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Class of ‘68: Golden Hawks forged by an incendiary year

  • By Tahja G. Cropper

    Tuesday, December 18, 2018

    As December 2018 graduates embark on the next chapter of their lives, members of the Class of 1968 were honored at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore's 22nd winter commencement.  

    The class of '68 includes a Tony-nominated stage actress, retired educators, social workers and several federal and state employees.  During their undergraduate days at then-Maryland State College, this group experienced some of the best moments of their lives and they lived through what some would contend was the 20th century's most turbulent year following World War II. 

    1968: the Vietnam War was in full swing, civil unrest was high and the nation witnessed the assassination of two champions for change, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4) and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (June 6). 

    Those sorrows were followed by a tumultuous presidential campaign that saw rioting in the streets of Chicago at the Democratic National Convention and the election of Richard Nixon, the first president to resign from office.  

    Wiping a tear from her eye, Starletta Seawell DuPois, a veteran actress with a background in nursing, recalled the moment 50 years ago she learned about Dr. King's murder as she went off stage during intermission of a performance on campus.  The moment still resonates inside her all these years later. 

    Dr. King's death would spark riots in major cities across the country. 

    Clifford Newsome Jr., who was from Sudlersville, Md., the hometown of baseball Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx, remembers being greatly impacted by his time at historically black Maryland State - and Dr. King's words.

    Dr. Heidi M. Anderson and Clifford Newsome Jr.

    “It's not the color of your skin, but the content of your heart that counts,” said Newsome, a white agriculture education major who attended a segregated high school in Queen Anne's County.  “Ever since I heard him say that, it's just been something that I strived to do.” 

    Each December during winter commencement, UMES alumni who reach the 50th anniversary of their graduation return to campus for recognition as “Golden Hawks.” 

    “You can't turn down an opportunity like getting an education,” Newsome said.  “The diploma that says UMES is the same that says University of Maryland College Park. It has the same weight. If you apply yourself, your education can be as good, or better, than what you can get anywhere else.” 

    The '68 Golden Hawks recalled a horrifying memory of a cross burning that happened on campus outside of Wicomico Hall a short time after Dr. King's assassination. 

    Those incidents inspired Maryland State students to take up the mantle in the fight for equality as they held peace marches in the Town of Princess Anne. 

    Four days before Kennedy died, the class of 1968 found itself at June commencement exercises featuring one of Dr. King's contemporaries and a civil rights pioneer in his own right, Jackie Robinson.  Robinson the first Black man to integrate Major League Baseball in the 20th century.  On that day, Dr. John Taylor Williams, Maryland State's president, awarded Robinson an honorary degree of humane letters during the ceremony. 

    According to Baltimore's Afro-American newspaper, the former Dodgers star addressed the slain civil rights leader's social contribution stating “Martin Luther King Jr.'s death leaves no void. He has given us a clear picture of what sound thinking and dogged determination can accomplish.” 

    “Never give up the struggle,” the newspaper quoted Robinson as saying. “Win we will.” 

    Although those were some of America's darkest days, Maryland State alumni say the good outweighed the bad.  This was especially true for Jean McBride-Elbert, originally from Philadelphia, as she met her husband on campus.  She and Thomas Elbert celebrate 50 years of marriage July 19, 2019. 

    During the Golden Hawks luncheon, alumni focused on reminiscing about the many good days at Maryland State. The room erupted with laughter and surged with energy when classmate James T. Smith, affectionately known as “Scooggy,” arrived late for the luncheon.  (He had wandered off to explore campus.) 

    Smith, a retired educator from Coatesville, Pa., emphasized the impact of his time at Maryland State, saying “I wouldn't trade my experience during those four years for all of the money in the world! We were a family.” 

    “I'm a proud Hawk,” added DuPois, who played the nurse, Esther, in the film 'The Notebook.'  “We weren't a number. Our professors cared about us.” 

    Classmates who returned for their Golden Hawk recognition also included Gail M. Davis, Alfonzo Grimes Jr., Drexel Smith Harris, Grace Matthews and George Trotter.