Rechelle Jackson, D2
Last semester, The PULSE, formally introduced the college’s 12th president, Dr. James E.K Hildreth in our fall edition. Dr. Hildreth was named president in July 2015 and since then has been working tirelessly to make his presence known and goals realized.
However, as the old adage states, behind every great man is a great woman and Mrs. Phyllis Hildreth is no exception. The PULSE was able to have a few moments with the new first lady of the institution and learn more about her past, present and future.
Mrs. Hildreth was born in Berkley, California to an Oklahoma father and Missouri mother. During the interview, she frequently spoke of her love of history and how she felt everything happened for a reason and during a certain time. “I believe that our individual stories and community stories are so heavily marked by larger national and historical stories that seem not to be related, but when we pull back and pay attention we see why something happened,” she recollected.
During the Civil Rights movement, her father graduated from Lincoln University, an HBCU in Jefferson City, Missouri. Concurrently, the Korean War was taking place and opportunities for blacks were very limited. Therefore, young black scientists and doctors ended up on the West Coast where they could thrive.
“I was trained in California schools during a time when Sputnik happened and the Russians got to space first, so everyone felt the need to train more scientists,” she said. She also stated that she was brought up during a time where there were linear roles and individuals had to identify as one particular job. “There wasn’t any deciding my career path, it was fairly organic, the question wasn’t was I going to be a scientist, but more so what kind.”
Although Mrs. Hildreth did major in biology in undergrad and soar through ecology and learning about the macro systems, a part of her did not feel complete because of the lack of interaction with people. “There was no social component, so it did not interest me,” she said. She admitted to enjoying the bonding and identifying with others during her self-proclaimed “15 minute” stint as a pre-med student.
After graduation, working as a laboratory technician for five years did not stop Mrs. Hildreth from her true passion. She instinctively felt the need to help the family and believed that healthy families were the core of healthy communities. “I loved the centrality of maternal child health,” she said. “Maternal and child health systems are the heart of my universe.”
She recalls her last job being at Johns Hopkins University in the pharmacology department. She remembers one of her husband’s mentors pulling her to the side and asking what it was she truly wanted to do because she could not continue to hide in the lab.
“He did me a great service. I would have signed up for a career that did not have much black life or culture,” she said.
With the hopes of pursuing a degree at the School of Hygiene and Public Health at Johns Hopkins and the ultimate goal of studying maternal and child health, Mrs. Hildreth applied to the University of Maryland’s law school. In 1984, she became part of the first law school class at the university to matriculate a large number of African-American students. Incorporating her love of history she said, “With Brown vs. Board of Education they continued to segregate high school and higher education, so this class was a part of completing the desegregation process.”
In the course of her first year of law school, Mrs. Hildreth discovered that she actually liked it. Upon searching for a job during school she was forced to carry around her one-page resume stating that she had majored in biology, worked in a lab for five years and now wanted to be a lawyer. “The only person who said ‘yes’ was the public defender of Baltimore city,” she said. “They put me over the CINA (Child In Need of Assistance) division and I clerked there for the remainder of law school.”
Mrs. Hildreth went on to graduate in 1988—and because of her great work ethic and willingness to work in a narrow, but nevertheless, important area of law, she was offered a position at the public defender’s office. Immediately after swearing in, she had piles of cases waiting for her. “We must focus on that which we have passion and do it with exhausting excellence,” she advised when reminiscing.
Our first lady is currently a professor at Lipscomb University teaching conflict management where she was previously a student in the same program. When asked how she felt about having to move back to Nashville after her husband accepted the president’s position, she said that she had never left after he departed Meharry for California. “We were forced to have a long distance marriage for four years,” she stated. “But during that time I was able to empathize with mothers in a way that I had not previously. I was able to see what it was like for other families to have to do this and make it work,” she continued.
When asked how she deals with the pressure of being a professor, first lady and public figure, she said that she may work long and non-traditional hours, but the minute she gets home she has released everything and work is not the focus. Her hobby, knitting, is also a stress reliever that helps to ease the day’s worries.
In addition to assisting in fulfilling her husband’s goals for Meharry, she also hopes that, by her presence and practice, women of her generation begin to institutionalize a way to be easily accessible. “I want to figure out a way to have couch hours and it will be known that at a certain time on a certain day I will be findable,” she said.
Lastly, Mrs. Hildreth wants all Meharry students, whom she affectionately calls her babies, to know and understand that we are not just training to become doctors, dentists and researchers. We must realize that our purpose is bigger than ourselves, she said, and in some cases the things we want to do may not have been invented yet.
“If your goal is a value, then you have great freedom and flexibility to adapt to the different ways in which that value is manifested and addressed,” she continued. “However, if your goal is to a particular process, when that process is no longer needed, neither are you.”