Walter Massey was a shy, black boy from
Hattiesburg, Miss., unsure of his place in the world, when he
arrived as a 16-year-old freshman at Morehouse College.
Nearly 40 years later, he returned to change the school that
changed him. His legacy as Morehouse's ninth president includes a
fundraising campaign that brought in $119 million in three years -
almost $15 million more than he set out to raise - and helping the
school land the coveted collection of more than 7,000 handwritten
notes, letters and sermons by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the
school's most famous alumnus.
But a high-profile hate crime and murder in recent years
involving Morehouse students and alumni cast a shadow on the
school's reputation, threatening Massey's goal of renewing
Morehouse's longstanding commitment to a culture of excellence. On
May 20, Massey will preside over his final commencement at the
nation's only historically black all-male college.
"When they write the history of Morehouse, they will certainly
focus on the Massey years," said Michael Lomax, president of the
United Negro College Fund and a 1968 alum.
Lomax said the school's image as extraordinary has broadened
under Massey's watch.
"Now, people know much more about Morehouse, they recognize its
value. And he has ensured that the college has the financial
resources to compete, as far as attracting strong students and
faculty and ensuring that the academic programs are of the highest
quality," Lomax said
Massey, who turned 69 in April, steps down as president on June
30. Robert Franklin - an Emory University professor, former
president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta
and a 1975 Morehouse graduate - has been named Morehouse's 10th
After 12 years as the school's charismatic, energetic leader,
Massey said he has left the school as it left him when he graduated
in 1958: confident and well-prepared, a stark contrast from who he
was as a high school sophomore in Mississippi.
As the story goes, Massey's mother asked young Walter to drive a
group of students to take a test for early admission to Morehouse.
"When I got there, they said, 'As long as you're here, you
might as well take the test, too'," Massey recalled. "It was life
changing, to say the least."
Of the handful of students who took the test, Massey was the
only one accepted - joining the likes of Maynard Jackson, who went
on to become Atlanta's first black mayor, and King as early
Massey said that after his first week at Morehouse as a nervous
teenager from the country, he was ready to leave the school near
"Everybody was very smart," Massey said. "My freshman
roommate was from Dallas, and there were people from other major
cities. I didn't think I knew anything."
He stayed and discovered that his professors and the
upperclassmen were supportive. He found comfort under the big
magnolia tree outside of Graves Hall, which reminded him of home.
And Morehouse's sixth president, Benjamin E. Mays, helped mold him
and his classmates.
"There was this sense that there was certain kinds of behavior
you were expected to adhere to," said Massey, who would receive a
bachelor's degree in physics and math. "And it gave us all the
sense that as a Morehouse student, you would be able to compete
with anybody in the world."
Sitting in his office, Massey has a stature that belies his
slight build, and a personality that warms his formal surroundings.
He is eager to show off his young grandchildren, whose pictures are
strewn across his desk.
Massey has been particularly effective in fundraising for his
"We don't approach potential donors that we are this poor,
little Southern school and we need your help," Massey said. "What
we say is Morehouse is thriving and of importance to the nation in
Massey is also the first president since Mays to live on campus,
commonly strolling across its 66 acres and among its buildings.
He was there when a student fractured the skull of another with
a baseball bat five years ago because he thought the victim was
"That was a very horrible time," Massey said, adding that he
felt the school was unjustly labeled by outsiders and the media.
"We were more indifferent than hostile."
Massey said Morehouse's student body learned lessons from the
incident about violence and tolerance regarding homosexuality,
encouraging gay students to come forward and form organizations.
Then last summer, the body of 23-year-old student Carlnell James
Walker Jr. was found in the trunk of his car after police say four
former students broke into his home and bound, beat and stabbed him
- looking for a $3,000 insurance settlement check that Walker was
expected to receive.
Massey said the campus is still struggling to learn from that
tragedy. Nothing in the students' records provided a warning, he
This spring, Morehouse changed its admissions policy to require
in-person or telephone interviews of all serious candidates. The
school also is considering instituting a business casual dress
When he vacates his wood-paneled, book-lined office next month,
Massey will leave with much to be proud of. Two Marshall scholars
graduated under his watch. During his term, Morehouse also produced
two Rhodes scholars, becoming the first historically black college
to claim three among its alumni.
All of Morehouse's tenured faculty now hold doctorates. A new
leadership center building opened in 2005.
Now, Massey looks forward to moving to Chicago with his wife,
Shirley, and spending more time with his grandchildren. But he will
still return to campus for homecoming games and commencement
"I'll be an alumnus still," he said, flashing a wide smile.
"They can't take that away."