HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - William Carey University students are preparing to cross the stage and enter the next chapter of their lives after commencement. Members of this year’s graduating class have the honor of receiving their keynote speech from walking history.
Vermester Jackson Bester was one of the first black students to attend the school 50 years ago. She said she owes that honor to many people.
Bester reflected on her time at the school as she strolled down memory lane on William Carey’s campus.
“I remember walking. I remember going to the chapel,” Bester said.
The buildings are different. The school has weathered some storms. It’s still the place where Bester became a part of history by integrating what was William Carey College back in 1965.
“The biggest lesson I learned is that we are the same no matter the color,” Bester said. “We all have similar feelings, families and people who support us. I think that hit home more than anything else for me.”
Racial tension was high in the ’60s, but William Carey was the first Baptist college in the Deep South to voluntarily allow black students on campus to take a chance at change.
“It is such an honor, and I think about it as not only an honor to me, but to my parents, the community and the teachers,” Bester said.
Bester thumbed through black and white pages of a yearbook with an endearing smile. She helped to make the classrooms black and white.
“Because of everyone who had a part in helping us get through those four years, I am what I am today,” Bester said. “I was able to take what I have learned here and give back to my community.”
There’s a garden dedicated to Bester and her friend, Linda Williams Cross, who also integrated the school.
Bester now returns to deliver the keynote speech at a commencement ceremony Saturday. She wants to share the history and hope.
“This graduation is to make it history, and hopefully, they too will be as inspired as we are and think about the contributions and the influences that they will have over the next 50 years,” said Scott Hummel, Executive Vice President and Provost of WCU.
Bester went on to touch the lives of hundreds with over 30 years of service in the Hattiesburg Public School District.
Bester is ingrained in the history of WCU and will once again become a graduate. She’s receiving an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.
“I look back at this, and I can’t take it all to myself. It belongs to so many other people who helped me along the way,” Bester said.
Dr. J. Ralph Noonkester was the college’s president at the time Bester attended the school. She said she is thankful they made the experience positive.
Bester will receive her honorary degree at 1 p.m. Saturday after she gives the keynote speech.