Dr. Leslie Morgan Collins


The enigmatic moon has at long last died.
Even as the ancient Cathedral Saint Louis
Peals has lazy call
To a sleepy solemn worship,
Night’s mysterious shadows reveal their secrets
And rise into nothingness
As honest days unfurls her bright banners.

The stevedore,
Sleep spilled on his black face,
Braves the morning’s rising fog,
The saturating chill.

As the sun burns itself out in summer brilliance,
Though his heart he sweated out
In water glistening from gargantuan shoulders,
He finds strength in his voice,
Singing of Moses in Egyptland,
Of yesterday’s untrue love.

By evening the sun-scorched stevedore has packed strange cargoes
On alien ships
Whose destinations stir no romantic desires.

All day
A little of his soul is put to sea.
And now that the heaven’s sun-burnt gold
Has quickened to deepest lapis-lazulli,
He turns an unkempt head

To a dreamless slumber…

—by Leslie M. Collins

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For over five decades, Leslie Morgan Collins was an inspirational force in his classroom at Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee. Joining the faculty in 1945, Dr. Collins taught basic through advanced composition, the works of English poet John Milton, and the Harlem Renaissance and Black literature. Among his students were noted poet Nikki Giovanni, and former Fisk President Hazel R. O’Leary. In 1985, he became emeritus professor of English, and remained at Fisk until his death in 2014, at age 99. Teaching for more than half a century, and seemingly a permanent fixture at Fisk, very often he had the distinction of having taught three generations of one family.

A most highly regarded and beloved icon on the Fisk campus, the university was clearly home; besides eating most of his meals in the company of his students in the university cafeteria, for many decades he maintained a personal residence on campus. Students called him “Doc”, and he addressed them, and everyone else he knew, as “Friend.” I called him Leslie. He was my first cousin (once removed); his mother Nancy was my maternal grandmother Ella’s younger sister.

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Brothers,  Samuel, Jr. (top), Leslie (right) & Charles Collins, ca. 1919. Leslie Morgan Collins (1914-2014).

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Leslie was born October 4, 1914 in Alexandria, Rapides Parish, Louisiana, the son of Nancy Davis and Samuel Collins. Their middle child, Leslie was one of the couple’s three sons. At the age of three, shortly after the birth of his brother Charles in 1917, his mother Nancy, called “Doula,” passed away following complications from child birth. Leslie, his older brother, Samuel, Jr., and baby brother, Charles, then went to live with their maternal grandparents, Sophia Morgan and James “Pa Pa Jim” Solomon Davis, a local fireman in the City of Alexandria, who in later years opened a blacksmith shop which he operated with his eldest son, James, III. The Collins children’s maternal aunt Ida, whom they referred to as “Idoo,” was another strong and constant presence in their lives, and she, too, helped raise them.

Though they practiced the Protestant faith, Leslie and his brothers attended a Catholic church school, simply because it offered a more extensive curriculum, in a more nurturing environment, than the public school did for black children. My mother remembers her cousin Leslie being an avid reader of serious literature from a very young age. Traveling up from Alexandria, he and his brothers used to visit my mother’s family in Shreveport, during summer vacation. My mother didn’t ever recall him playing with her and her siblings (she was one of seven). While the younger kids—his peers—were in the backyard playing, Leslie would be fresh, dressed neat as a pin, sitting on the front porch reading a book. And that was every day of his stay!

Finishing secondary school, Leslie continued his education at the newly opened Dillard University, an historically black liberal arts college in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1936, Leslie was among the first class of graduates to receive a degree from Dillard. A year later, he was awarded a master’s degree from Fisk University.

Leslie was an educator, a keen observer, preserver and promoter of Black culture; for nearly fifty years, a book reviewer for the newspaper, Tennessean; a writer. Several of his published poems, Stevedore and Creole Girl, which was set to music, can be accessed online. In 1976, Creole Girl was read by Princess Grace of Monaco (a.k.a. Grace Kelly, former American actress) at the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland. Then, in 1980, the poem was included in a performance of readings by Princess Grace at the inauguration of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, in Nashville. Reflections on a journey: verses / by L.M. Collins is in the collection of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library.

With an unquenchable enthusiasm for research, and the desire to immerse himself in the black cultural experience, he embarked on a course of study at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and in 1945, became the first person in the nation to earn a doctorate in American culture. In the June 18, 1945 issue of Time magazine, there is an article based on an interview with Dr. Collins, in which he discusses the subjects of his doctoral thesis A Song, a Dance, and a Play: An Interpretive Study of Three American Artists, singer Marian Anderson, dancer Katherine Dunham, and actor/singer Paul Robeson. In 1952, as a Ford Foundation Fellow, he returned to the university, now Case Western Reserve University, where he was awarded a Master of Science in Library Science “with an accent on books and reading.” And that unquenchable zest for learning later led him to pursue advanced studies at the University of Havana, the University of Florence, the University of Madrid, and the University of Oslo, where, as visiting professor, he would return to teach each summer.

