As a rule, I avoid personal references in this column, but February is Black History month, and this is a positive story of our nation's progress in race relations. It is worth surrendering some privacy to tell it.




I graduated from Texas AM in l950. Following ROTC summer camp at Ft. Hood, I was commissioned a 2nd Lt. U.S. Army and embarked on a combined 40-year military-civil service career before retiring in l990. Thirty-three of those 40 years were spent overseas in Okinawa, Thailand, Laos and Spain, with the last seven at Misawa, Japan. I flew home at least once per year to attend education conferences, two of which were in Washington, D.C. That was how I met Dr. James E. Cheek, president of Howard University l969-89, the most prestigious black university in our country.




His brother, Dr. King V. Cheek, was president of Morgan State University in Baltimore. Someone told me the "V" stood for version. Their father was a Methodist minister who had named his sons after the King James version of the Bible. I did not confirm this with Dr. Cheek. That was too personal a question.




The charter establishing Howard University was signed by President Andrew Johnson in March l867. When the first classes started, there were only eight students, seven black and one white. Today the university enrolls more than l5,000 students. About l2,000 are undergraduates, the remainder pursuing professional or advanced degrees.




The Washington college was named after Civil War General Oliver O. Howard and chose as its motto "Veritas et Utilitas (Truth and Service)." Its distinguished alumni have honored the service commitment in the college logo.




Thurgood Marshall became the first black American to be appointed a Supreme Court Justice. Douglas Wilder was the first black American elected governor of Virginia. Edward Brookes was elected to the United States Senate; David Dinkins was elected mayor of New York City. Andrew Young served as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations.




After graduating from Howard, Ossie Davis went on to a successful acting career on Broadway, on television and in movies. In l950, Dr. Ralph Bunche became the first black American to win the Nobel Peace Prize after brokering a peace treaty ending the first Arab-Israeli War.




Dr. Charles Drew probably made the greatest contribution. He discovered a way to isolate and preserve blood plasma, which saved thousands of wounded GIs of every color in World War II.




Dr. Cheek was guest speaker at one of our conferences. Afterward, I spent a pleasant half hour with him, discussing our common surname. Documents in the Baltimore Public Library report that Geroge Cheek arrived in Potomak, Md., in l742. He was soon joined by brothers Edward and William. The family drifted into North Carolina.




As a descendant of slaves, Dr. Cheek had fewer records, but he had family in North Carolina. There are more Cheeks in the Tarheel State than any other. Some of my ancestors had probably owned some of his, who took the family name after emancipation. On Dec. 6, l865, the l3th Amendment abolished slavery. The l4th (l868) granted blacks citizenship and the l5th (l870) guaranteed their right to vote. Freed from the shackles of slavery, the black branch of our family could compete for their fair share of the American dream.




Our chance meeting was a beacon of hope, proving that our country was moving forward in its quest for racial equality. Four generations earlier, his ancestors were probably slaves belonging to mine. Now, our roles were reversed. He was a college president who sat on many presidential commissions. I was an education officer who had come to learn from him. That was progress!