Claflin University conferred degrees to more than 230 graduates during its Spring 2023 Commencement Convocation on Saturday, May 6, at 10 a.m. in the Jonas T. Kennedy Health and Wellness Complex. Former South Carolina House of Representative, civil rights activist, and political commentator Bakari Sellers was the keynote speaker.
Other ceremony highlights included introductions of "The Divine Nine" – high-achieving scholars who graduated with 4.0 grade point averages, the "Super Seven" – the inaugural graduates of Claflin's Master of Science in Nursing program, and the Golden Class of 1973. Dr. Randall Harris, associate professor in the Department of Biology, was presented with the Attorney William H. and Annette B. Johnson Annual Faculty Award for Innovative Scientific Research.
"I hope you don't think it's going to get any easier when you walk across the stage," Sellers told the Spring Class of 2023 and the capacity crowd that included family members, special guests, and Claflin alumni, faculty, and staff. "You did all this work for all those years, and your reward is that you get to work harder. But the secret about that hard work is that it is worth it. Congratulations."
Sellers made history in the 2006 South Carolina state legislature as the youngest African American elected official in the nation at the age of 22. In 2014, he was the Democratic Nominee for Lt. Governor in South Carolina. Sellers has also worked for United States Congressman James Clyburn and former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.
Sellers shared the story of Sgt. Maj. Teresa King, the daughter of a North Carolina sharecropper who became the first woman to lead the U.S. Army's drill sergeant school at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., before being suspended for a "personnel matter."
"She was 5-4,130 pounds, and she did not look like a soldier, "Sellers said. "But she had grit, determination, and a sense of what was right and wrong."
Sellers chronicled King's military career, from serving with the post office in Germany to her assignment at Fort Dix in New Jersey, where she was promoted to sergeant major as a drill instructor. In 2009, King went from sergeant major to command sergeant major and was the first female command sergeant to become a drill sergeant. In 2009, she made history when she became the first woman soldier to serve as commandant of the Army's Drill Sergeant School at Fort Jackson in Columbia. S.C.
"It was amazing. The accolades came from everywhere," Sellers said. "But it could not last. First, there were whispers about her leadership style. Those whispers became conversations about how she did not belong here, and those conversations evolved into plans of action and anonymous allegations."
Sellers said King was later suspended, but after an investigation that failed to produce evidence of wrongdoing by King, she was returned to her position. "But that only lasted a few days before the Army asked her to 'hand it over.'" Sellers said. They took her career, future, and good name and ran her out of the Army."
Sellers continued the story by telling the audience that King hired a lawyer, fought the U.S. Army, and after 12 years, she won her court case. "It's an inspiring story, but everybody gets knocked down – but what's important is that you get back up," Sellers said. "We know life is not fair, but it's not fixed either. We have hope, a voice, and we know there is something here worth fighting for. Black folks must work longer and harder, but when you believe in something, victory is much sweeter."
Claflin President Dr. Dwaun J. Warmack admitted he had a special bond with the Spring Class of 2023.Warmack’s tenure as Claflin’s ninth president began in August 2019. "You hold a special place in my heart. Most of you came to Claflin with me in 2019. I refer to you as the 'Perseverance and Resilient Class.' Warmack referenced a timeline beginning in August when the Spring Class of 2023 came to campus as freshmen for Move-In Day, inclement weather due to Hurricane Dorian, and another severe storm that closed the University before the holiday break.
"I will never forget November 13, 2019," Warmack said. "Dr. Durant and I allowed the Student Government Association (SGA) to bring "Megan Thee Stallion” to the campus for their Homecoming Concert. I took a picture with her that went viral on social media. That's when I attracted an abundance of praise and a ton of criticism."
Warmack said he was called the anti-Christ, and several predicted he would "bring Claflin down." However, the students enjoyed the show, and after her Claflin appearance, “Megan Thee Stallion” earned her degree at Texas Southern University. In 2022, she became the first female rapper to perform at the Academy Awards. "I believed we showed what a little 'Claflin Magic' could do," he said.
Fast forward to March 6, 2020, when the students left the campus for spring break. A week later, S.C. Governor Henry McMaster closed all colleges and universities in South Carolina due to COVID-19. "You went on the longest Spring Break in Claflin's 153-year history," Warmack told the students. "Faculty had to learn new teaching models, and students had to learn online. We sent laptops and hotspots to students with limited internet access, but through it all - you persevered. You did not quit. You adjusted, and years later – you are here today, receiving your degree."
Warmack announced that in addition to the "Divine Nine" 4.0 GPA graduates, 96 students graduated with academic honors. The cumulative GPA of the Spring Class of 2023 was an impressive 3.64.
Claflin scholars are continuing their academic careers at schools such as Columbia University in New York, Cornell University, Harvard University, New York University (NYU), Medical University of South Carolina, and the University of South Carolina.
President Warmack with seven of the “Divine Nine” - Claflin’s Honors Graduates for the Spring Class of 2023 that earned 4.0-grade point averages. From left: Claflin President Dr. Dwaun J. Warmack, Jaliah Robinson (Mass Communications); Nickeisha Cuthbert (Biotechnology); Emmanuel Frimpong (Biology); Khari Oglesby (Early Childhood Education); Mindal Reese (Biology); Tenia Sanders (Psychology); and Arielle Wiggins (History). Not pictured are Kuti Ra (Biotechnology) and Assiya Desoky (Digital Design). Columbia University, Cornell University, Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), New York University (NYU), and the University of South Carolina are among the schools where these scholars will continue their education and research.