The excitement and nervous energy were palpable on Friday, Dec. 6, at Jackson State University. Nearly 800 students from diverse backgrounds and disciplines converged inside the Lee E. Williams Athletics & Assembly Center with one goal in mind – graduation.Serving as the keynote speaker was Dr. Tonea “Tommie” Stewart, a JSU alum and actress widely known for her recurring role as Aunt Etta Kibby in the television series “In the Heat of the Night.” Other television and movie credits include “Girls Trip,” “A Time to Kill” and “Matlock.” Now, the dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Alabama State University, Stewart was crowned Miss JSU in 1969.
“When I think back to those 50 years, I think of the ol’ Negro spiritual “How I Got Over.” Lord, how I got over. I sit back, and I wonder how I got over,” said Stewart after taking the podium.
She then referenced the song “I Almost Let Go” by gospel artist Kurt Carr and sang, “I almost gave up. I was on the edge of a breakthrough, but I couldn’t see it. The devil really had me, but Jesus came and grabbed me, and he held me close, and I wouldn’t let go.”
Amens and hmm hmms in agreement floated from the audience. Stewart told the graduates that throughout trials and disappointments, death, emergencies, and a host of problems, God kept them and look at them now.
“Fifty years ago, I had no idea where I would end up. That adage of where you come from does not dictate where you will end up, it’s very true,” said Stewart, who began to share snapshots of a life filled with both joy and pain.
A native of Greenwood in the Mississippi Delta, Stewart described her hometown as the “Cotton Capital of the World” with poor schools but great teachers. She revealed that her father was a heavy drinker that turned abusive under the influence. As a result, her parents eventually divorced.
While in high school, Stewart’s mother died, but those same “great teachers” helped her stay the course, and she finished with honors. She credited her community and family for praying her through trying times and encouraging her to attend Jackson State, where she majored in speech and theater.
“I found out that at Jackson State College teachers, staff and administrators that loved the students and worshipped the opportunity to nurture them,” said Stewart, who encountered another dilemma when her grandmother fell very ill. The aspiring actress contemplated withdrawing from the institution, believing her grandmother “needed me more than the medicine the doctors were going to give her.”
But Stewart’s professors rallied around her and challenged her to stay and cultivate her talent. Heeding their advice, Stewart stayed and “wouldn’t let go.” She was even nominated Miss JSU in 1968 by her peers.
“Taking that crown of confidence,” Stewart graduated from Jackson State in 1969 and headed west. She attended the University of California in Santa Barbara and graduated with a master’s degree in theater.
“I touched the soil of Hollywood, returned to my home state, and met the love of my life, Dr. Allen Stewart. God blessed us with three beautiful children.”
Stewart thanked God for allowing her and Allen the opportunity to help 10 members of her family, including their children, attend Jackson State University.
“I told you that story because I want you to know that you may know my glory, but you don’t know my story,” she told the graduates.
“This, too, shall pass” is a true phrase a true message, said Stewart before quoting Jeremiah 17:7. She then implored the audience to put their trust in God, calling commencement another beginning and not an end.
“Your degree is not a prestigious passport for you to be superior to your brothers and sisters. This degree today is for you to reach back and pull up everybody in the family and community that you can,” she urged.
Stewart encouraged the graduates to learn their genealogy to find out who and what they are. She also told them to motivate their siblings to read. “You cannot find humanity in a text message or in the Google,” she said to applause. “You will find information, but it won’t teach you how to love each other.”
Of the graduates’ milestone, Stewart said the day has come for them to be professionals and examples for their siblings. Making their parents swell with pride and holding their heads up in job interviews are things Stewart said should be celebrated because “you know you’re qualified. You have gone through the fire.”
Before closing, Stewart reflected on the time she spent with her great grandpapa Dallas who lived to be 107 years old. As a child, the dean explained that it was her job to stay within earshot of Papa Dallas as he sat on the porch, due to his blindness.
