Graduation Memories of Yesteryear

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Cornell University Graduation Commencement, Barton Hall

The HistoryMakers

Graduation day is one of those days many never forget, and it has deep roots that trace back to ancient times, where the Islamic tradition of receiving a degree indicated that one is licensed to teach to others what they have learned. The ceremony many cherish originated at Oxford University in 1432, where “each bachelor was required to deliver a sermon in Latin as part of an academic exercise.”[1] While this tradition has remained strong for many centuries, the Class of 2020 is developing new practices and celebrations in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, looking back, there are HistoryMakers who also had graduation experiences that strayed from the traditional take.

Mattelia B. Grays, Dillard University, Class of 1952
Walter C. Jackson (L) with best friend Paul Campbell (R), Jackson State University, Class of 1963
Ramona Edelin, Fisk University, Class of 1967
John Watson, University of Illinois, Class of 1968
Lt. Gen. Willie Williams, Stillman College, Class of 1974
Dr. St. Elmo W. Crawford Jr., Howard University College of Dentistry, Class of 1977
Amina J. Dickerson, American University, Class of 1988
ReShonda Tate Billingsley, University of Texas at Austin, Class of 1991
Joyce Moore Gray with her grandson, University of Utah, Class of 2001

The Honorable Lorraine Miller (1948 – ), the first African American clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, remembered missing her graduation from North Texas State University in 1972: “I couldn’t participate in the graduation ceremony because I was working. And so I stood outside the Buddies Supermarket in Denton, Texas, on a Saturday when we had graduation, and heard my name over the PA system in the distance. The Buddies grocery store was near North Texas State. It was at the stadium so I could hear the ceremony but my manager wouldn’t let me off because I was one of the fastest checkers and on Saturday was when we had large volumes of customers… So he allowed me to stand, I stood outside on my lunch break and I heard my name announced over the PA system.[2]

Buddies Supermarket in Denton, Texas

Former Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree (1952- ), on the other hand, chose to miss his graduation ceremony. He described how the commencement speaker for the Stanford University class of 1975 was former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “We were shocked and dismayed because Moynihan, within that decade, had made a name for himself by raising questions about the stability of single-parent, black families. What made it so offensive to us as Stanford students is that many of us were from single-parent, black families… I helped to start the very first, what I called, black resistance graduation. Stanford had its graduation on Sunday, but we called all our parents and told them, Moynihan’s gonna be the speaker. We object to that because he doesn’t respect the fact that you, our parents, raised us, and that we could flourish despite not coming from a two-parent family. And so we’re gonna have our own ceremony before graduation. And we want to let you know before you arrived here that we’re gonna do that… we organized a black graduation.”[3] This protest inspired a new tradition where, “at institutions across the country, Black students, Asian American students, Latino students and Native American students have graduations for their families on Saturday before the Sunday commencement.”[4]

 

Young Charles Ogletree and friend
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan giving a commencement address. St. Bonaventure University, 1972

Otis L. Story, Sr. (1951 – ), former CEO of the Grady Health System, also made the decided not attend his graduation from Cornell University in 1976. He told of how he, having already boycotted and quit the basketball team due to racism, refused to attend graduation because of a racist advisor: “My best friend, who’s from Hough, in Cleveland [Ohio]–his name is Walter Tyree… His advisor told him to watch out for me, meaning don’t associate yourself with that type of student. And she didn’t know that we were best friends. And obviously, the brother came back and told me… And she advised him, in no uncertain terms, not to be associated with Otis Story, Brian Wright, because those guys are not going to ever get a degree from Cornell University. That’s what she was saying, whether it was a direct quote or implied. It infuriated me. It literally angered me… I did not even attend the graduation ceremony. I refused to go.”[5]

For activist C.T. King-Miller (1947- ), pleasant memories of her 1964 graduation from Jones Valley High School – a school she integrated in Birmingham, Alabama – were robbed by her racist classmates: “That graduation day was the worst day of all, because as I stood in line for me to walk in, looked like the whole class–I had on a black cap and gown… the whole class threw these yellow erasers all over me. And all I remember is just turning around just screaming and crying. All this yellow was on me, right before we walked in. And I remember it was the secretary and the principal who took me into the bathroom in the office and cleaned me up, and I was screaming for my mama. And they said, ‘No, no, no, this is your graduation. We’re going to clean you up and then you can go’.”[6]

