Commencement ceremonies took place on many college campuses this past weekend, including the University of Illinois. Our Education Desk reporter takes us inside one that's different from all the others — the Black Congratulatory ceremony at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana.
Huff Hall, on the campus of Illinois' flagship university, holds about four thousand people, and it's nearly full. The air conditioner can't compete with the heat generated by so many spectacularly dressed parents, grandparents, friends and cousins. By the time the ceremony ends, moms and aunties will have traded their pretty pumps for flats, and the little kids will have dozed off in their daddy's arms. That's what this ceremony has in common with the others.
You can hear what's different when the lights dim and the graduates process in.
Instead of “Pomp and Circumstance,” these graduates enter the hall to the strains of Donny Hathaway singing “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” This is the Black Congratulatory, a tradition that dates back almost 40 years on a campus where African Americans represent just 5 percent of the student population.
Marielle Dickens, graduating with a double major in psychology and communications, is near the front of the procession. She's been selected to give a speech, so she has earned a seat on the stage. This particular graduation ceremony is something she's been anticipating ever since she attended Black Congratulatory a few years ago.
"I don’t know how to explain it. It was... so welcoming, so love, so much of a family-type atmosphere. And it made me look forward to graduate a lot more," she says.
"Black Congratulatory — it's a special thing for many of us in the African-American community for many reasons, but mainly because we do attend a predominantly white institution, so being able to be recognized for being an African-American student here is something special," says Dashawn Julion, graduating with a degree in technical systems management. Due to his busy schedule, he skipped the general commencement, where a popular TV star spoke to graduates, but he told his mom, Leisha Julion, to be in her seat by 7 p.m. for Black Congratulatory.
"The regular graduation, you really don't know how many blacks are graduating, but when they have their own, you're like wow, it was a lot!” she says. “So it makes everyone in here proud."
After all the graduates have entered the hall, everyone stands to sing the national anthem. The Negro National Anthem that is. All three verses.
"The purpose of it is to have a ceremony that is steeped in our tradition, so that people don't have to feel uncomfortable,” she says. “The ability to celebrate each other in the ways that we celebrate each other is important."
What does that mean? For starters, it means that when Dickens delivers her speech, even though the sound system is muddy, everyone in the hall understands when she says:
"So many times we have been told no, we're not good enough. ‘This may not be an option for you.’ And ‘Let's not aim too high.’ " It means fraternity and sorority members can dance as they cross the stage. And it means every "first" or milestone accomplishment — like U of I's first black chancellor, first black football coach, and the student senate's fourth black president — will be announced and applauded.
And, as Leisha Julion points out, it also means that this particular ceremony has a larger purpose than just launching these students into the next chapter of their lives.
"Like Dashawn, he'll reach back for his brother and make sure he makes it through. You can do it. If I can do it, you can do it,” she says. “So just reach your hand back and grab the next person forward."
The Black Congratulatory tradition at the University of Illinois dates back to 1978, making it one of the oldest such ceremonies in the country. To get the history of this celebration, we spoke with Ashley Davis, who directs the annual event.
Black Congratulatory is produced by the Bruce Nesbitt African American Cultural Center, better known on campus as BNAACC, or simply the Black House.
Davis: We were created in 1968 as a house for black students. It was a part of the list of demands after Project 500, that black students have a place to go where they’d be safe to congregate. Prior to that, if four or five gathered around campus, there would be risk of arrest.
DR: I think I know what Project 500 was. It was an effort to get 500 black students enrolled at the University of Illinois. Why do you need an initiative to do that?
Davis: Well, following the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the nation was in uproar, and so the campus took the time to look inward. So this was one of our finer moments as a land grant institution, where we said we really need to do a better job of reaching to students because students were going to college in Illinois, but they were going to Illinois State, Eastern Illinois University. They didn’t feel welcome here at our land grant institution.
And so Jack Peltason, who was chancellor at the time, said we’re going to make a concerted effort to reach African-American and Hispanic students. And so they brought in 700 (500 African-American students and 200 Latino students), but the marketing was already done for Project 500, and so the name stuck.
