Community Voices

He was named a college president. Only 100 years ago, the KKK attacked his grandfather.

Miami native Clarence Armbrister, a University of Pennsylvania graduate who was just named president of Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Miami native Clarence Armbrister, a University of Pennsylvania graduate who was just named president of Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

The 14th president of Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina is Clarence D. Armbrister, J.D., a native Miamian.

The university was chartered in 1867 as The Freedmen’s College of North Carolina. Located in Charlotte, this historically black college (HBCU) celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2017 as an independent urban institution of higher learning. That same year, President Ronald L. Carter announced he would leave after serving since 2008.

Following a national search, the school’s Board of Trustees named Armbrister president. He officially began his tenure on Jan. 1, 2018.

Armbrister’s biography on the university’s website highlights his more than 35 years of experience in the private and public sectors with executive positions in education, finance, law and government.

He began as a lawyer in the public finance department of Saul Ewing Remick & Saul and left as a partner in 1994 to serve as Philadelphia city treasurer. Later he became an investment banker at Paine Webber (subsequently UBS).

His experiences in education include senior administrative and leadership positions at Johns Hopkins University, the Philadelphia school district and Girard College in Philadelphia. At Temple University, his responsibilities included managing $400 million capital projects on several campuses.

Clarence D. “Clay” Armbrister was born in Miami, one of three sons of Leo B. (born 1917; died 1999) and Violet Alsaida Higgs Armbrister (born 1915; died 2005). Their parents were pioneers of Bunche Park, Miami-Dade County’s first government development for black veterans. The area was named to honor statesman Ralph Bunche.

For 40 years, Armbrister Sr. was a skycap at Eastern Airlines and worked as a journeyman printer for The Miami Times prior to his enlisting in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Later he wrote a sports column for the paper. Their mother was a homemaker and expert seamstress. She taught the boys and stepdaughter Emily to work hard and to get a good education.

The Armbrister brothers grew up in Miami’s Bunche Park. From left: Anthony, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, of Miami; Leo Jr., a retired Xerox executive in Jacksonville; and Clarence, president of Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

In a recent telephone conversation, the youngest son, Clarence, recalled the teachings of both parents, including the family playing Scrabble, lessons learned as an acolyte at The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration and the retelling of stories he heard as a small boy.

There was one incident that repeated throughout the community about their maternal grandfather, Rev. Richard Higgs, who was affiliated with the Marcus Garvey organization in Miami. In 1920, after giving a sermon that angered the Ku Klux Klan, Higgs was tarred and feathered and forced to return to the Bahamas within 48 hours.

This and similar incidents are documented in the book “The Marcus Garvey And Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers (UNIA), Vol. III,” edited by Robert Hill, published by the University of California Press. The Higgs incident is also recorded in Tequesta, a publication of HistoryMiami.

Armbrister also remembered hearing his brothers and father, an avid golfer, complaining in the early 1960s after playing several rounds of golf. “They stopped at a fast-food chain for burgers and fries but were not allowed to sit down to eat because black people could only ‘take out’ food.”

“Incidents like those remind me of the struggles and challenges black people in Miami faced for many decades. To me, Miami was once a small Southern town, not the urban metropolitan center it is today.”

Stories from the distant past did not seem to spoil his childhood. Armbrister admits to being “a pleasant all-around guy who hung around smart folks and enjoyed playing Little League football.”

By age 8, he had decided to become a lawyer: “Probably because I liked watching defense attorney Perry Mason prepare and present cases on television.”

A product of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Armbrister attended Bunche Park Elementary School, North Dade Jr./Sr. until it closed, then Norland Senior High. In addition to playing football, he joined the debate team and the National Forensic League. “From elementary school through high school, at the end of Sunday school each student had to stand up and recite the meaning of the lesson. At Christmas, the best presenters earned $25 savings bonds and I always was one of the winners.”

Clarence Armbrister’s high school awards included the National Achievement Scholarship Winner and 1975 Miami Herald Silver Knight Nominee in Athletics. He was the first African American to win Norland Senior High’s highest honor, the Viking Award.

The University of Pennsylvania awarded Armbrister a scholarship. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and economics at Penn and his Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan Law School. His wife, Denise, is a senior vice president of Wells Fargo and executive director of the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation, as well as the Wells Fargo Regional Community Development Corporation. They have five children and three grandchildren.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to