Kent Amos '70 focuses life on helping children succeed

Kent Amos was the first African-American vice president of Xerox. He left his position in the 1980s to focus full-time on family and youths, going on to establish the Urban Family Institute, the Kids House after-school program and the Dorothy Height Community Academy Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.

Kent B. Amos, Class of 1970, describes his undergraduate years at then-Delaware State College as a coming of age story.

“I went in as a colored boy, and I graduated as a black man,” said the former Xerox corporate executive and currently nationally renowned educator and Washington, D.C., charter school founder.

A significant part of his eternal love for his alma mater stems from the way it embraced him.

Raised in Washington by his parents Benjamin F. and Gladys Mae Amos and a Calvin Coolidge High School track star, Amos won an athletic scholarship to attend American University. However, possessing a less-than-adequate focus on academics led him to leave the school after 1½ years. He would subsequently join the Air Force and then switch over to the Army, through which he went to Officers Candidate School.

Although he momentarily entertained the idea of a military career, he decided he wanted to give college another shot. His brother Ben recommended DSC.

“So with my brother and my father Benjamin F. Amos, we drove onto the campus. … It was a farm … it had cornfields, pigs and cows!” Amos said. “And as we were driving around, I kept saying, “I ain’t going to school on no farm!”

His concerns notwithstanding, the Amos trio met with then-DSU President Luna I. Mishoe in his office, where he reviewed young Kent’s American University transcripts. After looking through it, “he looked at the three of us, laid my transcript face down on his desk, slid it to the side and said, ‘Why don’t we just forget that. You are now going to be a freshman at Delaware State.’ ”

After the meeting, Amos said he continued to complain to his father about the farm atmosphere of the college. His father, an attorney, reminded him about his AU transcripts.

“Nobody but Del State will accept you but for what you are,” his father told him. “They accepted a failure, because they think they can make something out of you. So you don’t have a choice.”

Military and time on campus

Arriving as a 22-year-old freshman and as a commissioned officer in the Army National Guard, Amos immediately became the freshman class president and would go on to serve as the president of the Men’s Council, the Pan-Hellenic Council and ultimately as the Student Government Association president during his senior year. Because of his greater maturity, he would provide a needed counter balance in contrast to the rebelliousness of others in the Del State student body in the mid- to late 1960s.

Noting that period’s nationwide thrust of “I’m Black and I’m Proud” sentiments, student rebellions and anti-establishment sensibilities, Amos said that his perspective was typically different from his college peers.

“Having worked in the military police in the Army and having worked in the U.S. Marshal’s Office in the court system, I understood violence at a level they didn’t understand,” he said. “So in the conversations we would have in the dormitory, my roommate and I would always be the odd men out.”

Amos vividly recalls driving back to his hometown following the April 4, 1968, assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and seeing billows of smoke rising from different sections of the city from the riotous response to the tragedy. Still serving in the National Guard as a second lieutenant, he was pressed into service and led a unit into the city to help restore the peace.

Then a 23-year-old DSC sophomore, Amos — who had served in Vietnam — was the only one in his quickly formed Guard unit that had any combat experience. One of the first things the men under him wanted to know was if they would receive ammunition to quell the riots.

“I said, ‘Never, because you ’all are not killing anybody. My goal is to keep you alive and the people alive,’ ” Amos said.

By the following month, he had returned to campus in time to serve as a voice of reason during the May 1968 rebellion in which students took over the Grossley Administration Building, prompting the deployment of the Delaware National Guard and State Police to the campus.

During the one-day standoff, Amos said he stood with Dr. Mishoe outside of his president’s office window talking to the occupying students, which included then-recently suspended SGA president Leroy Tate. The reasoning of Amos and the president along with others eventually defused the situation, and the students relinquished the building. Amos would later be a part of a Faculty-Administrators-Student Committee that developed recommendations to address the points of contention that brought about the demonstration.

One year later, Amos would be the first-ever SGA president to address the DSC Board of Trustees during its regular meeting, at which time he detailed what he planned to accomplish as the top student leader during his 1969-70
senior year.

Careers and family

Amos would graduate in 1970, but he would miss that year’s Commencement because he was serving the Guard in Cambodia. When he returned stateside, he would make his mark with Xerox, eventually becoming the first-ever African-American vice president of the corporation. He credits his DSC experience with making him comfortable with the ascending leadership positions he would assume as well as in competing intellectually at the highest levels of his domain.

“I became a confident black man in the true tradition of confident black men in American history who were exemplified by the DSC (faculty and administrators) I was exposed to — Dr. Mishoe, Earnest Talbert, Dr. Richard Wynder, John Price, U.S. Washington, Harry Washington — all class acts who were able to model for me what my father showed me,” Amos said.

In 1982, Amos married his current wife Carmen and became a father to her son and daughter, Wesley and Deborah. In becoming a family man, he learned what the challenges entailed when his son came home one day with three new friends from his high school.

“We knew then that if we didn’t change that relationship, they were going to change him. Of course the easy answer was (to send him to) private school,” Amos said. “The more challenging and appropriate answer was to fix them. That is what we did.”

So Mr. and Mrs. Amos got to know those boys, opened their home to them and helped provide them with opportunities for positive life outcomes.
This led the couple to open their home to many other at-risk youths, offering them a home environment, financial support and a nurturing environment. Amos estimates that he and his wife have taken in about 85 children under their wing in their home. It ultimately led Amos to leave his Xerox executive job in the 1980s to focus full-time on family and youths.

When asked about the inspiration for such an undertaking, Amos pointed to his alma mater.

“Delaware State looked out for me, so how was I going to turn my back on these kids. DSC didn’t turn its back on me,” he said.
The Amoses went on to establish the Urban Family Institute, which provided structure for their initiatives; the Kids House, which was an after-school program modeled on what they did for youth in their home that has expanded to 22 states; and finally the Dorothy Height Community Academy Public Charter School, one of the leading charter schools in Washington.

He has shared his story and perspectives on youths, family and education on many local and national radio and television shows, including the Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as in countless newspapers, magazines and books.

As Amos approaches age 70 next May, with all he has accomplished, he is still not satisfied.

“I ended up being the first black vice president in Xerox history, made my money and all of those things,” Amos said. “But what I want to do now is far more important — to build structures to give children who have been shunted to the side an opportunity to be a success, in a much broader way than the narrow view that too many people have today about education.

“My goal is to change the systems nationally,” he said. “We are still not there yet.”

For Amos, giving back is as a fundamental part of his being as the blood that courses through his body. He said that goes back to his Delaware State connection where so many people made a difference in his life.

“To this day, I operate my business and run my life on the principle that it is not just a nice idea to give back to that which made you who you are. It is an obligation and a responsibility,” he said. “So I don’t have to be told by anyone in the alumni office or administration of DSU or Coolidge that it would be a nice idea to give back. I have no choice. They made it possible for me to be who I am, in addition obviously to my family. My life was changed forever.”

-- Story and photos by Carlos Holmes