Donald V. Watkins
Mr. Ramus Rhodes Revisited: A Bigger Man Than I Ever Knew
By: Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Republished (via Facebook) on December 8, 2016
(Original Publication Date: March 30, 2014; Revised on June 15, 2016)
On Tuesday, Del Wilber, a reporter for the LA Times, sent me an October 25, 1956, Anniston Star article on Mr. Ramus Rhodes. Wilber is writing a story on Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination for U.S. Attorney General. During the course of his background research on Sessions, Wilber came across my “elegant” June 15, 2016, Facebook article on Mr. Rhodes.
Titled, “Colored Janitor at U. of A. slated to Play Organ at Homecoming”, the Anniston Star article discussed Mr. Rhodes from a point of view that is very different from the one I wrote about in my original article titled, “Mr. Ramus Rhodes: A Giant Among Men”. Having read the Anniston Star article, I now realize that Mr. Rhodes was a much bigger man in history than I ever knew. This is why I am revisiting his story. It must be told fully and in its proper context.
In 1934, Mr. Rhodes became the janitor at Farrah Hall, the building that housed the old law school at the University of Alabama. When I arrived in September 1970, white law students routinely called him “Ramus”. I called him Mr. Rhodes.
I met Mr. Rhodes on my first day at the law school. He was a tall, dark, handsome, and stately black man who took pride in himself and his job. The Anniston Star article described him as “a quietly dignified colored janitor”.
Mr. Rhodes’ hands were big and strong, but full of calluses from the decades of sweeping and mopping. His janitor’s uniform was always crisp and clean. He rode his bicycle to work every day.
While Mr. Rhodes never discussed his formal education with me, it quickly became apparent that his brilliance knew no bounds. To this day, Mr. Rhodes is one of the smartest people I have ever met. He was the very definition of “class and character”.
I learned from the Anniston Star article that Mr. Rhodes graduated from Stillman College in Tuscaloosa with a degree in teacher education. Because the state of Alabama had no money to pay for teachers designated for “Colored” schools in 1934, Mr. Rhodes took the janitor’s job at Farrah Hall.
Mr. Rhodes was no stranger to the University of Alabama. When he was a young child, Mr. Rhodes “hoed corn in the fields of the old University farms” and helped his mother clean one of the athletic buildings.
In 1970, many of the white law students merely saw Mr. Rhodes as the janitor who played the organ on the law school’s float during the homecoming parade while they drunkenly cheered for the all-white Crimson Tide football team. In Charles Shield’s 2007 book titled, “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee”, Mr. Rhodes was described as the “official mascot” of the law school who played “popular tunes on an organ” as he was “surrounded by four law school cheerleaders throwing candy to the crowd”.
By 1970, I knew plenty of well known, highly intelligent, and powerful men. I saw Mr. Rhodes as a giant among them.
When he was not cleaning toilets and mopping the floors at Farrah Hall, Mr. Rhodes was always reading books in the mop closet that served as his “office”. He possessed in-depth subject-matter knowledge on a wide variety of topics. Now I know why -- Mr. Rhodes was a formally educated teacher and the mop closet was his classroom. I never knew that Mr. Rhodes was a teacher because he never focused any attention on himself; he only focused on the students.
I was one of two black law students who arrived on UA’s campus in 1970. The first three black students to desegregate the law school arrived the year before me. Mr. Rhodes personally greeted each one of us upon our arrival at Farrah Hall. He made sure we knew that he was there to help us get through what turned out to be the longest and loneliest three years of my life.
Mr. Rhodes taught me how to buy my law books so that my preparation for class would be the most effective in an environment of isolation. He became my unofficial "study group" partner. He profiled all of my professors for me. He showed me how to use the library and how to research published cases. He was my counselor when things seemed unbearable. In essence, Mr. Rhodes was my real professor; nobody else was even close in his knowledge of law.
All of this coaching, teaching, and mentoring had to be done quietly and discreetly. After all, Mr. Rhodes’ purpose on campus was to clean the building, not to mentor me through the rigors of law school.
Looking back on it now, Mr. Rhodes possessed all of the skills and intellectual acumen needed to be a law student or professor, and a successful one at that. Because of a mere circumstance of birth and the belated social and racial progress of Alabama, Mr. Rhodes was the janitor, and I was the law student.
Then came that beautiful sunny day in May 1973. I had just finished all of my law school exams. One week later, I would be graduating as the fifth black law student in the school’s history.
As I sat out on the front steps of Farrah Hall, reflecting on my ordeal and praising God for delivering me from this place, Mr. Rhodes came out to join me. He congratulated me on my achievements. He described his 38 years of pure hell as a janitor on campus and the historic events he had witnessed -- from the riots over Autherine Lucy’s 1956 admission to UA as the first black student, to Vivian Malone and James Hood’s admission in 1963. He watched in sadness as Governor George C. Wallace tried unsuccessfully to block Malone and Hood from registering as students, and as National Guard troops later on escorted them to their classes. Just a few years later, he also watched each one of us arrive on campus to desegregate the law school.
With tears streaming down his face, he took my hand and would not let it go. Then, he asked me for one favor as his grip tightened on my hand and he looked me squarely in the eyes. “Please do not forget about us”, was his request. The “us” he was referring to were all of the blacks who paved the way for our attendance as law students – all of the janitors and maids, all of the ditch-diggers and laborers, all of the lunchroom workers and housekeepers, all of the civil rights marchers who had been beaten and killed, all of the teachers who had taught us the basics of formal education, and all of “invisible” black men and women who built this great nation and were never recognized for their personal sacrifices and professional contributions.
The man who sent his own children to college at Tuskegee and Stillman on a janitor’s salary and who personally delivered me to “freedom” after my three years of pure hell at the law school, was asking me to remember the suffering, sacrifices, and positive contributions of all of the black men and women who made this day possible for me.
I looked into Mr. Rhodes’ eyes and squeezed his hand as I replied with tears in my eyes, “I will never forget you or them”. When he released my hand, a sudden calmness came over Mr. Rhodes that I had never seen before. He knew that the message he was sending had been received; that his sacrifices and contributions had paid off; that his life’s work had real meaning; and that his legacy would live on through me and the other black law students who embraced the love and knowledge he gave us and used it as our “bridge over troubled waters”.
As I began a 43-year legal career that would, in time, be marked by numerous landmark civil rights cases, I always knew that a piece of Mr. Rhodes was living within me. My name was on the law degree, the law license, and the multitude of cases that would reshape Alabama’s educational, political, economic, judicial, and healthcare landscape for decades, but Mr. Rhodes’ fighting spirit was with me every step of the way.
I never forgot.