Not at all limited by his disability, her great grandfather could tell who was coming by the sound their footsteps made on the dirt road, Stewart said. He also, she shared, had a penchant for predicting what youth would be when they grew up i.e., preachers and nurses.
“Papa Dallas” had scars around his eyes and would occasionally wear shades, Stewart said. Curious about the loss of his eyesight, she asked Papa Dallas what happened. After requesting that his great-granddaughter retrieve the Bible, he explained that he was born into slavery.
“That very book I always wanted to learn to read, but in my day, it was against the law for us color folks to read and write,” Stewart said Papa Dallas told her.
He explained that he would hide and attempt to learn the alphabet, so he could one day read the Bible. However, Stewart continued, the overseer caught Papa Dallas and dragged him out to the plantation to make an example of him in front of the other field hands.
The overseer whipped Papa Dallas and then burned his eyes out, Stewart told the enthralled graduates.
The keynote speaker said she cried and apologized to her great grandfather repeatedly, but he told her:
“Don’t cry for me because without eyes, I can see further than those with eyes. I want you to promise me something. Promise me from this day on you will read every book you can. This day on, you will go all the way through school. Ain’t nobody gone burn your eyes out for learning today. Promise me one more thing that you will tell all the children my story.”
Many graduates like Seynabou Seck, 24, expressed how moved they were by Stewart’s address and their elation over graduating from the HBCU. “She hit on a lot of important notes,” said Seck, who received a B.A. in accounting.
Born in Bronx, New York, to Senegalese parents, Seck agreed with Stewart that a degree should not place individuals on a pedestal. “It’s something you use to help other people get to where you’re at. A lot of people needed to hear that,” she explained. “A lot of people feel like they’re better than other people just because they have something that others don’t. That’s not how it’s supposed to be. We’re supposed to help others and get through life together.”
Although commencement was nerve-racking, said Seck, she was also happy to share the moment with her loved ones. “I was excited. It was everything I hoped it would be.”
Currently working part time for the Mississippi Department of Health, the newly cemented alumna will shift to full time as an accounting auditor. She also says she is applying to the graduate program at Jackson State.
“It’s a family environment. I met a lot of different people and joined various organizations. It was a great opportunity, and I enjoyed it,” said Seck. “I recommend it to everyone. I tell all my cousins if they don’t want to leave the state to stay here and go to Jackson State.”
Canton, Mississippi, native Jamila Johnson, transferred to JSU from USM after taking a break from school. “I did a traditional year at JSU and then switched to the online program,” she explained.
Taking classes online allowed her to move to Texas and land a position as an EEG technician. “I do brainwave studies for people who have strokes and seizures,” said Johnson, who now has a degree in health care administration. She expressed her desire to eventually be an administrator of a dental office.
Initially, Johnson disclosed, she never thought she would make it this far. “I thought I was not going to go back to school, but I did go back, and I made it,” she said, calling graduation the best day of her life.
Johnson’s advice to others: “Don’t give up. It doesn’t matter when you finish as long as you finish. Stay motivated. Keep God first, and when it’s your time, it’s your time. Always remember that.”
Arron Richardson, assistant director for disability services in the Division of Student Affairs, was one of several JSU staff members to walk the commencement stage. Richardson received his Ph.D. in urban higher education.
“My journey here at Jackson State University has been nothing short of amazing. God has truly ordered my steps, and I thank him often for his grace and mercy,” said Richardson, in a tone rich with sincerity.
He thanked his immediate supervisor, Dr. Laquala Coleman, and Dr. Susan Powell, vice president of student affairs, for their support. Richardson then references a 10-year challenge making the rounds on social media. Describing the last decade as noteworthy, he chronicles his time at JSU, starting out as a conditional status admit in the Special Education program to working in various positions of leadership at the HBCU.
“I can add newly minted Doctor of Philosophy to many other accomplishments during my 10-year span here at Jackson State University,” he said. “See, it’s not about how you start or where you start or even what you don’t have when you start. It’s about starting every day on time and finishing today better than you did yesterday.”