Vermester Bester, along with Linda Williams-Cross, were the first African American students to attend what was then William Carey College. The year was 1965, and the Civil Rights Movement was going strong.
"The first day on campus, I was walking up the steps of Tatum Court and of course I was apprehensive,” Bester said. “There is this Black lady that I knew from the neighborhood and she's cleaning the banisters. She was just beaming, and she said, ‘don't worry; we're going to look out for you,' And that just made my day.
Bester and Cross were trailblazers in their own right, in what could have been a potentially dangerous situation.
“If you look back at the history, the Hattiesburg American maybe had one little bitty article and it said two blacks started at Carey,” Bester said. “It was low-key. Nobody knew we were coming. I know it was done on purpose; that was to keep down everything. We walked up the steps to Tatum Court, we didn't see protesters or we didn't see the National Guard or any of that kind of thing [because] it was low-key and we just came on in and went to class.”
Though segregation was legally over, several people were not pleased with the school allowing blacks to attend, and took efforts to make their feelings known.
“I remember one time I sat down in a class and a student got up and left. I remember the cross burning, on this very lawn here,” Bester said. “During that time it was like living in two different worlds because during that time there was a lot of civil rights activity. So I would be here on campus in a mostly white environment, and then I would leave and go to the community and it would be all black. When Vernon Dahmer and Dr. Martin Luther King died, and I think it was painful for me on campus because nobody talked about it.”
Despite the negative activity around her, Bester did not allow that to distract her from her academic goals.
“When I look back to a lot of the different honors that I received when I was on campus, I think back to a scholarship that I had won before I enrolled at Carey and it was from the United Negro College Fund,” Bester said. “When they found out I was coming to Carey, I had to fight for that scholarship. I had to write letters, and get the school to write letters and everything and they did give me that scholarship. They said that was the first time the UNCF had given a scholarship to a student who had attended an ‘all white university'.”
Bester's family played an important role in her upbringing. Sam and Vermell Jackson put all six of their children in Mississippi colleges during the Civil Rights Era.
“My parents were really supportive, but they went thru a whole lot of things because of that. I know they worried about me for a long time,” Bester said. “My mom said my dad slept with a gun down by the side of the bed.”
All of their sacrifices paid off when Bester graduated from Carey Magna Cum Laude, and paved the way for other African Americans to come behind her.
“Linda and I came that first semester and I guess word got out and boom,” Bester said with a smile. “When I looked through the catalog, my 1969 year book, wow, I saw 70-something Blacks. And I was like, ok from 65 ‘til 69 look how we grew. I have a cousin who attended Carey, and he would say ‘you are my inspiration' and he came and he graduated from Carey.”