First of Many
It has been nearly 50 years since John Bradley walked onto the Georgia Southern campus to become the University’s first African-American student and its first black graduate student. Several decades later, in 1985, the 500th African-American student graduated. Today, African-Americans comprise about a quarter of the Eagle student body, and Georgia Southern University is one of the nation’s leading producers of black physical science majors—ranked No. 4 by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.
Two years ago, to commemorate the 1985 milestone, the First 500 alumni network was created by, and for, those students who share the distinction of being among the first blacks to graduate from Georgia Southern.
Ronald Moorman (’75), a criminal justice major who conceived the First 500 said, “It honors the students who actually integrated Georgia Southern and it also provides a way for those men and women to give back to the University.” Moorman grew up in Wrightsville, Georgia, and noted that despite the struggles of the early black alumni he appreciates his college years. “I have relationships that started at Southern and have lasted a lifetime,” he said. “Georgia Southern gave us an opportunity and this is a way for us to pay back what we owe. I feel this is the other side of the opportunity we were given.”
Organizers say the First 500 is an alumni network within the Georgia Southern University Alumni Association and has partnered with the Georgia Southern University Foundation to create a permanent scholarship endowment. Retired educator Margaret Hightower (’75, ’97, ’01) was among the first in her family to graduate from high school and college, and she earned multiple degrees from Georgia Southern including her bachelor’s, education specialist and a doctorate in educational leadership and administration. An instrumental player in getting the First 500 off the ground, Hightower explained the group wanted to leave a lasting legacy of black achievement at the University that would benefit current and future students. “Our initial goal was to raise $25,000 by homecoming in 2013. I am pleased to say we were able to exceed our goal. Go Eagles!”
“I would like to add that $25,000 was our first milestone,” explained Bernice Banks (’77) who wears many hats with the black alumni network. “Right now we are working on the second milestone, which is $25,000 in the second year. Our ultimate goal is $100,000 by the fourth year.” Now retired and living in Decatur, Georgia, Banks arrived in Statesboro from Hawkinsville, a small town in central Georgia. “Georgia Southern was a time of growth for me. It was where I met my first white friend and she was my roommate. When she entered the room she said, ‘If you don’t mind that I’m white, I don’t mind that you’re black.’ It was the start of a tremendous friendship.”
Alumnus Michael Dean (’80) said he was the only African-American who lived in Cone Residence Hall when he arrived as a freshman in the fall of 1975. “I can say Georgia Southern prepared us well for a greater world,” Dean said. “I was involved with student government, several student organizations and served on the judicial board.” Since graduating, he has worked with the Georgia Southern University Foundation, the University Athletic Foundation and the Alumni Association, and remarked that while the First 500 may be focused on fundraising, organizers envision doing much more than providing much-needed scholarship support. “We want to mentor students and young alumni, establish internships, provide job shadowing opportunities, support homecoming events, engage in recruitment and retention efforts and guide students in their career path as they leave Georgia Southern,” said Dean, who uses the tagline “trying to help the little Eagles stay in the nest.”
“We have a tight bond. When we attended Georgia Southern there really weren’t that many blacks on campus and we grew pretty tight,” said engineering graduate William “Bill” Cary (’80), who grew up in San Francisco and enrolled in college after ending his military career. “I came to Georgia Southern late in life and had high expectations and I did a lot of things to make sure the University lived up to those expectations,” he said. “It fell short on some things, but changes were made when we approached administrators about things that needed to be changed and we all came out the better for it. I am eternally grateful to Georgia Southern.”
First 500 organizers agreed they experienced many challenges and triumphs as minorities on the predominantly white campus. However, they add they are proud of what they achieved during their time on campus and want to leave a legacy through altruism and service. “One of the fundamental principles driving our action is the fact that we love Georgia Southern,” said Banks. “It is near and dear to us and we are at a point in our lives where we’re blessed to give back with energy, time and even financially.”
– Sandra Bennett