Lance Rock, UAPB senior class president and graduate, told the audience during his speech, “Take action,” but he also congratulated his fellow class members, saying, “We made it.”

For one final time Saturday, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's Class of 2018 gathered at the Pine Bluff Convention Center for the 3 p.m. commencement ceremony recognizing and celebrating their hard-earned entrance into the world as university graduates.

Keynote speaker Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management, encouraged graduates to enjoy their day, to revel and celebrate it, while at the same time realizing that “your parents are the reason you're here,” and that their professors “poured over everything they had into you.”

Taylor is the immediate past president and chief executive officer of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which represents nearly 300,000 students attending public Historically Black Colleges and Universities. In this role, he became a prolific fundraiser, amassing more than $100 million in grants and gifts. As an influencer in his field and community, he was named one of the Ebony Magazine “Power 100” in 2011.

Before introducing Taylor, UAPB Chancellor Laurence B. Alexander said that, collectively, the graduates “have laid the foundation for better life…I wish this class success.”

Alexander is UAPB's ninth chancellor, and before joining UAPB, he served as the associate dean of the University of Florida (UF) Graduate School; as the UF's Director of the Office of Graduate Minority Programs; as a UF Distinguished Teaching Scholar; and a UF Department of Journalism professor.

Morril Harriman, Jr., UAPB Board of Trustee member and secretary of the UA System, talked about UAPB's rich history. Since its inception, the school has gone by several names, including Branch Normal College; Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal (AM&N) College; and in 1972, it rejoined the UA System and became UAPB.

It's the oldest African American institution of higher education in the state and is the second-oldest public university; it's affectionately known by past and future graduates as the “Flagship of the Delta.”

“You are a succession in a long line of successes,” Harriman said.

On the shoulders of giants

The Arkansas Legislative established the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff 145 years ago, but it would be another nine years before the first class — of one — would graduate.

UAPB was born just a few years after slavery was outlawed, but before Jim Crow took hold, and these historic events would shape its role and students. But there was more to follow: two World Wars, a Great Depression, the Little Rock Nine, Rosa Parks, the Black Panthers, Martin Luther, Jr. and Malcolm X, along with their later assassinations, unrest and riots, and the signing the Civil Rights Acts in 1964.

Right before the ceremony began, UAPB Math Professor Samuel Chaney said, “We make our students aware of our history.”

During his speech, Taylor said he is often asked, “Are black colleges still relevant in the post Civil Right era?”

He answered with a resounding, “Yes.”

Black college and university graduates serve as judges, teach the next generations and more, he said.

It's a good investment, and “I see the promise of the future,” Taylor said.

Then to the graduating class, Taylor said, “The pressure is on you.”

As graduates, Taylor said, “You've worked too hard to allow some bigot to squash your success. You stand on the shoulders of others who dealt with much worse.”

Proud and happy, 2018 UAPB graduate Robyne Watley said, “I feel prepared to face the future.”

Lance Rock, UAPB senior class president and graduate, told the audience during his speech, “Take action,” but he also congratulated his fellow class members, saying, “We made it.”

Taylor said that those graduating today “will build on that foundation laid so long ago.”

DeMarco Jackson was one of more than 250 students, from undergraduates to Ph.Ds, who graduated Saturday. He said he understands the historical significance of UAPB and was awarded an academic scholarship that was funded by alumni.

He said, “It's my time to give back.”

Retired Naval man and master's degree graduate Roscoe T. Sanders said before disappearing into the convention center's arena, “I've always wanted to go to UAPB. It's my time.”

From the circular seating surrounding the arena, young Jayden Austin stood watching his mother and graduate Kiann Austin.

He said he was “proud” and inspired by his mom.

To next year's incoming freshman, Watley offers this advice: “Study hard, stayed focused and make 'The Pride' proud.”