From the time the 2014 UAPB homecoming festivities commenced in mid-week, my classmates and I had heard more than two dozen speakers when we convened for the Class of 1969 Dinner-Dance. No matter how hard I had toiled to make my remarks interesting and engaging while preparing them, I have heard and given enough speeches to know that to be effective a speaker must connect with the audience. Further, in anticipation that those aspects of the program preceding my remarks would run long, I had prepared two versions of my speech and made copies for anyone requesting a copy. When it came my time to speak, I set aside both versions of prepared text and gave the speech that I had spent a lifetime living.
With only a hand-held mic, absent the security of a podium, I knew that the key to connecting with classmates I hadn’t seen in nearly fifty years was to tell a compelling story in which we were the major characters, individually and collectively. That story began with me quoting from memory the words of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglas, “If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lighting. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.” I reminded my classmates of the struggles that our parents endured to send us to college and the struggles of the faculty to successfully get us through college and prepared to compete in all spheres of the global economy. Ours, the Class of 1969, was among the first group of HBCU graduates to enter corporate America in significant numbers, serve as teachers and administrators in integrated school districts and to serve in an array of government positions at the local, state and national levels.
To drive home the point about where we started and where we are now, I unfurled a six foot cotton sack that I had managed to keep from my days of laboring in the cotton fields of the Arkansas Delta in 100-plus degree heat, earning a mere $2.50 per hundred pound! My classmates were incredulous that I had kept my cotton sack all these years and they listened intently as I talked about my mama having convinced me and my siblings that we could be anything we wanted to be, even if she didn’t exactly know what that entailed. The important thing was that I believed mama and by the time I arrived at AM&N College for undergraduate studies, and Indiana University and Columbia University for graduate school, I had already been “brainwashed” by my mama to believe that I could succeed. Failure was not an option; I could not let mama down neither the professors who had invested so heavily in my preparation. Because of those who invested in us, I opined that we knew the importance of doing well and good.
In the audience for the UAPB Class of 1969 Dinner-Dance were two special people. First, Jeanetta Sherrod, the college coed who was my finite math, calculus and statistics tutor to whom I have been married for over four decades. She, like me, still believes we can change the world. Second, was a UAPB English professor, Dr. Juanita Torrence, who gave me a copy of Perrian’s Handbook of Grammar during my sophomore year of college that I still use as a reference guide when writing.
Because the word limitations of a blog prevent me from recounting in greater detail the specifics of my remarks to the Class of 1969, the most important thing to note is this: For nineteen minutes my classmates and I found ourselves on one accord, remembering with fondness what life was like 45 years ago for a group of twenty something year olds who found themselves entering unchartered waters of careers where few blacks had worked. In unimaginable ways we blazed career paths for generations of HBCU graduates who came after us. Few people know us by face or name but the members of our class had an impact on the world.
As I came to the close of my remarks, I recalled the words of the song, “How I Got Over”, recorded by the internationally acclaimed gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson. While Mahalia never answered the question directly of how she got over, it is clear through inference that she did so through the power and grace of God. It was this same Grace, and the hard work of a dedicated faculty/staff of a little known HBCU that the world is a better place because of the Class of 1969.