It’s a landmark for a landmark: Kalamazoo College’s first tenured black professor has turned 90. Long retired (it took two tries), he remains happy, healthy and extremely busy.
Romeo Phillips, born March 11, 1928, arrived on the Kalamazoo College campus in October 1968 at a tumultuous point in American history. A July 1967 riot had rocked Detroit, leaving 43 people dead. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in April 1968 and Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in June. In Vietnam, the carnage of the Tet Offensive had shocked the American public, which was rapidly turning against the war. And within a few weeks of Phillips starting his job, the U.S. Olympic Committee suspended two African-American athletes for raising their fists in “black power” salutes as a protest during a victory ceremony at the Mexico City games.
Amid that turmoil, and the awakening inspired by the civil rights movement, colleges and universities were seeking to diversify their student bodies and faculties. Phillips, a suburban Detroit school administrator with a Ph.D. in education and experience teaching at the college level, started hearing from suitors: Ohio State University, the State University of New York at Buffalo, Oakland University, Central Michigan University. Though their entreaties were attractive to a scholar who had just turned 40 and was looking for a career as a college professor, it was the little liberal arts college that won him over.
First, there was the location: Kalamazoo was midway between his hometown of Chicago, where his aging parents lived, and Detroit, where his wife’s family made their home. And then there were the people: library head Wen Chao Chen, who recruited him, President Weimer Hicks and especially professor Paul Collins, chairman of the education department. Phillips recalls his job interview with the cigar-puffing Collins.
“I said, ‘Professor Collins, I want to teach at the college level, but I want you to recommend me based on my academic credentials and my scholarship, not because I’m black.’ And he crossed his legs and said, ‘Well, let’s see. You have 17 years teaching in major cities and the suburbs.’ He said, ‘I don’t have that.’ He said, ‘You have published. I haven’t.’ He said, ‘You have two masters and a Ph.D. I don’t.’ He said, ‘You just happen to be black.’ I will never forget that.”
Phillips says that in his role at Kalamazoo College, he found himself called on by the administration to “put out some fires” among black students. He says the students, in turn, regarded him as “bourgeoisie” despite his Chicago South Side upbringing. He was unembarrassed about being a member of the establishment.
He taught both music and education, and, despite retiring from the College in 1993, he would remain a faculty member for six more years, taking over at the administration’s request after the abrupt departure of the Education Department’s chair.
“They had a retirement activity for me on a Saturday, and I came back to work the following Monday,” he says.
He was also a force within the wider Kalamazoo community, chairing the local branch of the NAACP from 1980-87 and establishing an annual fundraising dinner that drew the likes of Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, historian and civil rights advocate Mary Frances Berry, and Rosa Parks as speakers. In addition, he served two terms on the Portage City Council (also a first for an African-American), where he was mayor pro-tem.
He retired for good in 1999, yet continues to visit the College weekly for a lunch with fellow emeriti professors and maintains ties with some former students. He’s also active in his church and in musical circles, organizing concerts and performing choral pieces with Kalamazoo’s Bach Festival and other ensembles. He helped found, and serves as an emeritus board member, for the Society for History and Racial Equity, a Kalamazoo nonprofit led by Donna Odom ’67. And as if that’s not enough, he also serves as a committee chair for the local ham radio association, is a member of the Kiwanis and plays tennis, though he has to wear an ace bandage on a knee damaged by ill-fitting combat boots during a Korean War-era stint in the Army.
Married 15 years ago to wife Patricia after the 1998 death of his first wife Deloris, a Western Michigan University professor, Phillips is the father of two and grandfather of seven, and serves as a sort of grandfather-figure to a great niece who’s attending WMU. Bored, he isn’t. His one regret: His cholesterol level won’t allow him to indulge in his favorite, ice cream. But he finds sherbet a tasty substitute.
Having buried many friends and former colleagues, and having watched others be ravaged by Alzheimer’s and dementia, the 2003 recipient of the College’s Weimer K. Hicks Award recognizes he’s lucky, and doesn’t take it for granted.
“There’s a Southern expression, ‘Lord, I got up this morning in my right mind,’ ” he said with a smile. “I think I know who I am.”