University of Southern Mississippi History Project
Dr. Walter Washington
by Jason Ridgway
Dedicated in 1993 to both the first African American to apply to the University of Southern Mississippi and the first African American to receive their doctorate from the school, the Kennard-Washington Hall is a fixture of the university’s Hattiesburg campus. The story of the first half of the building’s namesake, Clyde Kennard, is now rightfully well known thanks to the heroic efforts of historians and easily accessible to the students who study at the university thanks to the Freedom Trail Marker outside the building and an excellent documentary on the school’s website. The second half, however, is not as immediately obvious to passer-by and especially to the younger generations of students that will attend USM now and into the future. The key to understanding who Dr. Washington is lies in the fact that this is not the only building named after him, there are in fact similar buildings named for the man at Alcorn State University, Hind Community College, and Tougaloo College. The presence of these buildings attests to the fact that Dr. Washington is a lifelong champion of education in Mississippi, specifically that of opportunities for African American students to attend higher education.
Born in Hazelhurst, MS in 1923, Walter Washington was educated in public schools as child and required the help of his older brother, Park Washington, to afford his entry into higher education. Park Washington was well known for his entrepreneurial ventures in the town of Hazelhurst and according to accounts from Washington’s colleagues it’s clear that Park’s business acumen rubbed off on his little brother. Walter Washington first attended and received his bachelor’s degree from Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS and would go on to receive his masters from Indiana University. From there Washington worked as both a high school teacher and principal before serving as the very first Dean of Academic Affairs for Hinds Community College (at that time known as Utica Junior College) from 1950-1954. He would briefly leave Utica behind before returning to become the president of Utica Junior College in 1957, a position he would serve in before accepting a position as the president of Alcorn State University in 1969. Dr. Washington stayed on as president of ASU until his retirement in 1994. But Washington didn’t stop furthering his education while oversaw others’, the same year he became president of ASU he received his doctorate from the University of Southern Mississippi for a dissertation on the founder of Utica Junior College: William H. Holtzclaw. Dr. Washington would pass on just five years afterward, in December of 1999.
Dr. Washington’s accomplishments at both Utica and Alcorn include a focus on expanding infrastructure and curriculum offerings, specifically bringing in experts in the relevant fields to help with teaching. At a “Salute to Dr. Washington” panel held at Alcorn State on it’s 2016 Founder’s Day celebration, Dr. Mavin Williams had this to say about the man, “He had a relationship with the board and legislature that was unmatched. In terms of academic programs, Dr. Washington wanted all programs at Alcorn to be professionally accredited. He was about making sure that we had not only new programs, but quality programs.”
From Ronald Reagan presenting him with the ‘Outstanding Presidential Cluster Citation’ for his aforementioned work at UJC and ASU to Ebony magazine naming him one of the top 100 Most Influential Black Americans for three years running (1974-1976), These are just a small sample of the many awards that Dr. Washington received throughout his life. But if he was such a celebrated figure who left such an impact on schools in Mississippi, why is it so hard to come by information about the man? It likely stems from the fact that Dr. Washington was a humble and according to several of his colleagues, a very private man. While this penchant for privacy may have lead to a dearth of information on the man, it is important that USM never forget whose name is up to next to Clyde Kennard’s, and why.
“Alcorn Honors the Legacy of Dr. Walter Washington at Founders Day.” Alcorn State University, 3 May 2023, www.alcorn.edu/2016/09/22/alcorn-honors-the-legacy-of-dr-walter-washington-at-founders-day/.
Grayson, Walt. “Mississippi Strong: Dr. Walter Washington’s Brother, Park.” Https://Www.Wlbt.Com, 16 Jan. 2017, www.wlbt.com/story/34251851/mississippi-strong-dr-walter-washingtons-brother-park/.
Quinn, Contina. Influential alumnus dies. 2000. PUBLIC RELATIONS: NEWS RELEASES: NEWS – USM. Box 9. McCain Archives and Special Collections, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS.
“Walter Washington 1923-1999.” The Journal of blacks in higher education, no. 26 (1999): 8–8.
“Walter Washington.” Hinds CC Foundation & Alumni, 6 Apr. 2020, foundation.hindscc.edu/foundation/centennial-celebration/100-people/walter-washington.
“Walter Washington.” University Honors & Awards, Indiana University, honorsandawards.iu.edu/awards/honoree/793.html. Accessed 25 Nov. 2023.