On Friday, May 10, 2019, Southwestern students, faculty, staff, and alumni gathered to commemorate a significant milestone in the University’s history: the 50th anniversary of its first Black graduate, Ernest Clark ’69. Hosted by the Office of Diversity Education (ODE), the Celebrating 50 Years of Black Excellence event included a recognition ceremony for Clark, a high-energy reception, an art exhibition by Norma Clark ’97 (no relation), and a collaborative quilt-making activity to celebrate the culture and accomplishments of SU’s former and current Black students.

First to matriculate, first to graduate

The first Black student to attend Southwestern, Ernest Clark enrolled at the University in the fall of 1965, initiating the school’s desegregation 11 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. He discovered Southwestern University after participating in the Negro Fine Arts School, an after-school music program for middle- and high-school students that had been established in 1946 by Iola Bowden Chambers, Southwestern professor of music, and her three students in partnership with the Georgetown School Board, the First United Methodist Church, and the Christian Student Association of SU. The young pianist was enrolled in the program in 1959 and again between 1962 and 1966.

During his undergraduate career, Clark was a member of the band, the choir, and Mask & Wig, the student-run theater organization. He completed his music degree at SU in 1969 as the school’s first Black graduate and went on to become a band director and music instructor in the Dallas Independent School District, teaching an estimated 36,000 students during the course of his career. In 2009, the alum was awarded the Southwestern University Medal, one of the institution’s most prestigious honors, for charting the path for later Black students.

Clark cut a modest, affable figure at this year’s celebration while Alexandria Bell ’21, president of SU’s Empowering Blacks and Others to Never Yield (E.B.O.N.Y.), expressed her appreciation of Clark’s paving the way for Black students at Southwestern. He then graciously accepted a glass plaque from Terri Johnson, assistant dean for student multicultural affairs. His wife of 42 years, the indomitable Sharon Clark, was presented with a bouquet of coral tulips and proudly announced of her husband, “First to enter; first to graduate!”

Kadidiatou (Kadi) Magassa ’13, who helped to co-organize this year’s festivities, recalls seeing Clark at the 40th-anniversary celebration, where he was presented with the Southwestern University Medal. She says that as the first Black student, Clark is an important and inspirational figure in Southwestern’s history because he would have had to overcome some of the residual prejudices that characterized the turbulent period of desegregation. For example, Clark himself admitted to being perturbed when, at the age of 19, he was featured on the local news. Seeing himself on television made him briefly consider dropping out because “too many people were interested in where I was going” to school, but he continued on because he realized that “a lot of people [were] depending on me to go to school.”

Magassa adds that because Clark “was able to graduate, he made it possible for future students of color to get through.”

Johnson also lauds Clark’s remarkable contribution to the University. “Being the first means so very much, and then being a trailblazer in making history is an entirely different kind of story when defining courage, success, and accomplishment,” she says warmly. “Mr. Ernest Clark is truly one of a kind. He is a brilliant scholar, an extremely talented musician, and an outstanding individual. It is not just because he had to take on the struggle and walk the path of justice and freedom, which is very important to take notice of; it is because he walked with dignity and respect and competed fairly and won!”  

A nontraditional student and artist

Among the other Black students who have helped shape the landscape of Southwestern University and whose notable achievements were recognized at the Celebrating 50 Years event was the quiet, unassuming Norma Clark ’97. A local artist, Clark attended SU from fall 1970 through spring 1972 and then returned to the University as a nontraditional student to complete her degree in fall 1992 through spring 1997. She specializes in abstract art, and attendees were invited to view her expressive, intuitive, and spontaneous paintings during a solo exhibition at the Sarofim School of Fine Arts.

Clark, a first-generation college student, did not particularly relish the idea of going to college when she was first accepted to SU, but her parents wanted her to go, and because her father was a cook at the University—he would end up working here for 45 years—she was able to attend for free. Of her first stint at Southwestern, Clark recalls “that there were a few Black students there, which was fun, and I really enjoyed the art and art history classes, which I did well in. My two art professors”—the late Gus Farmer, professor of art, and the late Robert (Bob) L. Lancaster, who was then chair of the Department of Art and the artist responsible for the Creator, Recreator, Receiver sculpture that is still located in the courtyard at the Alma Thomas Fine Arts Center today—”were really supportive.”

