Morehouse College 2008 class valedictorian Josh Packwood, of Kansas City, Mo., poses for a portrait on campus, Tuesday, April 22, 2009, in Atlanta. Packwood stands out not only because of his grade point average, but also because he is one of the few white faces at the historically black college. (AP photo/John Amis)
ATLANTA — From his first day at Morehouse College — the country’s only institution of higher learning dedicated exclusively to the education of black men — Joshua Packwood has been a standout.
His popularity got him elected dorm president as a freshman. His looks and physique made him a fashion show favorite. His intellect made him a Rhodes Scholar finalist. His work ethic landed him a job at the prestigious New York investment banking firm Goldman Sachs.
But it’s his skin that has made all of this an anomaly.
Packwood is set to take the stage today and address his classmates as the first white valedictorian in Morehouse’s 141-year history.
The 22-year-old from Kansas City, Mo., will graduate with a perfect 4.0 GPA and a degree in economics.
He could have gone elsewhere, to a school like Columbia, Stanford or Yale. But his four-year journey through Morehouse has taught him a few things that they could not, and he makes it clear that he has no regrets.
“I’ve been forced to see the world in a different perspective, that I don’t think I could’ve gotten anywhere else,” he said. “None of the Ivies, no matter how large their enrollment is, no matter how many Nobel laureates they have on their faculty … none of them could’ve provided me with the perspective I have now.”
Recruitment, and a surprise
When Packwood applied to Morehouse, he had frequent conversations with George Gray, an alumnus who was a recruiter at the school. Gray was impressed by Packwood’s credentials and spent months trying to talk the sought-after senior into choosing Morehouse over other elite schools.
“He had outstanding numbers,” said Gray, now director of admissions at historically black Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. “He was the kind of kid we were looking for to be a presidential scholar.”
After several conversations, Packwood began to suspect that Gray had no idea that he was white. His suspicions were confirmed when one of Gray’s calls caught Packwood in the middle of track practice.
“Don’t let the white kids walk you down,” Gray quipped.
“Wait,” Packwood responded. “You know I’m white, right?”
Silence. Uneasy laughter. Confirmation.
“The challenge was to get the best student that we could, and Josh definitely fit that,” Gray said.
And for Packwood, knowing that he had been picked on his merits, and not as a token white recruit, made the difference.
“That said I could come here and, ironically, be accepted for who I am,” Packwood said. “I thought I made the right decision then, and I know I made the right decision now.”
It was not as if this was the first time Packwood experienced life in the minority. He was among the few white students in his class at Grandview Senior High School in Kansas City, Mo. He has mixed-race siblings and his mother was married to a black man. Packwood’s experiences growing up have helped him navigate black culture while remaining comfortable with his own complexion.
Packwood’s mere presence on campus wouldn’t make history at this school founded by a black minister and cabinetmaker two years after the end of the Civil War. Howard Zehr, Morehouse’s first white student, graduated in 1966, and there have been dozens of other whites on campus since.
And so Packwood turned down Columbia University, postponing his dream of living in New York City. He ignored some in his family who warned that he might not have the same opportunities he would have as a Columbia graduate and headed south.
Packwood still laughs when he remembers his first day on campus, wandering the grounds in pajama pants and getting stares from black classmates who wondered if the freshman wasn’t a wayward student from Georgia Tech, Georgia State or perhaps Emory University.
After convincing the photographer to take his student ID photo, Packwood headed to his room in Brazeal Hall. Shortly after, his roommate arrived with his mother. Four years later, Packwood still can’t get over the irony: After years of being one of a few blacks at majority-white schools in Dallas, Phillip Smithey had come to Morehouse to get the “black experience.”
Instead, he was sharing a room with the only white guy in his class.
Getting comfortable in your skin
When he came to Morehouse, Packwood was sweating a bit under his swagger, which is why he was reluctant to run for president of his dorm at the end of his freshman year. The novelty was wearing off, but Packwood didn’t want his new friends to think he was the white guy trying to “act black” or take over their school.
Classes proved to be a challenge socially and academically when the discussions shifted to issues of race. Once, Packwood was asked to sit on a panel about interracial relationships. Though he had dated black girls since high school, he spent the first hour of the panel getting warmed up, feeling out the crowd and trying to couch his thoughts.
“It was kind of heated, and there were very strong views on both sides,” he said. “But eventually I realized they put me on the panel not to just pander to the crowd, but to voice my opinion.”
Packwood said such exchanges taught him a lesson.
“Sometimes I kind of wanted to hold back,” he acknowledged. “A lot of the professors and students have been like, ‘No, don’t hold back. We want your perspective here. If we’re not going to get it from you, it’s going to be very difficult for us to get it somewhere else.’”
Both students and faculty, he said, seemed to appreciate his honesty.
“The few times I have held back and tried to pick my words wisely or even go against what I truly believe, that’s when I’ve caught the most flak,” he said.
With each semester, Packwood’s grades remained high, his confidence grew and his résumé became more impressive. Summers were spent on Wall Street at Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, he studied abroad in London and Costa Rica, and his studies have taken him to China and Switzerland.
He also drew attention with his looks — some Atlanta University Center coeds took to calling him “Tom Cruise.” His photo album on Facebook shows a smiling Packwood posing with dozens of young, black women who fill his page with notes.
As Morehouse embraced him, Packwood became an unlikely ambassador for the school.
“Josh Packwood is Morehouse,” the college’s president, Robert Franklin, said in his inauguration speech in February. “He happens to be Euro American and brings much appreciated diversity to our campus.”
Wendell Marsh, a junior English and French major who is black, said talking to Packwood as a high school senior helped make up his mind to come to Morehouse.
“Right now, we live in a time where people say the black institution is obsolete, that you can get a better education at a majority institution,” Marsh said. “To see a white guy who had declined Harvard for Morehouse, I figured it was good enough for me.”
Packwood raised “the bar for everyone,” said Stanton Fears, a senior economics major.
“The best man got it, that’s how I look at it,” Fears said. “It’s about equality here, too. If he wants to come here and make a name for himself, he should be allowed the same types of things we’re allowed.”
Being surrounded by black men for his undergraduate career has taught him more about diversity, Packwood said.
“I’ve been here for four years and yet, I cannot give you the definition of black,” he said. “I cannot tell you what a black man is. I really learned to look much deeper. It takes a lot of effort to know people.”
A dream reimagined
Shake. Lean. Embrace. Release. The ritual is repeated several times as Packwood greets his fellow classmates on one of his last days on campus. Some congratulated him amid the buzz that he might be named valedictorian. There were those who thought there would be some bitterness, but animosity for Packwood’s accomplishments was scarce that day.
Brandon L. Douglas, a junior business major who met Packwood as an intern on Wall Street after his freshman year, said Packwood has been a standout not for his skin, but for his successes on campus.
“He kind of sticks out, but he’s still relatable and he works with all of us,” Douglas said. “You don’t see a skin color with him anymore. You start looking more at his character.”
Douglas’ words echo the most famous words of Morehouse’s most famous alumnus, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in his “I Have A Dream” speech. Not far from where Packwood is standing looms a towering statue of King, his bronze finger pointing toward the horizon.
It’s just a coincidence, but on this day, King is pointing toward Packwood.