It was a good idea, but the university had not prepared for it in actuality. So one of the demands that the students brought, in order for them to have a safe place on campus, was to provide a black house.
This isn't history Davis had to research. Her mother is Ollie Watts Davis, the legendary music professor who has directed the U of I Black Chorus for 36 years. Ashley Davis earned both her bachelor’s degree and an MBA here. She is firmly rooted in the University of Illinois.
Davis: I did not apply to any other college, I did not want to go anywhere else. But I know that there’s work for us to do. When I was a student, there were more African-American students on campus than there are now. So our numbers right now: Out of 43,000, we have 2,134 African-American students. So we are, you know, just hitting 5 percent.
DR: And by comparison, international students outnumber you 3-to-1.
Davis: Yes, that is accurate.
DR: I did a story a couple of years ago about how enrollment of black students is declining. It’s going the wrong direction.
Davis: Absolutely. So 2016 was the first time since 2008 that we had an enrollment of African-American students over 500. So we had classes of 300, classes of 400, entering, so it’s hard to maintain a presence on campus when your numbers are so small. So the issues that our African-American students face are compounded because it’s hard to create community when there is no one here. A lot of our students come from the Chicago area, and so we know that Chicago is one of the most segregated cities. And so a lot of our students don’t know anything different other than community and haven. So when they come here, it can be a culture shock.
I mean, think about a place that was not created for you, but you come through and while we try, the university can do a better job of creating haven. This is coming from someone who loves the university. I bleed orange and blue. But there is work for us to do for this particular population. We don’t necessarily make it a welcoming place for them. The micro-aggressions that our students have to endure from their professors, from their peers, and still do their homework at a research 1 division 1 institution — they are champions. And so we treat them as the best and the brightest because they are. They truly are. So the idea of finding a place where your culture is valued, where your jokes are recognized, where your nuances can be articulated and responded upon, it’s those small things that make us human. So as the assistant director, one of my goals is to help the students find haven. That’s what we do here. And that’s one of the things that we do with the Black Congratulatory ceremony.
That concept of haven begins with welcoming each graduate's family with no tickets required, no matter how many relatives want to attend.
Davis: Many of our students are first generation [college] students. Not all, but I would say it’s about half and half. So the idea that you’re graduating on behalf of the entire family? I am not going to be the one that tells you that your extended family cannot come. That’s one of the reasons this is a ceremony that is so heavily attended is because everyone can come, from the babies to your grandparents to your great-grandparents.
It continues with spotlighting special achievements to honor so that everyone can celebrate.
Davis: Last year, we had a Bronze Tablet scholar, Jasmine Washington, and so she’s top 3 percent in the entire university. So when we made that announcement, everybody stood up, because they know that she represents us, and we represent her. I think that’s part of our African-American community that, when one succeeds, everybody succeeds. There’s no competition in the regard of ‘I’m better than you.’ It’s competition in the regard of ‘Let’s push each other to be the best.’
DR: So this isn’t one of those ceremonies where they say hold your applause until the end.
Davis: That’s not the African-American tradition! So I build into the ceremony time. Everybody gets five seconds. It’s not a free-for-all. But I recognize how important this is, so we make allotments for that.
The ceremony is layered with meaning, from the Kente cloth stoles for each graduate to the pouring of libations to honor the ancestors. And Davis takes pride in providing one other flourish.
Davis: One of the things that we also do is: We work to say the names correctly. In the African-American tradition, your name is your essence, which is why people are very intentional about naming children. For many of our students, for their whole life, their name has been mispronounced. So if no other time in their living existence for something important, their name will be said correctly at the Black Congratulatory ceremony, no ifs ands or buts about it.
Parents come up afterwards and (thank me). Many of our students are of Ghanian or Nigerian heritage. They’ll go their whole life and their whole college career by their nickname, their pet name. But when it comes time for the ceremony, it’s their given name. So I want to make sure that I give them credit and make it right.