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Educational pioneer Dr. Henry Givens Jr. dies at 90

ST. LOUIS – When Dr. Henry Givens Jr. became president of Harris-Stowe Teachers College in 1979, many thought his main task would be to close it down.

Instead, enrollment under the historically Black institution of higher learning grew from 228 the year he started to just over 1,600 today. 

“When he took over, there was one degree program, in teaching,” said David Lange, who ghost-wrote an autobiography of Givens, which was published in 2018. “He expanded the curriculum to 14 degree programs.”

When Givens died suddenly on Tuesday (July 20, 2021), people remembered him partly for his role at what is now Harris-Stowe State University. But they also recalled other contributions to education and the community during his 90 years. 

“He took a struggling college and put it on a firm footing,” Lange said. He worked on Givens’ autobiography “Taming Troubled Waters: Dr. Henry Givens Jr. and the Transformation of Harris-Stowe State University” for about three years.  “He was what you’d call a mover and a shaker committed to making sure Harris-Stowe not only survived but expanded and grew.”

Givens was president emeritus of Harris-Stowe when he died. He retired as president of Harris-Stowe in 2011.

Givens started as an elementary school teacher at the segregated Douglass School in Webster Groves and became principal when it integrated.  

In 2018, the Webster Groves School District renamed the elementary computer school the Dr. Henry Givens Computer School in his honor. Givens cut the ribbon that day.

Henry Givens Jr. cuts the ceremonial ribbon at Dr. Henry Givens Computer School in the Webster Groves district when the school was renamed in his honor in 2018.

The district said in a statement that Givens “had a deep connection to the Webster Groves School District community, where he had been a teacher and principal at Douglass School.” 

While Givens was Douglass School principal, he made the school a “demonstration school” and started such programs as classrooms with different ages, independent studies, teaching of foreign languages, and advanced science teaching for older children.  

“Givens School’s students, families, teachers and staff have the honor and privilege of upholding Dr. Givens’ legacy at our school,” the Webster Groves School District said in its statement. The district “is proud to carry his name into the future.”

Under Givens, the institution became Harris-Stowe State College some years after he became president, and a university in 2005. It was Harris-Stowe Teachers College and operated by the St. Louis Public Schools when Givens became president. When he did, it became part of the state education system.

While remaining as president of Harris-Stowe, Givens stepped in as as interim president at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo,. in 1987 while that university went through a financial crisis.  

Under his leadership, Harris-Stowe became one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities under the U.S. Department of Education, and changed its status from College to University.

Givens was on several boards and was connected to national and local professional and social organizations. He received more than 125 national, state, and local awards and recognitions. Those included honorary doctorates from St. Louis University, Lincoln University and Washington University.

A product of the St. Louis Public Schools, Givens earned his bachelor’s degree at Lincoln University. He had a master’s degree from the University of Illinois and a doctorate from St. Louis University.

After receiving his doctorate, he did postdoctoral work in higher education administration at Harvard University. 

Givens’ survivors are his wife, Belma; his daughter, Stacey Woolfolk, and his son, Keith Givens; and three grandchildren, Brittney Givens, Ashley Givens and Jarrett Woolfolk.

Details about services were not yet available.

Jim Merkel Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit

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