“All aboard” were the words of the conductor as the train pulled out of the downtown Miami station adjacent to Colored Town (now Overtown) in the fall of 1960. I was among the freshmen students headed to Historically Black Colleges (HBCUs) in Atlanta, including Spelman, Clark, Morris Brown, the Interdenominational Theological Center and Morehouse. These colleges are located in the Atlanta University Center (AU). Leaving Miami with over-packed steamer trunks and lunches in shoe boxes, we were assigned to seats in the “colored” coach, for black people only.
Arriving in Atlanta, it was a novelty seeing the confederate flag displayed on buildings, in yards and on porches. For some, displaying the flag may have represented their culture’s pride in the separation of the black and white races in every phase of life. For me, seeing the flag prominently displayed produced a feeling of fear and unrest.
During that time there was racial uncertainty throughout the South. Early in 1960, the sit-ins at the Woolworth lunch counter by four black students at North Carolina A&T State University, an HBCU, triggered non-violent protests in Atlanta and other cities. Later that year college students from the AU center were joined by others from Atlanta and around the country seeking change without violence.
While our rigorous studies at Spelman came first, on weekends many of us also participated in the largest coordinated series of civil rights protests in Atlanta’s history. We marched as best we could while being chased by dogs on leashes and drenched with obscenities and water from fire hoses. Some students were arrested and jailed.
The graphic images of our struggles shown on television and in the print media put the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s on the world’s stage. Decades later, one of our classmates, Georgianne Thomas, and her daughter Alvelyn Sanders, produced an independent documentary, Foot Soldiers: Class of 1964, an Atlanta Story that Changed the World. This film captures our experiences as young women – 16, 17 and 18 years old helping transform society.
We graduated from Spelman on June 1, a month before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin” in employment or public accommodations.
Nearly 50 years later “prepare to land” were the pilot’s words as my plane from Miami touched down in Atlanta for our milestone class reunion, May 14-18. This time, seats were assigned according to the price of the tickets purchased and passengers were offered complimentary beverages with snacks for sale. No confederate flag was in sight. Instead, inside the terminal on the wall behind the baggage claim area is painted a welcome message from the Mayor of Atlanta, Muhammad Kasim Reed, a black graduate of Howard University, an HBCU.
Atlanta has changed and so have we. From a class of 166 graduates, 61 returned to campus for our 50thclass reunion. We were filled with gratitude, praise and optimism for future generations at Spelman, including the 500 graduates of this year’s class, as well as other girls and young women around the world.
During our reunion activities the Nigerian school girls kidnapped in April weighed heavily on our hearts. At convocation in Sisters Chapel, our keynote speaker, the Rev. Courtney Clayton Jenkins, spoke passionately about the nearly 300 girls who risked their lives for an education.
Decades earlier at the 1992 reunion, the Spelman College commencement speaker was Maya Angelou, poet, author, teacher and civil rights activist. She spoke about education as the birthright of youth. She told the graduates that our ancestors, the men and women who came before, paid for us and paved the way. She challenged the graduates to take responsibility, continue learning, believe in themselves and pay it forward.
Three weeks before her death, in a May 7, 2014 tweet, Angelou spoke out about the immediate need to recover the kidnapped Nigerian girls. She tweeted, “ Our future is threatened by the robbing of these young women’s future. We must have our darlings back so that we can help them heal.”
At this year’s commencement, speaker Soledad O’Brien, award-winning journalist, author, entrepreneur and philanthropist, encouraged the Spelman graduates to stand up for people in need, acknowledge the mistreatment of others and be a part of changing the world.
Spelman College President Beverly Tatum pointed out that celebrating reunion and graduation together on the same week-end provides the opportunity for current students to see former graduates as examples of women who have made a difference.
This year’s reunion classes contributed $1.1 million dollars in gifts and pledges. These gifts will provide financial assistance for the education of current and future students. Led by 1964 reunion president Annease Chaney Jones, our class captured the college’s Class Gift Award with over $275,000 and the Class Participation Award at nearly 75 percent. In addition, classmates Laura Akridge Morgan, Edwina Palmer Hunter and Nelda J. King earned reunion philanthropy awards.
Our 50th anniversary memory book committee, led by classmate Marcelite Jordan Harris, produced a volume filled with credentials and family pictures. It documents our efforts to change the world in law, military, education, finance and industry. Our expectation is that the class of 2014 and those who come behind them will choose to exceed our accomplishments – and continue, without fear, changing the world. This is our legacy.