George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Terri Dickerson speaks at Mason's 2017 winter graduation ceremony

January 4, 2018

Terri Dickerson, PhD ‘17, Civil Rights Director for the Coast Guard, spoke at the 2017 Winter Graduation Ceremony at Mason. Her dissertation examined the untold story of elementary-aged African American students in desegregating Catholic schools in New Orleans, an experience that she lived as a first grader. In desegregating the schools, the youngest students, became agents in pushing the institution away from separation and exclusion, and toward an undivided, universal Church, the very meaning of the word “catholic.” Her work explains what happened after the media and protestors left, and focuses on how the students navigated the space to inaugurate a new era of equality.

Distinguished Guests, Faculty, Family, Friends and Fellow Graduates … Good Morning!

Well, here we are on the day we and our families have all been waiting for. We have written our papers, finished our projects, read all of our books, and completed our final coursework. Sometimes it felt as though this day would never arrive, but here it finally is!

I know that you probably feel as I do – grateful to be receiving this degree from George Mason, where diversity is our strength and where we celebrate one another’s differences rather than fear them. At Mason, we welcome change as a normal process in life rather than stubbornly cling to the past.

I will forever treasure my time here because I have always felt included and at home at Mason.

That hasn’t always been the case in my life. You see, even though I’m your classmate in twenty-seventeen, I was born in Louisiana at a time when our country abided segregation based on race. By that I mean that laws based on my race as an African American dictated where I could eat, wait for the bus, obtain health care, ride on public transit, even go to church. I was born at a segregated hospital. Despite my mother’s Master’s degree, she was allowed to teach only Black … not White children in the New Orleans public school system. When my father served his country in World War II, he was a member of what was then called “colored” troops … they were Black service members who pushed for freedoms for people overseas when they themselves could not experience those same freedoms back at home.

I started out at a segregated elementary school. Then in 1962, my sisters and I were the first black children to enter previously all-white Catholic schools in New Orleans.

Two years prior, the nation had watched as 4 little girls desegregated the public schools in New Orleans amid protests and violence. Many people don’t know that even as that change was occurring, Catholic schools remained segregated based on race.

Now it was our turn.

I was only in first grade, but even at that age, I sensed something important was going on when my father, who was normally working, drove us to school. Police and news reporters looked on at the gauntlet of angry parents and White community members who had gathered in front of the school.

As we approached, people in the crowd taunted us, and continued while we walked up the long sidewalk to enter the school.

I did not know it, but throughout the city, other black children in my situation were also experiencing bruising insults, as they passed through crowds to integrate Catholic schools.  Once we were inside, the other students didn’t want to touch or interact with the black children. We were pilloried with insults and called dehumanizing names. Any of the white students who wanted to act more inclusively could not do so without becoming targets themselves. Teachers brought their own prejudices and ignored or refused to help us.

It was my first experience with conflict resolution, and after the media and protestors left, the responsibility fell to us to make integration work. We had to show by our academic performance, behavior, and character that Black children should and could be educated alongside White children. It seems almost unbelievable now that our society went along with that level of exclusion. We needed, but did not have professionals to help us resolve the complex challenges we faced. Without my sisters and my dad holding my hand, I could not have taken the steps through that hostile environment and into a new era of equality for New Orleans.

Over my lifetime, I had thought about the intolerance that characterized my early life. To be honest, I was waiting for someone to study it, and report on what I had noticed – which was an incremental elimination of the events I just described from Catholic Church historical archives. Truly, there is no mention of what the Black students experienced or what we did to bring about a unitary environment. I finally realized that if this work was going to be done, I was going to have to do it. And my professors and fellow students here at George Mason helped me to make meaning of that conflict and turn it into something understandable, and fruitful for other groups, here and around the world, who experience marginalization.

Imagine my profound gratefulness in life to have progressed to being in an environment at mason … this diverse! Where the faculty and students have been so supportive and welcoming. I know everyone doesn’t have it this good. we are privileged to be in this space.

Now it’s time to step out from this safe and nurturing womb. But, we are more than ready because Mason has given us everything we need.

We proudly go forward from this place today, prepared to handle whatever life throws our way because of lessons we carry with us from our tenure here. We may not know what exactly the future holds, but let me remind you of what we do know.

We know that IF we act in ways that are divisive and create factions;

IF we fail to focus on what we all have in common -- like humanity and worth;

IF we exclude rather than include, distort rather than illuminate history;

IF we limit others’ resources and freedom;

IF we only see valor in ourselves and our tribe but villainy in others’;

Then, we should not be surprised when our work produces intractable conflicts and people who act as though they are at war with each other, and believe that other people should not have the rights that they do.

However,

If we apply the theories and practices that we learned in these halls;

If we use the tools we know to deconstruct problems, and break them into understandable components.

Remembering that when we understand something, we can begin to change it.

IF we work collaboratively and responsibly with individuals and communities;

IF we create safe spaces where they can listen to and learn to accept each others’ worldviews;

IF we create conditions for human understanding and the deepening of empathy one for another;

then there is no problem in the world … that we who are graduating today cannot solve.

With exemplary ethics, the support of allies … and I would add prayer, and a little Mason Magic, the class of twenty-seventeen just may help change the world.

Some 50 years ago, a little New Orleans school girl needed, but did not have access to a welcoming community like we’ve enjoyed here at Mason, whose unyielding support would have helped her better weather life’s storms.

You are in a position to offer those same skills to a world still desperately in need of them today. And you are ready. Congratulations!

Centers and Publications