"Keepers of the Promise" Award winners played crucial role in diversifying Georgia College

"Keepers of the Promise" Award winners played crucial role in diversifying Georgia College

In celebration of Black History Month, Georgia College reflects on the determination of five individuals, who were of paramount importance in helping to move the university toward embracing ethnic diversity.

(Left to right) Jacquelynn Waller Nelson, Dr. Thelmon Larkin and Joyce Hill Vasser
(Left to right) Jacquelynn Waller Nelson, Dr. Thelmon Larkin and Joyce Hill Vasser

These pioneers were recognized during Alumni Weekend 2019 with the Georgia College African-American Alumni Council's (AAAC) “Keepers of the Promise” Award: Professor Emeritus Dr. Lucretia Coleman, ’69, ’71, Cellestine Hill Hunt, ’68, Joyce Hill Vasser, Dr. Thelmon Larkin, ’70, and Jacquelynn Waller Nelson, ’71, ’76. The award signifies the determination and example these individuals had set in integrating Georgia College. 

The education they received and their connections to Georgia College helped make them leaders in their field. 

Coleman was not only a student at GC, she also taught at GC. In fact, she taught in higher education for more than 30 years, with the last 23 as a professor at GC’s School of Business. 

Dr. Lucretia Coleman, GC professor emeritus
Dr. Lucretia Coleman, GC professor emeritus

She recalls out of the 10 African-American students enrolled at GC in 1965, only three returned to GC at the end of the first year. As a student, there were times Coleman recalls feeling hurt, belittled and angry.

“I worked very hard to treat each student with dignity and respect,” Coleman said of her work as a teacher. “I knew from first-hand experience that not doing so could break the spirit.”  

Dr. Joseph Specht encouraged her to participate in and support professional associations that reached beyond Milledgeville and Georgia.

“Dr. Specht was a very supportive teacher, dean and later, colleague,” she said. “He judged me based on what I could do rather than on the color of my skin.”
Hunt was the first African-American student to graduate from Georgia College in 1968. Her summers at the university were spent registering voters in Milledgeville. 

After graduating, Hunt became a Ford Foundation Fellow, where she advocated to increase racial and ethnic diversity of university and collegiate faculties. In addition, she assisted students of color and those with disabilities. 

Later, she became one of the first African-American women to climb the corporate ladder at Bank of America. 

Larkin was the first African-American male to graduate from Georgia College. 

“My time at Georgia College was towards the end of the decade of the ’60s,” he said, “which signaled a great deal of change.” 

Although Georgia College prepared Larkin well for his professional career, he was never satisfied with just completing his undergraduate degree.
 
“I wanted to do more and always believed I could,” he said. “Georgia College gave me what I needed to believe I could do anything I wanted to.”

Larkin went on to earn his doctoral degree. Then, his career path of 33 years included education, teaching students from junior high school to the college/university level and social work, advocating for abused and neglected children and counseling/supervising juvenile and adult offenders, including the criminally insane. 

“It was always my desire to be of help to others,” Larkin said. “I know that influenced the life work I pursued.” 

Faculty who played a positive role in Larkin’s life include: Dr. Floride Gardner, Dr. Dorothy Pitman, Moon Chat Sue, Lawrence Roberts, Jr. and Dean Robert Brewer.

“They all were unafraid to show that being kind and helpful even to a black kid from Milledgeville, Georgia, was okay,” he said. “These are the people I modeled my professional career after, and I am so grateful I had the opportunity to have met each of them. I know I am a better person because of it.” 

According to Nelson, there were less than 10 African-American students enrolled at Georgia College in 1967 when she majored in institutional management in home economics with a concentration in food and nutrition. After Georgia College, she earned her master’s degree in home economics.

“The career path to become a registered dietitian is very competitive,” Nelson said. “I found the education I received at Georgia College enabled me to compete with any other student from any other educational institution no matter the size or region.”

Vasser is a retired federal civil servant of 39 years. She held a successful career in human resources and labor management relations. 

“The instructor was fair and engaging in what must’ve been a most unsettling time. I remember her as being hospitable, yet not condescending; as recognizing my, as well as her, self-worth and as having a common southern work ethic. This reflected the attitude, ‘We have a job to do; let’s get it done together.’ At the time, what more could have been asked of either of us?”

“The GC experience taught me that what some view as a generational curse, can, with the help of God, be transformed into a blessing for future generations,” Vasser said. “It’s up to people to whom are given the ability to identify and use talents and skills of others to inspire organizational excellence and success for the benefit of the public good.” 
Cellestine Hill Hunt
Cellestine Hill Hunt

She was the first African-American student to enroll at Georgia College. Vasser took one class at Georgia College for the sole purpose of creating opportunities to desegregate the university. 

“The instructor was fair and engaging in what must’ve been a most unsettling time,” she said. “I remember her as being hospitable, yet not condescending; as recognizing my, as well as her, self-worth and as having a common southern work ethic. This reflected the attitude, ‘We have a job to do; let’s get it done together.’ At the time, what more could have been asked of either of us?”

The efforts of these individuals have become an important tenet of the history of diversity at Georgia College. 

“For posterity sake, Georgia College can forever tout its role in positively effecting students who were willing to take the lead and forge ahead, even under sometimes difficult circumstances,” Larkin said. “What a testament to being a part of preparing young people to meet challenges.”