Spearman, Leonard Hall O’connell, Sr. (1929–2008)

By: Merline Pitre

Type: Biography

Published: July 24, 2013

Updated: April 14, 2021

Leonard Hall O’Connell Spearman, Sr., an educator, diplomat, and former president of Texas Southern University, was born on July 8, 1929, in Tallahassee, Florida, to Rev. Elvis W. Spearman and Typhenia Spearman, both educators. At the age of eighteen, Spearman earned his undergraduate degree in biological sciences at Florida A&M College (now University) in 1947. On December 21, 1950, he married Valeria Benbow of DeLand, Florida. Spearman earned M.A. (1950) and Ph.D. (1960) degrees in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan and began his fifty-five-year educational career. He worked as a science teacher at Lincoln High School in Tallahassee, Florida, and later moved to Florida A& M University where he was an assistant and associate professor of psychology. Spearman became professor of psychology and dean of the junior division at Southern University-Baton Rouge. He was also a Martin Luther King Lecturer at Rutgers University as well as a visiting professor at Queens College in New York. In 1970 he went to work for the United States Department of Education and rose to the rank of Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary for Post Secondary Education. In this capacity, Spearman helped define and expand the federal educational opportunity programs known as the TRIO programs—originally the Upward Bound, Talent Search, and Student Support Services programs—as well as the federal student loan programs.

From 1980 to 1986 Spearman served as the sixth president of Texas Southern University. He is credited for growing the institution and for his beautification and construction initiatives on campus. He expanded the Student Life Center and closed Wheeler Avenue traffic through the campus to construct a student walkway and central plaza. Similarly, his efforts also resulted in improvements to other academic buildings as well as the construction of the football and track field and tennis courts. While president of the university, Spearman was also a member of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force for the desegregation of Texas colleges and universities—the Texas version of a plan which called on Southern states to comply with Civil Rights Act of 1964—to terminate the dual system of education in Texas and to lift historically Black colleges and universities to a level footing with their White counterparts.

After Spearman stepped down from the helm at Texas Southern University, President Ronald Reagan appointed him to be the United States ambassador to Rwanda in 1988. When Spearman’s diplomatic term ended in 1991, he was then named as United States ambassador to the Kingdom of Lesotho by President George H. W. Bush. Spearman supervised the development of American international schools in both Rwanda and Lesotho. He served as dean of the diplomatic corps in Lesotho and was credited by the Kingdom of Lesotho as a highly effective envoy. After finishing his diplomatic service in 1993, he came back to Texas Southern University and worked as a distinguished professor until he retired from that institution in 1998. Spearman then served as distinguished service professor at Coppin State University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Leonard Spearman served on the boards of directors for many organizations, including the American Council of Education, the Houston Chamber of Commerce Executive Committee, the Board of International Food and Agricultural Development, and the Association of Black American Ambassadors. He chaired the Rural Electrification for African Development, a non-profit organization that advocated the use of solar technology in African villages, from 1993 to 2001. This work took him back to Africa, where he toured several countries in the effort to initiate electrification projects. In 2001 he was made executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities and was the first former president of a historically Black college to hold the office. He retired in 2005.

In 2002 Spearman received the King Legacy Award for International Service from the National Council of Negro Women. In recognition of his years of service at TSU and his contributions to America as a diplomat and educator, the Texas Southern University Board of Regents honored him on March 3, 2003, when they held ceremonies and designated the Leonard H. O. Spearman Technology Building. Spearman gave the TSU Founders Day Convocation address on March 2, 2007.

Spearman had moved back to Texas and settled in Katy in 2006. After a three-month illness due to a stroke, he died in Katy on January 16, 2008. He was survived by his wife and three children. He was buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Houston Chronicle, January 20, 2008. Leonard Hall O’Connell Spearman Papers, Heartman Collection, Robert J. Terry Library, Texas Southern University. Washington Post, February 4, 2008.

  • Education
  • Educators
  • University Presidents and School Administrators
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Houston
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • East Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Merline Pitre, “Spearman, Leonard Hall O’connell, Sr.,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/spearman-leonard-hall-oconnell-sr.

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July 24, 2013
April 14, 2021

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