Errin Haines, AP, May 12, 2008
From his first day at Morehouse College—the country’s only institution of higher learning dedicated to the education of black men—Joshua Packwood has been a standout.
But it’s his skin that has made all of this an anomaly. This month, Packwood is set to take the stage 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 Sunday 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.”
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.
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 re-sponded. “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.
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 suburban Kansas City, Mo. He has mixed-race siblings and his mother was married to an African-American. Packwood’s experiences growing up have helped him navigate black culture while remaining comfortable with his own complexion.
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.
An honest voice
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.”