Black alumni celebrate excellence at annual ball

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The Black Excellence Ball is held annually at the end of Black History Month.Photo credit: Ellen Smith

The Annual Black Excellence Ball hosted by the Association of Black Students was entirely different from years past. The multicultural group invited its alumni counterpart, SMU Black Alumni, to participate in the capstone Black History Month Event held Saturday in the Hughes-Trigg Student Center Ballroom.

The end result, a ball, history maker reception and scholarship event, was sheer excellence.

“It’s amazing how much history is in this room right now,” Mistress of Ceremonies Casey Ferrand said.

In 1952, Perkins School of Theology admitted SMU’s first African-American students to campus. The five men started integration on campus and graduated from Perkins a few years later, becoming the first faces of color to receive SMU degrees.

One of the five, James Vernon Lyles, journeyed back to SMU for the History Maker event. The 85-year-old traveled all the way from California, inspired by the university finally acknowledging the integration achieved by Lyles and his four peers.

“Sixty-one years ago, we dressed a little different,” he said, referencing black men on campus during the 1950s. “The only other black people I saw on campus wore a white coat and carried a mop. Look at what we have now.”

More than 11 alumni were honored at the event, ranging from class of ’71 to ’06. Three African-American Board of Trustee members were also in attendance. Trustee Pastor Richie Butler delivered the keynote address.

“I love SMU. I really do,” Butler said. “It’s been a blessing to me.”

The ’93 graduate met his wife of 20 years while playing football at SMU post-death penalty era. He recounted stories of being locked in Fondren library, traveling abroad to participate in SMU-in-Rome and finding inspiration for his personal mission while walking between dorms.

He also recounted being unnecessarily pulled over in his Honda civic by Highland Park police several times and white female classmates walking on the grass instead of sidewalk to avoid him as he passed. Butler turned his experiences from life on the Hilltop into valuable life lessons all attendees could understand.

“Don’t get caught people-watching and forget where you are going,” he said. “You stay in your lane and run your race.”

Reminiscing on a bitter 1989 loss to the University of Houston, Butler reminded guests that challenges in life don’t let up. The Houston Cougars beat the ponies a vicious 95-21. At practice the next day, Butler’s coach told the team “It’s a new day.”

Butler promised guests when facing hardship, “the sun will come out tomorrow.”

During the event, alumni addressed a common hardship faced by students – financial aid. In the past year, Black Alumni have contributed more than $10,000 in scholarship money and the organization announced its new goal of $15,000 for the upcoming year.

“We need to, as alumni, make sure we make ourselves [financially] available to these students,” Brandy Bryan Mickens said while presenting awards. “I‘m not a pastor but if God has laid it on your heart, let the spirit lead you to your checkbook.”

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, recipient of the Black Alumni Legacy Award, pledged her support to the scholarship fund. The 1976 alumna graduated from SMU with a masters in public affairs. She later became a politician, serving in the Texas state senate and U.S. House of Representatives.

“I have two houses – that means two light bills, two mortgages, two everything,” she said. “But I’m going to give a donation to Club 52 because that’s affordable…You can’t do anything better than invest in students and education.”

Surprises of the night included special awards to Butler, ABS exec members Devean Owens and D’Marquis Allen, and Coordinator of Multicultural Student Services Melanie Johnson.

James Jones, son of Student Development and Programs Executive Director Jennifer “JJ” Jones, also surprised long-time girlfriend and chair award winner Lauren Driskell with a proposal. Audience members stood up and cheered as James got down on one knee and Driskell said yes.

The night ended with lively music, pictures and pledge cards. Early estimates of the event’s success revealed alumni raised more than $1700.

“We have to have our voices heard,” Mickens said. “And the way that SMU hears things is dollars.”

For more information on Black Alumni, visit SMU Alumni Chapters & Groups. For more information on the Association of Black Students, follow the group on Twitter @SMU_ABS.

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