Memphis City Council members agreed Tuesday to help bail out financially struggling LeMoyne-Owen College, pledging to give the private school $3 million over the next three years.
Robert Lipscomb, chairman of the school's board of trustees and chief financial officer for the city, pleaded LeMoyne's case before a joint meeting of the council's Housing & Community Development and Economic Development & Tourism committees.
"A lot of people have written the college off; I'm not willing to do that," said Lipscomb, a LeMoyne graduate.
"If we allow LeMoyne to close ... I think it would be the worst indictment on our leadership," he said, calling the school a local institution.
Lipscomb said he met with the governor April 17 and requested $1 million from the state in support.
Lipscomb said Gov. Phil Bredesen initially questioned how he could justify giving taxpayer funds to the historically black college or any private college, for that matter.
There are two other historically black private colleges in Tennessee -- Lane College in Jackson and Fisk University in Nashville -- and both could use the help.
But Lipscomb said the governor later seemed swayed after he suggested that the state could match funds that city and county governments chip in.
After a "rally for rebirth" at LeMoyne last month that resulted in $500,000 in pledges, the school reported that it still needed about $3 million to cover basic costs through June.
The resolution initially had requested that city and county government each contribute $500,000 a year for three consecutive years with the state offering matching funds.
But on Tuesday, the council's joint committees boosted the city's commitment up to $1 million a year. According to the council's resolution, the first payment from the city would occur "no later than July 1."
The matter still must pass the full council, but 10 of the 13 council members attended the committee session and voted to lend the city's support. The Shelby County Commission hasn't yet considered the request.
In years past, city government routinely gave grants to local nonprofit groups. The city's budget crunch two years ago forced the city to scrap nearly $2 million of support to 60 agencies.
Councilman Rickey Peete, a graduate of Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, urged fellow council members to support LeMoyne.
"I hope that my colleagues will look beyond race and petty politics and vote for this resolution," he said.
Councilman Brent Taylor, one of three white members attending the council committee, asked for and received assurances the college would respond by providing the city with research help and other in-kind assistance.
"That would help us make the case to constituents that this is not just a handout, but they're doing something for us," he said.
Councilman Myron Lowery, another LeMoyne graduate, stipulated that the city money be used only to pay down the school's debt and he requested a full reporting of how the money is spent within 90 days of receipt.
"I'm always concerned that money goes into a bottomless pit," he said.