One of VCU’s first African American administrators is retiring at semester’s end, leaving behind an institution he watched grow from its infancy and transform the city he grew up in.
Henry Rhone, Ed.D., has been VCU’s vice provost for student affairs for the past 20 years, but his ties to the university date back to 1970. After more than four decades in higher education, VCU’s longest tenured vice provost will retire on July 1, 2014.
“When I was in my 40s, I used to sit in the staff meetings and look up at the guy at the head of the table and say ‘I wonder when this old guy is going to step down so us young folk can move forward.’ So now (my staff) is the young and I’m the old, and it’s time for me to move on,” Rhone said.
Rhone, 67, grew up in Richmond’s Southside and West End in the era when Jackson Ward was still considered the Harlem of the South. He wasn’t allowed to play tennis on the courts at Byrd Park, and he couldn’t go into restaurants downtown. He attended segregated public schools and played tennis in segregated high school sports leagues. Racism and intimidation were common, and there were places African Americans were not welcome.
“In the ’60s, if you were an African American walking through Oregon Hill, you’d have to fight to get out,” Rhone said.
After graduating from Armstrong High School in Church Hill, one of two high schools in Richmond where black students could attend, Rhone received a scholarship to attend Amherst College. He moved up North, but still saw reminders of violence down South. He recalls white classmates who would return from summer vacation with cuts and bruises from participating in freedom rides on southern bus lines.
Rhone returned to Richmond after college to work as a biology teacher in the public school system. At 23, he applied for job as director of student activities at the newly formed Virginia Commonwealth University.
The year was 1970. Two years earlier, the Richmond Professional Institute, which did not admit African American students until the early 1950s, joined with the Medical College of Virginia to form VCU, a new institution with a commitment to diversity.
“It was a very strong and powerful statement that was well-received by some in Richmond and not so well by others,” Rhone said.
Rhone became one of the first black administrators at the university. Back then, VCU employed more African Americans than other major state schools, Rhone said. Still, he often encountered people who were “surprised” to find an African American in his role.
“People were unaccustomed to seeing minority people in leadership positions of any kind at a public university,” Rhone said.
Within two years, Rhone was promoted to assistant dean of student life. After earning his master’s degree in counselor education from VCU in the early ’70s, he left Richmond to attend U.Va. and pursue his doctorate degree.
Rhone returned to VCU and was promoted to associate dean before leaving the university again to work in the state community college system during the ’80s. In 1989, he was rehired as an assistant vice provost. He was promoted to vice provost in 1993 and has held the position ever since.
Rhone’s list of accomplishments include expanding the University Student Commons, increasing the number of on-campus beds from 2,000 to more than 6,000 and offering more health services for students at the university. He credits the 200 people who work for him across both campuses for what he has accomplished during his time at VCU.
“You don’t do this job by looking over shoulders and trying to do it all yourself,” Rhone said. “You really just need good people.”
Rhone’s leadership has helped colleagues like associate vice provost and dean of students Reuban Rodriguez, who has worked with Rhone for the past 10 years. Rodriguez said Rhone’s institutional knowledge is irreplaceable, and it has allowed him to do his job better.
“Because of his background and who he is, he deeply cares about the experience of all students,” Rodriguez said.
Over time, Rhone says he has seen VCU’s commitment to diversity evolve, and the city of Richmond has reaped the benefits of that commitment. Development of previously run-down sections of the city, like West Broad Street, have helped neighboring communities grow, he said. Additionally, the influx of students and faculty from around the globe has helped the city as a whole become more accepting of different cultures.
Although he is proud of the progress, Rhone sees a disconnect developing between the younger generation and his, especially when it comes to black history. The sacrifices made by his generation sometimes seem lost on ours, he said.
“What I’ve experienced, younger people haven’t experienced that stuff so they take it for granted,” he said. “And it’s not to be taken for granted. There’s a lot of people who put their lives into it and died so we can enjoy the life we have today.”
Even his children have a hard time believing some of his stories, Rhone joked. They can’t believe their mother marched on Washington, D.C. with Martin Luther King Jr. The memories for them seem distant, foreign. But they’re a part of who Henry Rhone is.
“Black history for me is not just a show-and-tell,” he said. “It’s a real story of progression.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Henry Rhone as a Ph.D. He is an Ed.D. The article also incorrectly stated he attended the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He attended Amherst College. The article also misspelled Reuban Rodriguez’s name as ‘Rebuen Rodriguez.’ The CT regrets these errors.