African-American Commencement Speakers

Shaunta Alvarez
February 24, 2012

Rev. Joseph Evans

The first African-American commencement speaker at Elon appears to have been Rev. Dr. Joseph H. Evans, who spoke at the 1979 spring commencement. Rev. Evans was the national secretary of the United Church of Christ from 1967 until 1983 except for a year when he was elected president in 1976, becoming the United Church of Christ’s first and only African-American president. Rev. Evans’s message to the class of 1979: “My wish, my prayer, my yearning for each of you of this graduating class in these grand and awful times is that life will be kind to you…Life will be kind to you if you base it on a meaningful set of values…We are sustained over the long haul not by the abandonment to the ecstasy of the moment, but by what we trust and believe.”

Donna Oliver ’72 was the 1988 spring commencement speaker. Just the previous year in 1987 she had been selected National Teacher of the Year, and she became the first African-American to receive Elon’s Distinguished Young Alumnus of the Year Award. During her distinguished career of over 30 years in education, Oliver has

Donna Oliver

served as a K-12 public school teacher of biology and chemistry, a college professor, and a K-16 administrator. Currently, Oliver serves as president of Mississippi Valley State University, its first female president and the first African-American female president of a public university in Mississippi. Oliver said to the class of 1988, “You cannot stamp out illiteracy overnight or build shelters for the homeless by yourself. You will not become the CEO of a major corporation tomorrow. But you could volunteer one night a week with an organization working for the homeless. You could write a letter to the local newspaper. Those small steps have accomplished great things. With courage and initiative, foundations are set. Persistence completes the job.”

Bertice Berrydelivered the commencement address during the spring of 1994.  Berry earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Kent State University, where she taught sociology and statistics. She left Kent State to become an entertainer and lecturer. In both 1992 and 1993 she was voted Lecturer of the Year and was the 1992 Campus

Bertice Berry

Entertainer of the Year. In 1993 she launched “The Bertice Berry Show.” She has written a number of books, including I’m On My Way, But Your Foot Is On My Head; The Ties That Bind: A Memoir of Race, Memory, and Redemption; The Haunting of Hip Hop; Redemption Song; and Jim and Louella’s Homemade Heart-Fix Remedy. Her commencement address to the class of 1994 was titled “Moving on and Moving Forward.”

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