ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — If you've met him, you may remember his well-tailored suits and perfectly coordinated ties and pocket squares. Rock Island-Milan's first Black superintendent, Dr. Reginald Lawrence, is a mentor in the Quad Cities community. But to really understand how he's gotten to where he is today, one must go back in time to a much younger Dr. Reginald, back then, Reggie, a third grader from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
"I grew up in a neighborhood that was predominately Black, all my friends, all the neighbors, the store owners were Black, the school I went to," remembers Dr. Reginald Lawrence.
That close-knit community in Milwaukee, one where the members looked like little Reggie Lawrence, was all he knew until he was bussed an hour and fifteen minutes away from home to attend an integrated school.
"First day of third grade, I get off the bus and I'm accosted by a white student. He calls me and tells me, 'get out here, you jigaboo.' I had never had that type of language used or had never gotten into a confrontation. But my first day of third grade getting off the bus, brain sent signals to fist, punch a kid," says Lawrence.
Reggie was expecting the trip to the principal's office. But he wasn't expecting his principal to look like him.
"To my surprise when the principal turns around in her chair, to my surprise, light-skinned African American woman. I'll never forget her name. Lavira Laws is my principal in third grade. She tells me in her southern accent, 'baby, you can't go around fighting the world because they call you a name or they talk about you. You have to be bigger than that.' And she said something I carry with me everyday now. She says you have to show people who you really are rather than who they expect you to be. You have to paint your own picture," says Lawrence.
Reggie says he started painting his own picture soon after that. From wearing ties everyday, to showing up early on the basketball court to show the other kids he was good, to hitting the books even harder, it was all to prove himself.
"Throughout all my years of becoming a teacher when people didn't expect you to, getting my masters and becoming a regional superintendent," says Lawrence.
Reggie, now Dr. Reginald Lawrence, says even with the titles and degrees, the burden of proof is still there, like a time at his daughter Kaela's dance class where the other parents had lighter skin.
"The conversations would always be, 'so what do you do?' I work in the education field. I never really told people what I was doing. 'Oh, are you a paraprofessional? Oh, are you a teachers assistant?' And I'd be like, I can't believe this person is already thinking this way! So when we'd get to the conversation, I'd say no, I'm the regional superintendent of the school district. I'm Dr. Reginald Lawrence, how are you doing?" says Lawrence.
He says carrying a chip on his shoulder has made him stronger. It's motivated him to keep painting that picture for Black kids.
"You can do whatever you want to do. There are people who will help you get there. You have to take words and information from the nay-sayers and use it as fuel to get you pumped up so you work even harder," says Lawrence.
In his doctoral dissertation, he put his heart on the line and looked to the next generation, the most cherished of this mentor's mentees, his daughter Kaela, who's in college now at Spelman College studying dance and education, painting a picture she knows well.
"This work is dedicated to my daughter, Kaela Christina Lawrence. It is with my sincerest hopes that I've inspired you to work hard. He a risk taker. Never settle for less. Strive for excellence. And above all, remember nobody loves you more than Big Papa."