There was no pomp and circumstance, no procession with classmates, but on Friday a school district in Illinois finally handed Alva Early his high school diploma — more than five decades after he attended Galesburg High School.
In 1959, Galesburg banned Earley from graduating and denied him a diploma after he and other African-Americans had a picnic in a park that was unofficially off-limits to blacks.
Earley, now a retired attorney, says he never thought the day would come, but as the Galesburg class of ’59 gathered for a reunion this weekend, the school superintendent called Earley forward, dressed in his college gown, to accept his diploma.
A school counselor had warned him in 1959 there could be a price to pay for challenging the city’s entrenched segregation — but Earley went anyway.
“We were just trying to send a message that we are people, too,” Earley says. “We just had lunch. For that, I didn’t graduate.”
Universities, including Northwestern and the University of Chicago, withdrew their acceptance letters. The president of Knox College in Galesburg later allowed Earley to enroll after learning about the park incident.
Earley went on to graduate from the University of Illinois, and earn a law degree and a doctorate of divinity. The lack of a high school diploma always haunted him, though. Growing up with an abusive father, Earley says, high school was both his home and a refuge.
“The fact that I could not get a cap and gown on and march down the aisle with my classmates — it meant the world to me,” he says. “It hurt so bad.”
He kept it a secret until a Knox College reunion last year, when he told some of those former high school classmates, including Owen Muelder.
“Well, we were thunderstruck,” says Muelder, a Knox College historian who runs the Underground Railroad museum on campus.
“Here’s this community and college founded before the Civil War, that was a leader in the anti-slavery movement,” he says, “and here it was that a little over 100 years later something so outrageous could have occurred in our community.”
Muelder and another classmate, Lowell Peterson, turned to Galesburg school officials for help. Superintendent Bart Arthur says after a search, the district found Earley’s transcript, which showed he had enough credits and was even marked with the word “graduate.”
“He had A’s and B’s on his report card,” Arthur says. “I guess he did have a couple C’s. One of them was in typewriting, and I can sure understand that.”
In a sometimes-emotional speech during the ceremony, Earley thanked his former classmates.
“The important thing was not that I got the diploma,” he said. “It was that they tried to get me a diploma. They succeeded. They cared about me.”