To those who knew him, he was "Dr. Mac." Those who didn't quickly become aware that Dr. Joseph H. McMillan was a man unabashed in his passion for educating young people, in particular, those often deemed deprived or disadvantaged.
A native of Louisville, Kentucky, McMillan came to Michigan as a teacher in the Idlewild School District before relocating to Grand Rapids in the early 1950s. He became known for a number of firsts in the GRPS system—the first black elementary school teacher and the first black principal, both at Sheldon School—but these were secondary to his support for his students. McMillan was a strong advocate for students who were often labeled as "culturally disadvantaged." McMillan argued the term was an excuse for a system unequipped to teach deprived children, and that more focus was needed in teaching programs that dealt with understanding the issues behind the disadvantages.
He was also a proponent of cultural pluralism, once stating that "America is not a "melting pot" and need not be." his point was that if integration meant assimilation only, then it fell short. McMillan made backed up his stance in a number of ways, such as during his time as chairman of the Board's Cultural Exchange Committee. In response to a recommendation by a 1966 Citizens Committee on racial imbalance, McMillian introduced interschool exchanges as part of the ongoing GRPS program. By the 1960s, McMillan was Supervisor of Inner City Schools, a position he held during one of the more tumultuous times in the Board's history.
When the position went unfunded in late 1969, McMillan moved on to Michigan State University as Assistant Vice President for Human Relations, Director of the Office of Minority Affairs, and a professor in the College of Education. He later returned to his hometown as the Assistant Provost for Academic Affairs and Minority Affairs at the University of Louisville. While there he chaired the annual Black Family in America Conference, making it one of the most prestigious conferences of its type in the country. He ran the conference for 34 years, before retiring from the university as Professor Emeritus in early childhood education.
There was an exception, however. McMillan never quite retired. In collaboration with the Louisville Urban League and the Jefferson County Public Schools, he created programs such as Rising 5th Graders and the Street Academy to address the needs of young African American men, programs that were modeled in several other cities.
He was honored with a GIANTS award in Grand Rapids in 1986. In 1992, he received the Marcus Foster Distinguished Educator Award from the National Association of Black School Educators. Dr. Joseph McMillan and his wife, Mildred, raised four children. And "Dr. Mac," wherever he traveled and worked, raised enthusiasm and hope, and laid the foundation of success for countless young students. He died in 2010.
Sources: Grand Rapids Press, October 14, 1967 Mike Lloyd, Grand Rapids Press, December 15, 1967; Jon Halvorsen, Grand Rapids Press, December 30, 1968; Grand Rapids Press, September 9, 2010
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