Clark sheepishly admits that she was not so enamored of her other classes. So after marrying after her sophomore year, she left the University in good standing to focus on family and work. Twenty years later, she returned to finish what she started and did so successfully—a lesson she has passed on to her three children. “I wanted that degree. I didn’t want to live a life of what if? or if only. I went back to school because I knew what a difference that would make for me,” she reflects.

Driven and focused, and with the mentorship and encouragement of Professor of Art Star Varner, Clark blossomed during the second stage of her higher education. In a project assigned by Varner, Clark discovered abstract art. She and her classmates were required to transform a single work by an “old master” (i.e., one of the renowned European painters who worked between the Renaissance and 1800) into 10 different abstract pieces. She found it fun and exciting—so much so that when she was asked to return to traditional representational work, she knew she couldn’t go back. “The thing I really enjoy about abstract art is that you don’t know what the finished product is going to be,” she comments. “It’s like what Forrest Gump says about life being like a box of chocolates: ‘You never know what you’re gonna get.’”

Attending the Celebrating 50 Years of Black Excellence reception, Varner remembers how Clark excelled in studio art and that she earned the Lancaster Award in Studio Art, an honor named for Bob Lancaster, Clark’s mentor during her first years at SU. Varner and her colleagues recognized Clark as “an outstanding senior who met the highest standards in art and art history.” She graduated from Southwestern in 1997 and went on to earn her master of fine arts degree from Vermont College of Norwich University in 2000. She has exhibited her work in Georgetown, Austin, Dallas, and Atlanta, and in 2004, she was among a group of alumni who were asked to display their work at Southwestern. The Celebrating 50 Years of Black Excellence event was her first solo exhibition at Southwestern.

Featuring evocative imagery such as arterial tendrils enveloping almost illusory circles in Circles Five I and II and the interleaving of geometric and organic shapes in Emotion, the highly personal works on display captured what Clark calls “ambiguities of space, color, form, and chaos—but a coherent kind of chaos.” She explains her philosophy of art this way: “Creating art for me is to look beyond what can visually be seen, to communicate a powerful image on canvas that reveals more than what is immediately apparent. However, my art is not meant to relay a personal philosophy or any political, social, or cultural commentary on the world.” Instead, her use of overlapping lines, layered colors and textures, and glazes that create a transparency effect are intended to reflect Clark’s rich range of emotions and the complexities of her life.

Leading through adversity

For many Black and other underrepresented students throughout the past five decades, earning a college degree has demanded what Johnson refers to as “leading through adversity”: pursuing academic careers while attending to work and family responsibilities. Yet at Southwestern, those students have persisted, achieved their goals, and gone on to a range of successful careers, from leadership positions at major accounting firms and universities to counseling and law. The Celebrating 50 Years of Black Excellence event was an exuberant acknowledgment of those accomplishments.

“One thing I really appreciate about this event is that I’m hoping it’s a starting place for connecting people of color—and particularly Black students and alumni—back to the campus and making a difference on campus,” says Magassa. “For me, it’s important because it’s made an impact on my life, and the event helps create a space for Black alumni to feel welcomed back and valued on campus, especially since they’ve done so much throughout the past 50 years.”

She adds that the celebration represented an important opportunity for learning as well, with current students and recent graduates exchanging stories and ideas with alumni who attended Southwestern in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. “Seeing the before and after shows you the progress on campus but also what we still need to do” to make SU a safe, comfortable space for students of color, she comments. She believes that sharing different perspectives will be an important part of the educational process.

Johnson—whom Magassa regards as a much-loved unsung hero on campus given her dedication to supporting multicultural learning and celebration—expresses excitement, passion, and gratitude as she reflects on the event. “Very few things leave me speechless, and this is one that has left me completely without words,” she says. “To stand in this moment is like a dream come true for SU students, alumni, faculty, staff, and community members. During times when people often forget to say thank you, I want to say very proudly and with so much vocal expression, ‘Thank YOU!!!!!’”

Related: A short documentary titled Southwestern University African-American Alumni Reflections produced by alumna Yesenia Garcia ’03 in 2009.