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Our whole family was, and will always be quite proud of Leslie’s scholastic and professional accomplishments. Leslie was born into a multi-racial family of moderate to humble means (his maternal grandfather of Irish, Scottish and European Jewish descent; his maternal grandmother of Scottish, African and Native American origin). Growing up in the deeply oppressive, segregated south, and coming of age during The Great Depression, never deterred him. Leslie’s love of literature and poetry, which contributed to his unbridled curiosity about life, and the lives and cultures of all peoples, made him naturally aspire to great heights, in spite of the times—the era of America’s “apartheid” system.

No question, Leslie was destined to participant in, and be a contributor to, first and foremost his black community, as well as, the world outside, far and beyond the confines of his youth. He became a world-wide traveler, and for many years, during summer breaks at Fisk, he was a visiting professor at the University of Oslo, in Norway, where he once pursued postgraduate studies.

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Leslie M. Collins, ca. 1950

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Separated from ancestors who experienced slavery by only one generation, Leslie was the first in our family to achieve such prodigious academic heights, and through the years, my mother made certain her two daughters were kept apprised of each and every accomplishment attained by their cousin.

My earliest recollection of Leslie was him visiting my parents at our apartment in Harlem, in New York City; it was the 1940s, and I was at the impressionable age of six or seven. Then, over the next 3 decades, he came often to New York, and always for the same reason—to take one course, or another, and attend lectures at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Most of his visits were in the summer, but one time I remember Leslie coming during the Christmas holidays. Arriving at our apartment Christmas Eve, he and my mother ended up in the kitchen making Egg-nog—the richest I have ever tasted. It was my maternal grandfather’s recipe, made with no less than a dozen eggs, heavy cream, and rum. In the punch bowl, the brew was topped with a hefty shake of nutmeg.

Then, Christmas day, Leslie returned for dinner. A traditional southern-style, roasted turkey dinner, with all the fixings—oyster dressing, “real” baked macaroni and cheese, candied sweet potatoes, string beans, and English peas. My mom was an awesome cook, as were both her parents. My Creole grandfather took on the cooking task every Sunday, so my grandmother, who sang in the choir, could attend church with the children. As in childhood, having spent many a holiday in my grandparents home, for this Christmas feast Leslie could hardly wait to experience the culinary legacy of his uncle Erastus, carried forward another generation by his daughter, my mother Sophie. When Leslie finally left to return to International House, a private, graduate student residence near Columbia University, my mom, exhausted, retired to bed early, like us kids. Later, close to midnight, unexpectedly, the doorbell rang. Responding, my father, in his pajamas and robe, looked through the front door ‘peep-hole’ and saw Leslie.  He was back, he said, to eat again. So he and my dad went into the kitchen, heated up the turkey, dressing and other left-overs, after which the two sat down and ate another round.

What impressed me about Leslie was his stylish dress—flawless from head to toe—impeccable manners, and eloquent speech. I was ensnared by the sound of his voice. Though born in the south, being I had lived in New York since the age of three, my ear was not in tuned to the unique rhythm of his particular southern accent and pattern of speech. Leslie’s sound was like music—words precisely enunciated, tone, genteel and mellifluous. Quick, springy, and light in step, he could have been a dancer, I thought. Lithesome in appearance, the embodiment of grace, zest and urban flair, in watching Leslie, Fred Astaire easily came to mind.

Topping his movie-star looks and winsome smile, was Leslie’s joyous laugh, and his ability to grab and hold an audience; he was an animated story teller! And, my, did he have a trove of stories to tell!  Drawn to dynamic people, his vital spirit drew them to him. And these people, like writer/poet, Langston Hughes, and international dancer, singer, and social & political activist, Josephine Baker, were counted among his friends.

The  last time I saw Leslie he was in New York to attend seminars at Columbia University, and I was a freshman at Cooper Union. Passionate about the arts, visual and performing, he seemed quite interested in the course of study I was pursuing, with its emphasis on painting. Within a couple of weeks of his return to Nashville, I received a package in the mail. It was a book on the works of Spanish surrealist painter and sculptor Joan Miró. What I deemed so precious about the gift, was that it came from Leslie’s very own personal collection. To this day, some fifty plus years later and after more than a dozen moves, including one across the ocean and back, I still have the Joan Miró book in my library.

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After more than fifty years, Dr. Leslie Morgan Collins, still a vital and dynamic icon on the Fisk University campus.

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Creole Girl

When you dance,
Do you think of Spain,
Purple skirts and clipping castanets,
Creole Girl?

When you laugh,
Do you think of France,
Golden wine and mincing minuets,
Creole Girl?

When you sing,
Do you think of young America,
Grey guns and battling bayonets,
Creole Girl?

When you cry,
Do you think of Africa,
Blue nights and casual canzonets,
Creole Girl?

—by Leslie M. Collins