Even from the bleachers, it was easy for Dwayne and Patrina Collins to see how college molded their son, Omari.
Omari, when he was little, told his dad, former president of the Charlotte NAACP, that he never wanted to be in front of a crowd. But by the time he walked onto N.C. Central University’s football field Saturday morning, Omari had established a school television show, was named “Mr. NCCU” and had grown so much that his family’s hoots and hollers didn’t even embarrass him.
“Omari’s campaigned so much that he’s developed this presidential wave,” Patrina said with a laugh. “My how things have changed,” Dwayne said.
N.C. Central University’s 127th commencement Saturday not only transformed the lives of 718 undergraduates who finally clutched their degrees, but offered a glimpse of the change that’s still possible.
U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield Jr., a Wilson Democrat who leads the Congressional Black Caucus, welcomed the students to the end of their proverbial tunnel.
“I know that you have had some long days and sleepless nights and, at times, this day was not clearly in focus. But graduates, graduates you persevered ... and you made it,” Butterfield said. “I’m proud of all of you and wish you continued blessings.”
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, then took the microphone in O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium as keynote speaker and described how Durham’s lone historically black university shaped his life. Booker said he wouldn’t have become a senator if his late father, Cary Booker, hadn’t donned the maroon and gray and graduated from Central in 1962 – before the nation’s Jim Crow laws were eradicated.
“He was a man of great ambition,” Booker said. “He broke barriers and smashed down doors in his life.”
Hendersonville native Cary Booker, born to a single mother who Cory said was “so po’ he couldn’t afford the other two letters,” later became one of the first black executives at IBM, one of the biggest technology companies in the world. He told Cory that he could go through life one of two ways.
“You can be like a thermometer, just reflecting the world around you. Or you can be a thermostat, one of those people who sets the temperature,” Booker said. “You don’t have to be one of those people that accepts things as they are. Every day, take responsibility for changing them right where you are.”
Booker said his father’s teachings fueled his ascent from Stanford University to Yale Law School to Newark City Council to the Senate, where he’s fought for civil rights and criminal justice reform.
On LGBT issues, local politics
After saying that leaders in North Carolina’s General Assembly could use “some wisdom,” Booker highlighted areas where the Central family could push for change.
“My father would be astonished that we still live in an age where you are discriminated against just because of who you are, the color of your skin, the religion for which you pray or for who you choose to love,” Booker said.
“With the violence against gays and lesbians and transgender Americans escalating, and with 21 transgender women last year murdered just because of who they were – and most of them minority women – my father would tell me to go on and chase those big dreams, fight those big battles, correct the big wrongs, and that’s how I try to live my life.”
By the numbers
N.C. Central’s Class of 2016 is the largest in the university’s history.
Central awarded 1,140 degrees this week: 718 bachelor’s, 282 master’s and 156 juris doctorates. More than 1,050 of the graduates are from North Carolina. More than 825 are female. Three – Jennifer Tracy, Janelle Billingsley and Amanda Smith – finished their undergraduate careers with a 4.0 grade-point average.
Booker closed his speech by sharing a life lesson that he learned the hard way.
Booker, before becoming Newark mayor, made friends with a few young men who needed help staying out of trouble. Booker slowly lost touch with them as he pursued his political career, and as mayor found out that one of them, Hassan Washington, had been shot and killed not far from his home.
Booker recalled weeping after attending what he described as a grueling funeral. Young people living in poverty can’t escape it through “rugged individualism,” he said.
“All of us were there for Hassan’s death but where were we, where was I for his life?” Booker said. “I was so busy rushing toward my big ambitions that I failed to slow down enough and do for a young boy like the people in Hendersonville, North Carolina, did for my father.”
So he encouraged the crowd to stay faithful to friends, family and community.
“Stay faithful in things large and taking on the world but stay faithful in those things small – because remember it’s the small things, the size of a mustard seed, that ultimately moves mountains,” Booker said.
St. Augustine’s University
Number of graduates: Almost 200.
Speaker: The Rev. Father Martini Shaw, 17th rector of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia.
When: 9 a.m.
Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham.
Number of graduates: More than 5,300.
Speaker: Mike Krzyzewski, men’s basketball head coach at Duke.