By Levell Williams,
It is said that one’s true character shows only when tried with adversity. By that sentiment, Tougaloo College is a place full of people of unmovable character and enduring tenacity. Despite such difficulties as the COVID-19 pandemic and a host of accompanying troubles, Tougaloo celebrated the inauguration of its fourteenth president, Dr. Carmen J. Walters, as well as graduation for the Tenacious Class of 2021.
The inauguration events, which took place during the week of April 26 to May 1 on Tougaloo’s campus and at other community locations, consisted of several events focused on funding and strategic planning for the institution.
Then, on May 2, the 2021 graduating class gathered at the Jackson Convention Complex for their commencement ceremony.
All events were live streamed, with limited in-person attendance by invitation, requiring face coverings be worn.
Due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, the inauguration took place twenty-two months after Walters had already taken office. She had already led the institution in a standout year in donations and strategic planning, having received over $6M in private donations.
The inauguration week celebration saw the unveiling of new institutional logo trademarks and a historic marker, the dedication of longstanding campus properties to friends of the college, and the strengthening of donor relationships.
On Saturday May 1, the formal investiture ceremony took place. As attendees entered the Kroger Gymnasium, they were met with the allure of the high, flower-adorned stage and the backdrops that transformed the place into a hall fit for esteemed dignitaries. Such was appropriate, for the ceremony would feature elected officials, administrators of other higher education institutions, revered organizational heads and respected clergy.
Many of these would dawn the stage to share kind regards for Walters, while others would join via video to send their congratulations from across the nation.
Tougaloo alumnus Congressman Bennie G. Thompson, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Mary S. Graham were just a few of those to congratulate Walters and wish Tougaloo well.
Graham would share heartwarming anecdotes of how she consoled Walters in the loss of her late husband, Wayne Walters. In fact, one through-line of the investiture was Walters’ perseverance in the face of devastating hardships, namely the losses of multiple loved ones. She had even lost a brother within a week of the inauguration celebrations. Nevertheless, Walters could be seen smiling warmly throughout the ceremony, wielding extraordinary grace.
The speakers were followed by several musical performances, including multiple selections by the renowned Tougaloo College concert choir led by Tougaloo Professor Karl Twyner. The result was a charged atmosphere and an audience left in awe.
At last the time came for Walters to address the audience. In her opening, she acknowledged past Tougaloo presidents, including her predecessor, president emerita Beverly Wade Hogan, saying, “I am standing on their shoulders.”
Then, matching the saturated air of the moment, she ushered the audience into a congregational song, which the choir joined in, creating an experience akin to an energetic Sunday morning church service. “I wanted to have church this week,” she said. She expressed that she has endured hardships only by prioritizing God in her life, and she shared her desire to serve her students holistically, exemplifying spiritual strength as well as academic and otherwise.
Walters continued her speech, focusing on the ways in which she plans to uphold the theme of her administration: “Preserving and Advancing Excellence.” She listed longstanding qualities of the school and described their deep benefits to students, saying, “Those are worth preserving.” Items such as academic rigor and social justice activism were among the things she explained must be maintained and improved upon.
The inauguration ceremony concluded with the investiture of Walters, administered by Trustee Edmond Hughs, chair of the Board of Trustees, making her officially the 14th president and the second woman in history to hold the role. However, the distribution of honors had not yet finished. The following day, May 2, saw Walters and Hughs together at the 2021 commencement ceremony, presenting several honorary degrees and diplomas.
Gathering at the Jackson Convention Complex, graduates, friends and family arrived to the familiar bellowing of ceremonial drums in the distance, connoting Tougaloo College’s African ancestry. Although commencement was being held off-campus because of COVID-19, many of the traditional elements, were retained – as if affirming that they were “worth preserving.” Even the gonging of the iconic Woodworth Chapel bell tower would be emulated via video footage at the conclusion of the ceremony.
The class salutatorian, English major Anastasia Taylor, and valedictorian, mass communication major Tia Patrick, presented special addresses to the class. “…There’s no class out there with more passion, fervor and commitment to making their community better – to making their entire world better,” said Taylor in her heartfelt address.
Patrick followed with a speech that electrified the graduates and all the audience. “The Class of 2021 is made up of students who have worked tirelessly to ensure the betterment and preservation of the college and its legacy,” said Patrick. In a highlight of her speech, she emphasized a word of wisdom that she learned from her parents: “Proper preparation prevents poor performance.”
Taylor plans to take a gap year before pursuing a law degree, and Patrick plans to attend one of the several law schools to which she was accepted. The Tenacious Class of 2021graduated with ninety-nine honors scholars.
All in all, the events of April 26 to May 2 were just glimpses at the work that has ensued at Tougaloo College throughout the trying times of the past year, as well as for the more than 150 years of the institution’s existence. President Walters and the graduating class are among those – though opposed on many sides – have proven capable of overcoming any obstacle in pursuit of the chance to change the world.
As the graduated Eagles go into the world, armed with their degrees, Walters will continue to nurture the Eaglets yet to take flight. Through growth in their critical thinking skills, social consciousness and spiritual wellness, their wings will be strengthened.
Ultimately, the world can expect a steady supply of young people of strong character, whose ideas and actions may come to be the foundation of many institutions and initiatives to come – each in its own right “worth preserving and advancing.”