This is the second installment of our collaboration with the "Back to School With The HistoryMakers" event on Friday, Sept. 23, when some 500 renowned African Americans — from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to Common — will speak at schools around the country.
King V. Cheek Jr. and James Cheek represent a rarity: brothers who both served as presidents of major universities. Each was, for a time, president of Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. James Cheek, who died in 2010, also spent 21 years as president of Howard University. Here, his younger brother King, who also led Morgan State University in Baltimore, talks about his life and evolution as an educational leader.
My family hails from North Carolina. Our parents instilled a respect for education in each of their five children. Great things were expected of us. But no one could foresee that my brother James and I would grow up to lead some of the major educational institutions in the land.
We were about five years apart in age. He was a big brother, and in my family, little brothers always looked up to big brothers, except at a point in time when you consider yourself a peer. I don't hesitate in saying I learned a lot from him.
I was named after my father, King Virgil Cheek Sr. He was a Baptist minister. My father was a very proud person who wanted to care for his family in ways that being the minister of a small Baptist church would not allow. So he worked with the Railway Express Agency most of his working years. My mother is Lee Ella Williams Cheek. She was a schoolteacher and later became an insurance broker. She was the first licensed black female insurance broker in North Carolina.
Mother was very serious, but my father laughed at a lot at what I call the ridiculous dimensions of the world. He told jokes, and he was really loved by everybody. Our family included four boys and one girl. My brother James was the eldest son, and I was the third son. As we grew up, we had certain rules about how we had to help each other. The person above had to reach back and be responsible for the one behind him. That was fun. At times, I think, we considered it a chore. But looking back, it was a very nourishing experience.
For our family, a typical day started with chores and ended with chores because we were a very self-sufficient family. We had a wood-burning stove. So we all had to cut wood. We had a garden, so we all had to till our little plot of ground.
We also had work to do around the house. We read the Bible. On Sunday mornings, for example, it was more than just a ritual. It was a period of family prayer. We spent time in the living room around a fireplace, listening to my father and mother talk with us about life.
For me personally, growing up was a little frustrating because I really was not considered normal. I was technically branded as retarded. The community and, to some extent, I think, even my parents questioned whether I had all my faculties because I had a tongue-tied physical deficiency, and I could not speak until I was 6 or 7 years old.
And when you can't talk, people simply assume there's something wrong with your head. I have congenital cataracts, which don't really bother me. That contributed to what was perceived as an abnormality because I didn't have glasses at the time. I didn't bother letting anybody know that I really had difficulty seeing. I just decided it wasn't their business. So I just ignored it and dealt with it in my way.
Advantages of Being a "Dummy"
I found that there were some advantages to having people perceive you as not being like other children. When you're called a dummy and people think you're a dummy, they ignore you. So you can do pretty much what you want to do. I learned on my own, and I took charge of my own development. I knew I was not abnormal or retarded. At a very early age I started developing my own agenda, deciding what I wanted to do with my life.
School was very important in our family. All of my teachers influenced me because, you see, at that time, teachers were icons, and black teachers were almost spiritual figures and not just confined to the classroom. They were part of your life. They visited your home, met with your parents. They were concerned about all dimensions of your development.
In the second grade I had a teacher, Mrs. Baker, who was very suspicious of me and my talents. She convinced the system to give me tests, which I didn't want to take. And I only took them because her pretty eyes convinced me to. That's when I discovered I was a sexist at age 7 because she looked at me with her pretty eyes, and I couldn't resist. So I took the test and I scored off the charts, which really surprised them.
At age 12 I was a young child evangelist, and I could have remained in that sphere. That was fulfilling, even more so because I no longer had a speech impediment. But I gave it up because I became disenchanted with organized religion and what I perceived it to represent. In the latter years of elementary school, about sixth or seventh grade, I decided that I wanted to be a lawyer because I enjoyed the art of advocacy.
College and Beyond
Not going to college was never an option in my family. Dr. Benjamin Mays, who was president of Morehouse College, was one of my idols and tried to convince me to come to Morehouse. For a variety of reasons, I decided that I didn't want to go.
So he told me then that if I didn't want to go to Morehouse, then I had to go to his school. He was a graduate of Bates College [in Lewiston, Maine]. Bates was a natural choice for me, given the interest I had in debating.
After Bates, I went to the University of Chicago, as Dr. Mays had, for further study. I lived a block and a half from Elijah Muhammad and became very devoted to the philosophical leanings of Malcolm X.
At that time in my life, I found more appeal in a lot of what he was saying than I found in the philosophy of passivism that Martin Luther King Jr. was promoting, because for some reason I found Malcolm X's philosophy of self-development and resistance to be very important.
What was painful for me was to see the separation between them, because I felt that they both shared a stage in human history that was very important. I saw them as quite compatible, whereas other people viewed them as opposites.
After I completed my studies in Chicago, I decided that the color of my passion was black and not green. I felt I had an obligation of service to my community. So I had to go south. My brother James became president of Shaw University, his alma mater, when he was 30 years old. He brought me onto the faculty and made me a vice president.
Working for My Brother
Working with him was a phenomenal growth experience. I learned something and developed something that became a part of my life force. I was able to be a vice president and separate my relationship with him as a brother from my role as an employee and as a vice president — subordinate to him. Learning how to do that, both philosophically and emotionally, was a very powerful experience, and one that has never deserted me.
James moved on to Howard University as president. So I became president of Shaw University in 1969, when I was 32 years old, after deciding not to practice law. [But] my talent was not in the management of an educational enterprise, to keep it fiscally solvent. I moved to Morgan after two years. I felt it would be a great opportunity for me to utilize my skills and to commit myself in a stronger way to developing educational systems that I thought could better serve black Americans.