MAXWELL:  At Stillman, lives blessed by hope

4/20/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


She was one of the most beautiful African-American young women I have ever seen, and he one of the most handsome young men.

Holding hands, they strolled along an azalea-lined walkway beneath the window of my guest room on the campus of Stillman College, a historically black school founded in 1874 by a group of Presbyterians.

I am here as writer in residence for a week, sponsored by Stillman’s Mellon Endowment.

The young woman wore neatly trimmed Levi jeans, white sweat shirt and stylish sneakers. Her attire complemented her companion’s soft-wash twills, long-sleeve sport shirt and Rockport casuals.

When they reached the library, the young man opened the door for his sweetheart.

What had caught my attention? In addition to their physical attractiveness and their obvious affection for each other, the couple’s easy gestures struck me.

Theirs was the behavior of the innocent, fortunate young people protected, at least temporarily, from the violence and the general dysfunction destroying much of black America outside this pristine world.

Watching other students pass, I felt hopeful about the future of African-Americans for the first time in nearly a year. I realized that my work as a journalist in St. Petersburg _ where race consciousness determines much of daily life, where many young blacks already live as victims _ is turning me into a cynic.

Here at Stillman, though, hope is everywhere.

A student from Chicago, who lives in one of my old neighborhoods on the notorious Westside, sees the college as his savior. In Chicago, he witnessed murders, rapes, drug deals and other negative experiences of the ghetto. On one trip home, he was assaulted and nearly killed by a gang of black teens.

After a semester of recuperation, he returned to Tuscaloosa, where he studies diligently _ in safety.

He could be any number of college-age blacks I encounter each day in St. Petersburg, who are trapped in the anomie of street life and held down by the self-defeating rhetoric of adults.

As guest lecturer in several classes at Stillman, I was impressed with the students’ willingness to attribute their good fortune and hopes for the future to the many sacrifices of their families.

In an African literature class, for example, the professor asked students to name their role models. He told them that they could use famous and historical figures. But each student identified a parent, a grandparent or another relative as the most important people in their lives. Even the professor was pleasantly surprised.

Later on campus, I asked a male student why no one had mentioned a famous role model, such as Martin Luther King or Jackie Robinson.

“Everybody respects people like Dr. King, but we know what our parents had to do personally to get us here,” he said. “My mom works two jobs so that I can attend Stillman. She wants me to make something out of myself, and I can’t let her down.”

His companion, a cheerful young lady, said: “My parents never had much, and they want me to be different. They want me to be successful. They work hard. They would die if I flunked out or got pregnant or something.”

Stephen Jackson, an associate professor of communications, said that most of Stillman’s 1,000 students are clearly grateful to attend college and are determined to make a difference in society. “They inspire me,” Jackson said.

During his 15 years as president, Cordell Wynn has made “hope” a guiding principle of his administration. He discourages pessimism and flatly rejects self-pity and excuses. He tries to banish “victim” from the students’ vocabularies and psyches.

“Here at Stillman, we reconnect black kids with traditional values that have been lost today,” Wynn said. “We give them a nurturing, hopeful environment. Many young black people have a great thirst to learn, but they must have opportunities. They need to be around positive adults who believe in them, who see them as significant individuals.”

From my room, I watched as Wynn walked across campus one afternoon. He stopped to chat with several students. The body language between him and the young people was genuine and personal.

“Caring is hope,” he said during my visit to his office. “We teach our students that we’re in this struggle together, that we can do better together.”

Like other colleges, Stillman has students who do not study or attend class, who will flunk out, who use drugs, who will get into trouble with the police.

But unlike many other colleges, Stillman is self-conscious about its mission to inspire future generations of successful black people.

“We are a special place,” Wynn said. “We are an oasis of learning and of hope.”