Homer Meade reminisces at his desk.
Homer Meade reminisces at his desk. (Siobhan Connally / Special to The Eagle)

STOCKBRIDGE -- By any rational measure, Dr. Homer "Skip" Meade has led a charmed life. An intellectual life. A life that has always examined truth and decency.

For more than 40 years, the W.E.B. Du Bois scholar and Cornell University graduate has made his home in Western Massachusetts. He has taught in local and regional schools, served as a member of the W.E.B Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and been involved in crafting curriculum and teacher standards to ensure future academic excellence for a new generation of Americans.

So it is difficult to imagine him, now wearing the uniform of professorial distinction, ever carrying a rifle and wearing the garb of revolution. Risking his own life to gain a valid education for others. That is his truth, as well.

Meade is among 24 distinguished local African-American men who will speak at Pittsfield High School on Friday in celebration of Black History Month.

His father was a professor and Boy Scout executive, and he began to train black youth in the skills they needed to obtain advancement; his mother, the director of youth services of the Morristown Neighborhood House, where she grew an organization that provided child care, daycare and after-school programming for families -- many of them immigrants -- in transition. It's an organization that continues to this day.

"I benefitted from all of that," said Meade. "They wanted those examples to be understood and inculcated by me, that there was a purpose and that certain individuals within the culture had certain things they had to recognize and live up to. He had been class president; he had gotten an appointment to West Point but ended up attending Cornell University.

"What I found at Cornell was an absence of inclusion of individuals of color in activities which had included them," he explained. "A most striking example of this was Du Bois. But within science, within literature, within those expressions even of architecture there needed to be reference to a broader inclusion and process, and that's what all the upset at Cornell was about."

His life could easily have ended one day in April 1969, when racial tensions at Cornell came to head and a group of African-American students took over Willard Straight Hall in advance of a parents' weekend. Straight Hall, a student union building, also served as a hotel for visiting parents and dignitaries on the Ithaca campus and would be teaming with people.

It started out as a peaceful protest, not unlike other sit-ins that had taken place around the country. However, when members of a fraternity tried and failed to forcibly evict the demonstrators, some occupiers left and returned with guns for protection -- Meade among them. He returned to the Straight with a 30:30 rifle.

"If they didn't meet demands, and we weren't going; it was up to them to get us out," said Meade, noting that the climate of fear at the time played a pivotal role in student resolve.

"Orangeburg S. Carolina was a black institution," he said, "and in ‘65-'66 they had demonstrated because the bowling alleys were segregated. And when they got back to the dorms, police -- either state or local police -- arrived and began firing in dorm windows. Several students were killed.

"Those reports. The three civil rights workers, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King and even Bobby Kennedy there was a real demonstration that the lives of certain individuals had no reason to be respected. I was clear. I knew what I had to do. It's a moment, yes, but there were many, many things that lead up to that."

Just before the takeover of Willard Straight Hall, a cross burned on the grounds of a women's dormitory, spurring the need for immediacy.

"Nothing we saw (in the response from Cornell officials) addressed that," he said. "The university couldn't provide better security, so we said ‘We'll protect ourselves.' "

Meade knew the potential consequences. He knew what would happen if the school turned to state troopers or the National Guard to handle the situation, and he had prepared himself for the worst.

Looking up at a photograph made of him after the takeover had ended -- an iconic image that had appeared in Newsweek and which showed Meade and other protestors carrying guns and wearing ammunition belts as they left Straight Hall -- he describes the moment and the appearance of his younger self, wrapped in a shroud and carrying a rifle at the ready.

"I don't take this picture lightly," he explained. "I wanted my parents to understand that I had prepared for what was coming. I went up to a room -- there were guest rooms in the Straight -- and showered and cleaned from all the exertion and sweat that I'd been involved in that day in securing the building. I'd thrown away most of the garb and took a bedspread and folded it and cut here and here, laced with a sheet, so dad would know when he came that I'd prepared myself."

That moment caught on film, and all the decisions that had led to it, were life-changing, not only for Meade, but for countless students who have followed him. Meade credits the university's provost for his courage in not only brokering a peaceful end to uprising but also realizing the truth of the situation: That while the university had moved to diversify its campus, it hadn't adequately prepared systems that would support that diversity and nurture its success.

"We were very lucky to have a provost (Dale Corson) who understood all that. Truly understood it. It's amazing to think back about it now, back in ‘66, ‘67, ‘68, how attuned he was to facing a monolithic structure. He was able to start programs bringing in minority scholars to the university, to alleviate that which had been long ignored. Saying ‘ignored' is maybe stating too much intention. It was just part of the process.

"These professors who believed they were in an ivory tower. Here were students who had been brought into this new recruitment program and put into an economics course and told what the urban economic problem was, and here were these students who came from that urban landscape saying ‘that's bullshit.' "

Corson persuaded the president to allow him to handle the uprising within the university and not to call outside authorities. The result was a peaceful end of the situation and a change of policy that allowed the creation of the the Africana Studies and Research Center, which is still vital today.

Meade still marvels at the outcome and what could have been a very different ending to his story. But he knows such this truth -- like physics -- isn't relative.

"If there is an injustice, we have to right it. When there is justice, then we need to promulgate it," he said. "It's not enough to do. To understand the impact of the impact so we can be true and contributive citizens. There needs to be movement of knowledge. That's what I've done."

 

On the Bridge

Multicultural Bridge and Berkshires Week have partnered to create a column and a blog that will share voices and stories from all corners of the county and the world.

Meet a professor of languages from South Sudan, a mother from Peru, a rancher from Becket and many more neighbors, at www.berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge.

 

If you go ...

What: Living African American History Project -- 15 men speak with students and faculty, ending with reception

Where: Pittsfield High School

When: Friday, 7:30 to 11:20 a.m.

Information: Multicultural Bridge, (413) 274-1001