C.T. King-Miller as a teenager
Jones Valley High School

Others made their graduations ceremonies unique with small acts, including media company entrepreneur James Andrews (1970- ), who described graduating from Palo Alto High School in California in 1988: “I finally got my act together and worked hard toward the end. Graduated like a 2.1, 2.2, and I remember there was a song by Kool Moe Dee that was out, it was called ‘How You Like Me Now’. Many of the administration actually doubted that I would graduate from high school. And so there were a few of us that they doubted we would graduate from high school. And on graduation day we taped on the back of our gowns ‘How You Like Me Now,’ and we walked across, we actually turned around to the crowd, say ‘How You Like Me Now.’[7] Donna Satchell (1951 – ), founder of STARR Consulting and Training, also made a statement at her modeling school graduation through her choice of clothing: “it was a very–I guess a political statement… I actually made the dress that I end up wearing in the graduation. I’ll never forget it was… red, black and green. One side it was red, the middle black and side was green and it was this, this gown I had made.[8]

Donna Satchell graduating from Ophelia DeVore School of Self-Development and Modeling in the gown she made

While students everywhere have different graduation day experiences and memories, what should remain central is celebrating the great accomplishment. Former Alabama judge The Honorable Jock Smith (1948-2012) reminds us of the pride that comes with graduating, especially when the odds have been stacked against you: “When I graduated, my grandmother, Rebecca King, one of the last times I saw her alive, and she told me how proud she was… My other grandmother [Lula Smith] was there that day, I’ll never forget it. It was something, I’d graduated from Notre Dame Law School, one of the top law schools in the country against insurmountable odds, the same kid that just eight or nine years earlier whose mother [Betty Lou Bowers Nance] had been told by Mr. Stein he could do nothing more than tote a bag of garbage. I think it let me know that, God had immensely blessed me. Like the Bible says, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected’ [Luke 12:48]… I keep that close to my vest every day, I remember that. [9]

Everyone has their own recollections of graduating, and the Class of 2020 will certainly have unique and different ones. Nonetheless, these graduates, like those of the past, have accomplished a great deal that should be celebrated and used to carry them on into their futures.

[1] “Graduation Rites Have Ancient History,” universe.byu.edu. April 18, 2006.

[2] The Honorable Lorraine Miller (The HistoryMakers A2013.215), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 27, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 3, The Honorable Lorraine Miller recalls transferring to North Texas State University in Denton, Texas, pt. 1.

[3] Charles Ogletree (The HistoryMakers A2003.075), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 27, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 4, story 7, Charles Ogletree remembers organizing a black resistance graduation and walking out of the main graduation ceremony at Stanford University in 1975.

[4] Charles Ogletree (The HistoryMakers A2003.075), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 27, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 4, story 8, Charles Ogletree talks about the legacy of Stanford University’s 1975 black resistance graduation.

[5] Otis L. Story, Sr. (The HistoryMakers A2007.256), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 20, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 7, story 8, Otis L. Story, Sr. describes his final two years at Cornell University.

[6] C. T. King-Miller (The HistoryMakers A2011.009), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 8, 2011, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 2, C.T. King-Miller describes her graduation from Jones Valley High School in Birmingham, Alabama in 1964.

[7] James Andrews (The HistoryMakers A2012.096), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 18, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 7, James Andrews describes his struggle with drugs and school in high school.

[8] Donna Satchell (The HistoryMakers A2007.014), interviewed by Denise Gines, January 18, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 9, Donna Satchell recalls her modeling school experiences in New York City.

[9] The Honorable Jock Smith (The HistoryMakers A2007.245), interviewed by Denise Gines, September 5, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 8, The Honorable Jock Smith remembers his graduation from the University of Notre Dame Law School.

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Donna Satchell

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