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How HBCUs Put Frank T. Martin in the Driver’s Seat

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Frank T. Martin, departing executive director and CEO of the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA), talks about his term as chief of the agency. (Joe Songer, For The Birmingham Times)
By Haley Wilson
The Birmingham Times

Frank Martin, outgoing president and CEO of the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA), knows the importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and that was long before he enrolled at Tennessee State University (TSU) in Nashville.

Martin, 71, is a 1968 graduate of Pearl Senior High School in Nashville, TN. The school, founded in 1883, was one of the first high schools for African Americans in Tennessee. “At Pearl we had phenomenal teachers that really cared about students, he said. “To me that was very special because Pearl’s teachers shaped the hopes and dreams of generations of students.”

The executive would go on to attend and graduate TSU (undergrad) and Fisk University (grad), both Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in his home state where he became involved in a number of civic activities.  

At TSU he served as a junior representative for the Student Council Government.

 “In 1971, the local leaders in Nashville, filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Tennessee to dismantle the dual system of education in higher education in Tennessee…and we [Student Council Government] actually marched,” he recalled. 

“The University of Tennessee was a prominent university in the state,” he said. “They had a national extension school that offered night classes, and they wanted to receive campus status so they can increase their funding and build a downtown campus in Nashville…so we [Student Council Government] protested because we felt that the money should be coming to Tennessee State instead. A federal lawsuit was filed, and the federal judge mandated a cooperation agreement between Tennessee State and The University of Tennessee. There were certain programs that shifted among the two schools…leading to the two schools co-existing for a period of time.”

While at Fisk he took note of a Civil Rights and congressional icon.

“John Lewis attended Fisk University literally blocks away from where I grew up,” he added. “I saw the community engaged and involved…so, for me to go to Tennessee State University and Fisk…to be a part of that history was amazing. The schools shaped me into the man I am today.”

Martin said his family was politically active. His mother, Maureen Martin, served as a block captain for local elections. “She made sure that individuals had rides to the polls… she would pick them up, she would drive them to the polls and vote. She would call and ask, ‘Have you voted?’ and she would be a ‘worker bee’ for the community.”

Given the support he has received, Martin has found a way to give back.

In 2020, The Frank T. Martin Single Year Scholarship was established through the American Public Transportation Foundation (APTF) to support African American students pursuing a degree in engineering, transportation, computer science, or data analytics. The scholarship is awarded to students who attend Florida Polytechnic University, and Martin’s Alma Mater’s of Tennessee State University and Fisk University.

“Education is the key to open the door,” said Martin, who previously served on the APTF board and the board of directors of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). “I want to make sure that we provide opportunities for African Americans to get the undergraduate and graduate degrees with the right skills and education they’ll need to succeed.”

“I call it paying civic rent – getting involved in organizations throughout my professional career,” he added. “It’s always been something I’ve done and it’s something that can make a difference within a community.”