Moving reflections of the past and an emotional charge for the future filled Jackson State University’s Founders’ Day Convocation, Thursday, Oct. 17, as Jacksonians were urged to show the world who they are.
According to statistics from the most recent report on lynching in America, Mississippi led the nation in the total number of lynchings between 1877 and 1950 – 654, Dr. Lynda Brown-Wright, provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, told the audience.
“There was a known lynching every six weeks for 73 years in this state, and we know there were hundreds of others who just disappeared,” she said.Yet, in this context, Brown-Wright pointed out, Henry P. Jacobs, a former slave, founded a seminary for free people in Natchez, Mississippi, now Jackson State University – a sprawling 220-acre campus in the capital city with a student body of approximately 7,300.
“We must know our history,” she affirmed.
It is the HBCU’s past that made it possible for Carmen Owens, a seventh-grader from Bailey APAC, to introduce her aunt Yolanda Owens as the keynote speaker, but not before Carmen announced her plans to attend JSU as the class of 2029.
“I believe that as often as possible, we need to showcase our young people as a reminder of what our generations to come actually looks like,” Owens, an alum of JSU and the president of the National Alumni Association from 2014-2018, said after taking the podium.
She then made a promise to do her part to ensure the HBCU is still standing strong when both her young nieces are of college age. Turning to the crux of her address, Owens explained that in church, the pastor typically begins by giving the Scripture and the subject.
Although she is not a preacher and the auditorium is not a church, said Owens, she wanted to celebrate the birth of Natchez Seminary with a Scripture. “Jeremiah 29:11: For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,” she said. “And if I had to give a subject, it would be: Show them who you are.”Owens then queried if people had seen the movie “Black Panther.” Produced by Marvel Studios, the film featured an African superhero, Prince T’Challa, and a majority black cast. It also shattered several box office records and was the highest-grossing movie from an African-American director.
Admitting that she has seen it several times, Owens shared that the scene where Prince T’Challa had to defend his throne from M’baku, leader of the Jabari tribe, resonated with her.
She then began to describe the hand-to-hand combat between the two warriors. However, once T’Challa started to show signs of weariness, she explained, the queen-mother, played by Angela Basset, yelled out, “Show them who you are!”
Only then was a wounded T’Challa able to summon the strength of the ancestors and deliver the blow that defeated M’baku, she explained.
“Whew, that scene wears me out every single time,” she said, laughter tinkled throughout the auditorium. “He is down and almost out, but just when it seems like all hope is lost, he receives exactly what he needs to defeat the enemy and take his rightful place as king,” she said.
An honors graduate of JSU with a bachelor’s in mathematics, Owens also has a Bachelor of Science in engineering from Kennesaw State University. She appealed to her Tiger family, telling them to show naysayers who they are. She reminded the audience that since 1877, the university had faced obstacles, hardships, trials and tribulations that have attempted to prevent “us from taking our rightful place in the kingdom of higher education.”
However, she continued, time after time, Jackson State University has summoned the strength of its founders to overcome adversity. She then called the institution a leader among leaders.
“I mean, we are considered a crown jewel among HBCUs,” she said with bravado. “And hello, we’re known as the king of the SWAC.”
Connect with the ancestors
Owens, a silver life member of the NAACP, said that throughout the school’s storied history from Natchez Seminary to Jackson College to university status, forces have wandered from the caves to challenge JSU for the throne.
“And throughout history, we have continued to show them who we are,” she asserted.
The first female president elected to serve as JSUNAA president in 22 years, Owens informed listeners that before Jacksonians can show anyone who they are, they must first know who they are.
She then urged everyone to connect with the ancestors, founders and elders. Owens explained that being in their presence calms fears and served as reminders that “we are descendants of greatness,” which supplies strength for the journey ahead.
Further emphasizing the connection between past and present, Owens shared that her parents are JSU alums. She recalled going to class with her mother when she could not find a babysitter, and her adoptive father being an original member of the Sonic Boom and later working in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But it was during a conversation with a great aunt that Owens learned her biological father, his mother and grandmother were also JSU alums.
“I am a fourth-generation Jacksonian,” she asserted. “After that revelation, I walked a little taller, knowing that my JSU history ran deeper than I ever imagined.”
She then revealed that her sister, Carmen’s mother, was completing her degree, so when her niece enrolls at JSU, Carmen will be a fifth-generation Jacksonian.
Owens, who spent several years as a civil engineer and now serves as senior contract administrator for Kinder Morgan, began to rattle off several JSU historical facts that included acknowledging Dr. Rose Embly McCoy, the namesake of the auditorium where the founder’s day program was held, as a pioneer in educational psychology who founded the university’s psychology department.
She also pointed out how the new science building bears the name of Dr. John A. Peoples Jr., a JSU alum and former president who led the school through some of the most challenging moments of the civil rights movement and helped elevate the college to university status.
“When we know our history and understand our strength – we can move from underneath this cloud of doubt that has overshadowed us the past few years and become empowered to show them who we are,” she exclaimed.
Excellence at all levels
Operating in excellence was Owens next point where she listed the following achievements in the school’s athletic and academic history like:
- JSU has won over 100 SWAC Championships.
- JSU has more NFL Hall of Famers than any other school in the state.
- JSU is a Carnegie-designated higher research institution.
- JSU remains a top 20 HBCU, according to the U.S. News & World Report.
- JSU faculty and staff has garnered nearly $1 million in grants in 2019.
- The first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science from Purdue University is an alumna of Jackson State.
- JSU students were the 2018 Honda Campus All Stars National Champions.
- JSU students were chosen as Competitiveness Scholars for the White House Initiative on HBCU’s.
- A JSU student invented the patented Cleanstraw – a three-step filtering process that helps separate sediment from water.
“Instead of getting down because we’ve faced a few challenges, instead of belittling our university on social media at every turn, instead of arguing with individuals who only want to see us fail anyway, we need to celebrate our successes, tune out all of the distractions and strive for excellence in everything we do,” Owens implored the audience, who nodded their heads in agreement.
She then made personalized pleas to university leadership, faculty and staff, students and alumni, with each ending with her mantra, “Show them who you are.”
Drawing her speech to a close, Owens said she hopes that Jacksonians know their history, operate in excellence, and understand the greatness that lies within. She encouraged all to leave with a renewed sense of purpose and determination to become “our ancestor’s wildest dreams. And, that we would surpass even our own interpretation of success in our quest to show them who we are.”
And just when it seemed that her address could not be more complete, Owens ended with a quote from the first African-American president, Barack Obama, who said:
“Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight.
“Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it.
“Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”
Owens then again recited her mantra three times: “Show them who we are. Show them who we are. Show them who we are.”