The Fisk University family recently lost one of its iconic giants, Dr. L.M. Collins. A memorial service in celebration of his life was held in the Fisk Chapel on February 27. Fisk alumna Nikki Giovanni spoke eloquently about how her friend and mentor had shaped minds and influenced generations of Fiskites.
Dr. L.M. Collins was known as a literary sage and a genial intellectual. He was also the true embodiment of erudition and friendship. He was a living link to the Harlem Renaissance, that veritable perfect storm of imaginative greatness that teemed with youthful possibility through creative, multiform artistic expressions. With a generous hand and refined manner, he shared through his teachings the richness of that era. With a lasting pedagogical embrace, he brought to life and left a lasting appreciation for the world’s classical and modern literatures within the hearts and minds of innumerable students whom he taught at Fisk.
Collins was born in 1914 in Alexandria, Louisiana, the youngest of three sons. He was an alumnus of Dillard, Case Western Reserve, and Fisk Universities. He received his first master’s degree from Fisk in 1937. For a semester at Fisk, Collins was tutored by James Weldon Johnson in creative writing. Many of Collins’s poems were anthologized in volumes such as The Poetry of the Negro, American Negro Poetry, Beyond the Blues, Ik Zag Zwart Ik Was, and scholarly journals such as The Peabody Journal of Education, Southern Observer, English Record, and The Markham Review.
In 1945, Collins was awarded the Ph.D. by Case Western Reserve University Department of American Culture. That same year he began his storied career at Fisk University. In 1952, Dr. Collins returned to Case Western Reserve as a Ford Foundation Fellow and received a master’s degree in Library Science. His research interests led him to pursue postgraduate studies at the University of Havana, the University of Oslo, the University of Florence, and the University of Madrid.
At Fisk, Dr. Collins taught courses in ‘freshman composition,’ ‘advanced composition,’ Milton, the Harlem Renaissance and Black literature. Some of his publications include: An Invitation to Read (1979), Images of the Afro-American Woman: A Bibliographic Guide (1980), A Calendar of Fisk Wit and Wisdom: Images of People in Transition 1866 -1944 (1994), and an edited collection, Listen, Lord: Prayers and Meditations, Tributes in Memoriam, and Testaments of Faith by Students, Teachers, Alumni, and Friends of Fisk University 1866-1996 (1996).
His work had international resonance. His poem, ‘Stevedore,’ which Langston Hughes regarded as one of his half-dozen favorite poems, was once read by Ruby Dee on national television. Collins’s poem, ‘Creole Girl,’ was read by Princess Grace of Monaco at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1976, televised by the British Broadcasting Company. The princess also presented it during her performance of readings to open the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in September, 1980, in Nashville. The latter poem was also set to music and sung at a concert that was broadcast on national television.
Dr. Collins was a patron of the arts and supporter of students’ artistic endeavors. For nearly 50 years, Dr. Collins reviewed books for Nashville’s Tennessean newspaper. In 1989, his book, One Hundred Years of Fisk University Presidents was published.
The following year, he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Fisk. In 2004, he was elected to membership in Phi Beta Kappa at Fisk.
In the years following his retirement, Dr. Collins continued to teach and mentor students.