in Ohio State’s history as a man of varied talents, motivations and triumphs. Before OSU, Hale added jobs at Ohio’s Central State University and Alabama’s Oakwood University, HBCUs, to his resume.

At Ohio State, he is credited with helping the now 64,000-student university, roughly 57,000 of them at the main campus in Columbus, graduate more Black Ph.D.s than any U.S. campus during the 1970s. He co-founded OSU’s Young Scholars Program.

Unflinchingly, his friends said, he backed a 1970s proposal by Dr. William Nelson Jr., who retired in 2009 after 30 years in OSU’s political science department, to provide Black students a safe haven, their own space, on a campus that was not wholly receptive to their presence when they began arriving in the late 1960s. Dr. Edward Jennings, then-OSU president, granted approval for the center in 1985.

Blatant resentment about the presence of Black students has largely dissipated. But in April, vandals painted “Long Live Zimmerman” on the Hale Center’s exterior following a vigil protesting neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. The vandalism occurred the night after a White OSU student wearing an empty gun holster was arrested after walking through a multiracial group of 300 or so students, and their supporters, spotlighting that tragedy in Florida.

Now occupying twice its original space in a single-story building on the 1,700-acre campus, the Hale Center has drawn the curious from university centers across the nation that are devoted to Black, Asian, Latino and multicultural groups, Williamson said. They’ve toured the Hale Center to determine how to replicate that model.

A Rare Find

Hale was a 2010 inductee into Ohio’s Civil Rights Hall of Fame. He was cited for his advocacy of a Black cultural center, his key roles at OSU and in the lives of its students of color and for being a lifelong champion of social justice issues. Among other actions, Hale chaperoned three carloads of Oakwood students to Rosa Parks’ Montgomery trial for sitting near the front of the bus. In his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, he invoked his Topeka, Kansas boyhood of backless textbooks and broken desks handed down from White schools in the state. He held up the Black parents, including his own, who actively raged against that. He said he was grateful.

“I want to thank those who, along with me, were unprecedentedly devoted, with undimmed eye and with unremitting vigor, to supporting the programs that we’ve had for African-American students at the Ohio State University,” Hale said. “I want to thank all of you, a great cloud of witnesses, who have come to support all of us who, in our own ways, have attempted to push the agenda forward.”

Said Lee: “Whenever he saw that there was a gap to fill, he stepped right in [right away]. That’s how we got the Hale Cultural Center, all those graduate fellowships,” $15 million worth for 1,200 minority students.

“He was the legendary leader of the office I now lead,” added Lee, calling Hale her mentor and friend since she arrived at OSU as a grad student 35 years ago. “We have 88 full-time professionals in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. And I’m not talking about diversity people in other colleges on our campus but in my unit itself. … He pushed for Ohio State to give need-based scholarships and grants not simply to racial and ethnic minorities but also to White students from our 33 Appalachian counties. All of this was Frank Hale.”

Just as Hale broke barriers, the center spotlighting his and others’ endeavors also is designed to “break these phobias,” Williamson said.

“Many times, when you have an African-American or Latino or multicultural center, many people will feel that the place is only for that [designated] culture or group. This has to be open to everybody. … That’s a model that has merit. That’s what Dr. Hale wanted.”