By: Tonya Jackson
The University of West Florida featured Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, II as their Black History Month keynote speaker on Thursday, February 25th. Dr. Hrabowski, president of University of Maryland Baltimore County, presented two consecutive TED Talks in two years and was recognized as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2012. Additionally as a child, Dr. Hrabowski participated in the Children’s March with Dr. King, was arrested, and spent five days in jail. In honor of Black History Month he presented “Holding Fast to Your Dreams.”
Dr. Hrabowski shared, “Every summer she (his mother) would send me up to Massachusetts to see what it would be like to be in class with white kids and then I’d come back to chop cotton in Wetumpka to know what really living was like. She would tell a story that would embarrass me and yet; I tell it as often as I can because it really shapes my thinking about education. She said ‘as a child she had a choice of either working in a hot cotton field or working in a wealthy home. The defining characteristic of the home was that there was library’ at a time when there was no library for children of color, no public library.”
When his mother took the job working in the home with the library, she learned to love reading. This love of reading led to her becoming an English teacher. His mother passed on her love of reading, and that is prompted him to listen when he was sitting in the back of the church and heard Dr. King talking about black children deserved to have better than hand me down textbooks. His love of knowledge prompted him to participate in the Children’s March. “This is what it taught me, we as American have the right to say the truth. We are entrusted with the responsibility that this democracy can be better. When there’s a wrong we should say ‘we can be better than this.’ When there is inequality, we can say to our nation, ‘we can be better than this.’ And even children can be empowered at 12 to know that they can make a difference in their own lives.”
Dr. Hrabowski inspires others just as his mother, Dr. King, and many others have inspired him. One UWF student, Joseph Smith, sat next to me during the presentation and recounted some highlights from Dr. Hrabowski’s career during the presentation. He also shared that this was the fourth black man with a Ph.D. that he had met. Smith was so eager to hear him speak that he began working on a question as soon as he heard he would be on campus. After Dr. Hrabowski’s presentation, I was there as Smith got his book signed. When I asked Dr. Hrabowski for a picture Smith stood by smiling, so I asked if he would like to be in the picture. I wonder, who will Smith inspire?