The Georgia International Convention Center provided the backdrop for 550 Spelman women to transition from the title “college senior” to “college graduate” on Sunday, May 15, 2011. The 124th Commencement of Spelman College, energized by excited family, friends and faculty from this prestigious institution, not only marked the end of a journey but also of a two-year campaign to have first lady Michelle Obama speak at the ceremony.
The anticipation was awe-inspiring and electric as the students and faculty walked in, and everyone anxiously awaited the entrance of the first lady. She made her entrance onto the stage amid rousing applause, shrieks and screams from the large crowd, who was clearly elated to be in her presence.
After a wonderful rendition of “Wade in the Water” by the Spelman College Glee Club, President Beverly Tatum introduced Mrs. Obama. As the first lady arose to speak, she was greeted again with applause, screams and cheers from the audience. She thanked them for the greeting as well as for one of their alumni, her “right-hand” staff member Kristen Jarvis of the Spelman Class of 2003.
Obama spoke of how proud she was of the young graduates for accomplishing their goals and becoming a part of the legacy of Spelman College. She shared a moving history lesson of two white women, Sophia Packard and Harriet Giles, who, in 1881, were brave enough to found the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary to give African American women an opportunity to receive an education. The seminary, which later evolved into Spelman College, began in the small church basement of Friendship Baptist Church. I was especially proud because the church she spoke of is the church I grew up in. I have heard the story of how Spelman was founded many times, but, coming from the first lady, it was like hearing it for the first time.
She also told the young women that this legacy and inheritance that they are so privileged to be a part of comes with responsibilities as well. Whenever there is doubt or second-guessing, these graduates, who stand on the shoulders of giants, were instructed to remember where they come from and who they are — Spelman women. Obama referenced some of her own heroes from Spelman — children’s advocate Marian Wright Edelman and aviator Janet Bragg — and how these women overcame great obstacles to succeed.
Mrs. Obama even spoke of her own journey from Chicago to Princeton to Harvard Law School and how she, too, had self-doubt. She explained how being a lawyer didn’t fulfill her, but being a public servant did. The wife-mother-public servant told the graduates that, no matter what they choose to do with their lives, they need to make sure that they reach back and pull others up. She told them that they are beautiful, magnificent and breathtaking members of a true “sisterhood.”
Finally, her parting comments to the graduates were, “I want to end with some words from Tina McElroy Ansa, Spelman class of 1971. In one of her novels, she wrote simply, ‘Claim what is yours … You belong anywhere on this earth you want to.’ ”
After the commencement address, first lady Obama and sisters Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad were awarded honorary degrees by the college. This graduation was an incredible historic event that neither the graduates nor the attendees will ever forget. –christa e. jackson
To read Mrs. Obama’s speech in its entirety, please click here.