The Idle American

God bless us, everyone ...

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To some, it could be a Cinderella story. Djimonii Jackson, a Howard Payne University senior, was featured in the parade and at the football game as the 2017 Homecoming Queen. Snappily dressed and flashing a disarming smile, she charmed effortlessly. She was escorted by her godfather, Michael Thomas, and also present was her mother, Marsena Alexander, all from Beaumont.

When we headed home early the next day, we saw Djimonii in her “grubbies,” dragging out huge bags of trash from Veda Hodge Dormitory. How could this be, my wife and I wondered.

As delightful as she appeared to be from a distance at the game, she was the same--and more--up close. “I’m a dorm RA (resident assistant), and it’s my weekend to take out the trash,” she said, smiling….

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“You made us so very proud,” I said. “And if heaven has a glass bottom, I’m sure many other African Americans are looking down with smiles.”

Djimonii, who arrived at HPU in the fall of 2016, has captured the hearts of both faculty and students with her cheerful nature, work ethic, basketball participation and spirit of Christian optimism to the core.

She is the second African American homecoming queen in the school’s 128-year history, and the first since 1985….

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Her friends call her “Monii,” and she is thankful for them, and much else.

Her car broke down before school started this fall, but no matter. She doesn’t complain, getting by on the shuttle bus between campuses and catching rides with friends.

“I also have my bike, and I ride it often getting from here to there.”…

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I am proud both of my alma mater and Brownwood Independent School District for integrating several years before it was mandated. The transition was smooth in both cases.

Some key individuals made it possible. Dr. Guy D. Newman, HPU president during my student years, and two key figures in the Brownwood African American community, smoothed the way.

The two men referenced were Cecil Holman and Bennie Houston. The former was a funeral director and grocery store owner; Bennie, first African American on the Brownwood City Council, was always at Cecil’s side. They were the “heart and soul” of the community, revered by all. (Brenda and I were honored 51 years ago when the pair drove 330 miles to attend our wedding in Alpine.)…

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Though “Uncle Cecil” (that’s what the masses called him) was limited to a high school education, he was as wise as any person I’ve ever known. He was one of the three persons from whom I learned most. I learned much about life observing his interaction with customers at his store many hundreds of times.

Bennie’s son, Cecil (named for Holman) was among the early African American students to enroll at Brownwood High School, where he was Vice President of the Student Body during his senior year. (Cecil died on July 17 at age 72.)

In 1967, he married the former Mary Loretta Jones. She was the first Black student to live in the women’s dormitory and the first HPU student to compete at the National Forensic League Speech Tournament in Chicago….

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About 25 years ago, an elderly lady gathered with several dozen others to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mount Zion Baptist Church. President of HPU at the time, I attended to extend greetings from the school.

The late Paralee Reed, long-time church secretary, read some “meaningful minutes” from church records dating back to the 1930s. “The congregation voted to send a collection to Howard Payne College to express thanks for sending their ‘preacher boys’ down here in the flats to practice ‘missionarying’ on us.” Stunned by such an expression of thanks, I wept.

That offering was a few cents north or south of ten dollars, but it did my heart millions of dollars of good. Until the early 1960s, African Americans were welcome on campus only to work in maintenance, lawn care or the cafeteria….

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Now, mantles have been handed to others to make good on Howard Payne’s long-standing claim to be the institution “where everybody is somebody.”

It is a good note on which to end 2017.

As a society, we aren’t who we want to be, and we’re not what we ought to be. But, thank God, we aren’t who we used to be….

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