Black History, May 2019

It was not Black History month, but as I looked out over the crowd of faces, I was filled to overflowing with pride. Every shade of black and brown was represented in significant number: African Americans, Asian Americans, East Indian Americans, Caribbean Americans, Latin Americans and more were represented; side by side with white faces completing the mosaic. My grandson’s graduation at Rutgers University.  

My thoughts took me back to my own college graduation.  The year 1962, and as I looked across the crowd of graduates, it was a sea of white. But if I peered more closely I could see three young Black men.  Adding them to myself, there were four Black graduates.  And I seem to remember one Asian girl, giving us a grand total of five graduates of color in a class of over 1,250.

Do you wonder how this anomaly could occur in the North, the land free from segregation?  Back then, a photo was required to accompany a college application.  In those days, the photos were all black and white. At the time, my skin had not been transformed by the Florida sun into its present bronze copper. My hair was long and straight. My photo and I made it past the initial culling, and the Cornell scheduled a face-to-face interview in New York City. 

I knocked on the admissions officer’s door.

“Come in,” said a woman’s friendly voice from within.

I opened the door, and the interviewer’s mouth flew open in astonishment.

“Oh my goodness, we didn’t know you were colored.”

Surprisingly, I made it past admissions. Four years later, in the autumn following my graduation, I attended an alumni luncheon.  The keynote speaker proudly remarked, “I am pleased to announce that the university will now be accepting Negro students.”  

Apparently, I was not only Black, I was invisible. And what about those three other Black students?

My attention returned to the present. The university was honoring the one hundredth anniversary of its first Black graduate, Paul Robison, singer, actor and political activist. Next, the commencement address was delivered by twin Black alumni NFL stars.  Finally, the main event: as the students filed across the stage one by one, many graduating with honors, several being the first in their family to attend college.

I couldn’t help thinking about moments of great distress I’ve had in the past year, regarding the racial climate in my country. But I realized how nice it is to have reached the grand-parental age. It allows me to see the world in historical perspective because my life spans enough decades to be a part of history. Progress can be slow, and may be accompanied by setbacks. But sitting in the audience at my grandson’s graduation, I savored my own Black history moment, representing diversity at its finest.

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