Nearly 450 students graduated Friday from Southern University and A&M College during fall commencement, according to The Advocate.
Speaker Irving Matthews, 74, recalled growing up in Lake Charles during Jim Crow times with lynching, “colored only” water fountains, and lack of the right to vote.
He said college education was his ticket to avoiding the series of low paying labor – like housekeeping and construction laborers or waiting in restaurants that wouldn’t serve Black people.
“While there is nothing wrong with any of those jobs,” Matthews said, “my family wanted more for us. …Back then, if you didn’t go to college, the opportunities, mainly professional opportunities, were virtually nonexistent for people of color.
Matthews graduated from Southern in 1970, worked for Proctor & Gamble and then Frito Lay. Then in 1989, he entered the automotive industry, eventually buying a dealership. Matthews Automotive Group now has four franchises in Florida and Georgia, with annual sales of about $370 million and 337 employees, he said.
“Southern University was that solid foundation for me and my sister,” he said.
Though some laws have changed over time and some people are more aware of the hurdles facing minorities in the U.S., problems still exist, such as difficulty getting startup capital, Matthews said.
“The fact is, as always, we must create our own opportunities,” Matthews said. “How well you handle that pain will play a role in your success.”
The chief student marshal at the graduation ceremony was Mary K. Smith, who received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Southern’s Nelson Mandela College of Government and Social Science. The Houma native graduated with a 3.965 grade point average.
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