WWII veteran, leader in Black higher education Samuel L. Myers Sr. dies at 101
By BART BARNES | The Washington Post | Published: January 22, 2021
Samuel L. Myers Sr., a Harvard-educated economist and leader in Black higher education who presided over momentous change at Bowie State College starting in the late 1960s after students occupied the Maryland State House to protest poor conditions at the school, died Jan. 8 at his home in Mitchellville, Md. He was 101 and was living at a residential community for seniors.
He died after declining hospital treatment for an inability to swallow, said a son, Samuel L. Myers Jr.
Now called Bowie State University, the historically Black institution in Maryland's Prince George's County was founded after the Civil War to train teachers for the children of newly freed enslaved people.
Myers, who grew up in segregated Baltimore schools, was one of the first Blacks to obtain an economics doctorate from Harvard, and served in the 1950s and early 1960s as a professor and administrator at historically Black Morgan State College (now university) in Baltimore and then as a State Department economics officer.
He arrived at Bowie State in July 1967, at a political inflection point for what he described at the time as a "small, struggling Negro college." By the mid-1960s, the momentum of the civil rights movement and the hopes and goals of an activist breed of students were placing new demands on an entrenched college administration accustomed to being little noticed and mostly ignored.
The previous Bowie State president, in office for a quarter-century, had been stingy in his requests for state appropriations, Myers told the New York Times. He added that he had taken a $5,000 pay cut from his government job to serve as college president for $19,000 a year, but saw "exciting opportunities to develop human beings."
There were outbursts of unrest in the years immediately preceding Myers's arrival as president, with complaints centered on ramshackle dormitories, roach-infested food, an outdated curriculum and lackluster teaching.
Myers's first year at Bowie was tumultuous, with a student boycott of classes in the last week of March 1968. The peaceful protest spread to a takeover of several campus buildings, with students sleeping overnight in hallways and manning the college switchboard. And the dissent culminated in a sit-in, on April 4, 1968, at the Maryland State House in Annapolis. More than 200 students demanded an audience with Gov. Spiro Agnew, R.
At the governor's orders, 228 students were arrested when they refused to leave at closing time. That evening, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. But by newspaper accounts, the students and the police acted with relative calm and order, even as Baltimore and Washington were among the urban centers that saw rioting after the murder of King.
During the rest of his decade-long tenure, Myers oversaw a $47 million campus building and improvement program as well as curriculum revisions and an upgrading of faculty members' academic credentials (in part by encouraging faculty to earn PhDs during sabbaticals). Student enrollment was about 600 when Myers took office, and increased to more than 2,000 by 1971. There are now more than 5,000 students at Bowie State.
Initially, Myers said he was opposed to the protesters' tactics to attempt a showdown with Agnew, preferring a less-confrontational approach, but he routinely backed their complaints as justified.
After stepping down in 1977, Myers became an advocate for educational improvement for minorities. For 18 years he was president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. He was also a founder, board chairman and senior adviser to Minority Access, a nonprofit organization that works to improve diversity and reduce disparities in education, research and health care.
Samuel Lloyd Myers was born in Baltimore on April 18, 1919, to Jamaican parents. A flu pandemic — which killed 50 million worldwide — was raging. In the weeks before his death Myers remarked that he was born in the midst of one global pandemic and was likely to die in the midst of another.
His father, then a steamship steward, worked for a shipping line in Baltimore, and one summer while attending Morgan State, Myers got a job as a "cabin boy" on a ship to Kolkata, his family said.
On shore leave in India, he witnessed extreme poverty, the physical scars of leprosy and the Hindu practice — now outlawed — of the cremation of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. This would become a motivating factor in his decision to work in a profession that might improve the lives of others, he later said.
Myers graduated from Morgan State in 1940 and received a master's degree in economics from Boston University in 1942. He served in the Army in the Pacific during World War II, then completed his doctorate from Harvard in 1949. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, a presidential counselor and future U.S. ambassador to India, was his thesis adviser.
Myers soon returned to Morgan State, teaching economics and chairing the social science division, before joining the State Department in 1963 as a specialist in Latin American trade.
His wife of 64 years, Marion Rieras Myers, died in 2006. In addition to his son, of North Oaks, Minn., survivors include a daughter, Yvette Myers of Durham, N.C.; two granddaughters; and two great-grandsons.
As he prepared to leave government and return to academia, Myers told The Washington Post that his philosophy of education was "almost Emersonian in its concepts of learning for learning's sake. I believe the fundamental purpose of education is to open doors."