How I Got Over: My Soul Looks Back and Wonders

Last Updated on September 14, 2023

University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Class of 1969 college reunion.
University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Class of 1969.

Los Angeles, Little Rock, Chicago, Pine Bluff, Dallas, Peoria, Las Vegas, St Louis, Houston, Memphis and Phoenix were just a few of the many cities from which the members of the UAPB Class of 1969 traveled for our 45th college reunion, November 7-9. There we were, many of us dressed in some of the latest designer clothes, sporting stylish haircuts, weaves and a tinge of color that accentuated our mature and attractive faces. For those like me who have given in to nature’s graying and balding processes, a few classmates had difficulty recognizing me. Interestingly, I was able to remember some classmates based on their majors and the small Arkansas towns and communities from which they came. I’m sure, however, there were moments when many of us did not know to whom we were speaking but were too embarrassed to admit it. So much for fading memories and the ageing process!

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.

Charlie Nelms displays a six-foot cotton sack from fields of the Arkansas Delta during the 45th UAPB class reunion.
Charlie Nelms displays a six-foot cotton sack from fields of the Arkansas Delta during the 45th UAPB class reunion.

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.

2 thoughts on “How I Got Over: My Soul Looks Back and Wonders”

  1. Mrs. Joy Lattimore

    Mr. Nelms, What an inspiring article. Thank you for sharing. Were you in college when Crit Harris – former IBM person was there? He and his wife are also from Arkansas.

  2. Wonderful, Inspiring, Awesome are all words that can be used to describe Dr. Nelms words in this narrative and others. We need our modern day Dr. Nelms to come forward and join the chorus of AM&N/UAPB and other HBCU Storytellers. UAPB, as an institution, is on the move advancing further, upward, and onward. Thanks Dr. Nelms for using your national stage to share the lifetime impact of UAPB! Henry Golatt, Class of ’90

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