Last Saturday, I sat with friends enjoying great food, adult beverages and interesting conversation at our tailgate in the hours leading up to Southern University’s homecoming football game. As you know, homecoming is that one game that is supposed to be a time of reconnecting with old college classmates, taking pictures, hugging and reminiscing. As you get older, though, the number of old classmates you see tend to decrease in number.
I didn’t bump into a single soul who graduated from college with me. So I just spent a few minutes here and there thinking about my freshman year in school, a period when the times caused me to grow up really quickly.
I thought about how on the first day of registration, my sister, who was in her junior year of college, dropped me off in the morning under a tree near the school gym. She said would return around 3 p.m. to pick me up.
I was so proud of myself. I had worked that summer to raise the $132 for the first semester tuition. (That’s right. That’s what it cost.) I had also gotten a humongous $600 loan from Louisiana National Bank to be divided in half, $300 for the fall and $300 for the spring semester. That money was for clothes, books, any incidentals, and, most notably, food.
I scrambled from place to place with very little knowledge of what I was supposed to be doing. I walked the entire campus getting papers signed. There were no computer operations then. Somehow, I got it done in time to meet my sister.
Now came the hard part. To get to school, sometimes I would ride the city bus. But that would take too long. So I would stand at the base of Interstate 110 and the intersection of Government Street in Baton Rouge and hitch rides to campus in the morning. I would also hitchhike back home in the afternoon.
My toughest class was algebra. In fact, I did not love math. One day, my professor stopped me after class and offered to help me. She gave me extra work, which I had to turn in at her office after each class. I wound up with a B in the class. That professor was Dolores Spikes, who later became the first woman president of Southern and the first woman president of a college in Louisiana.
Student demonstrations erupted on campus while I was there. The protesters wanted a number of changes, including the expansion of educational choices and more state funding for the school. There were marches, speeches, and even a student sit-in on the football field that stopped a game. It all came to a head when two students were shot to death by law enforcement officers. I was not far from the two dead students, Denver Smith and Leonard Brown.
No one was ever arrested for their deaths. Looking back, it seems the more things change, the more they remain the same. I remember being tormented about wanting to transfer from Southern because of the student killings. But in the end, I decided to stay, thinking I owed it to the university not to cut and run, but to remain and try to make my campus better.
I loved playing cards in the Union between classes. There were no smartphones or tablets then. We sat and to talked to each other. Our face time was a period when you actually talked face-to-face. We had heavy conversations about race, politics, black poets, poetry, black writers and culture. It was where I met the radicals, the politically astute, the musically inclined and the gifted students. It was a melting pot of so much talent, political brilliance and yes, a few folk who were definitely forgettable.
There was the time while enjoying a game of cards that someone came running in saying that it had been announced that the military draft had end. Loud cheers went up. But, I can remember the faces of a couple of young vets who were in the room. Some of them were quiet. Lord knows what their feelings were.
Even though I didn’t meet old classmates at my recent homecoming game, it was nice tailgating with my friends. I had a great homecoming of sorts, thinking about one of the best and worst times of my life.