For the first time in 44 years, Benny O’Berry came back to UM on Friday to speak as the first black student who graduated from the university in 1962. His speech included a discussion of his challenges as the first black student and how the university has changed since he was a student.
In an interview with The Hurricane, O’Berry recalled the trying times during his college career, explaining why he hasn’t been to UM in so long.
“I really didn’t have that good of an experience,” O’Berry said.
He then went on to describe how the white students would make racial comments to him.
“I remember I was in line to receive my diploma, and the guy further ahead of me in line looked back and said, ‘Hey we’ve got a black one,'” O’Berry said.
Not only did O’Berry experience racial difficulties while at UM, but he also had a challenging time in being accepted. O’Berry, a World War II veteran, decided to utilize the government’s G.I. Bill to attend college. With an interest in law, he decided to apply to UM in 1950, but was rejected because of his race.
He then went to DePaul University in Chicago, Ill., but soon returned to Florida because of the cold winters in the north, he said. O’Berry began “Benny O’Berry’s Driving School,” making him the first licensed black to issue driver’s licenses in the city of Miami.
UM began integration in 1961, so O’Berry reapplied and was accepted 11 years after his original rejection. A year later he successfully earned a degree in education.
O’Berry referred to his acceptance into UM as his partial halo.
When asked how the campus has changed in 44 years, he had encouraging things to say.
“The campus today is outstanding,” O’Berry said. “Even the people who don’t look like me are very nice to me.”
After the interview O’Berry participated in “From Whence We Came,” a question-and-answer session sponsored by the Black Alumni Association and United Black Students. At the session, the president of UBS, Terri-Ann Bennett, asked O’Berry questions from the students.
Students and current alumni expressed how important this event was to them.
“It feels great meeting the people who paved the way,” Denitra Henry, UM class of 2001, said. “It was great meeting black history face-to-face.”
Bennett also said how this event was important not only to her but UM’s minority community as a whole.
“This is the most important event all year because he paved the way,” Bennett said. “I think there are too many students who think they are here because of their merit, which is true, but they need to recognize those who came before them.”
This event was the idea of the Black Alumni Association’s historical committee. They have been preparing for the program since fall semester.
“A lot of time, a lot of energy went into this, and still more to go,” said Tamar Conyers, chair of the Black Alumni Association historical committee.
O’Berry described his renewed experience at UM as his second halo.
This event was also a 90th birthday celebration for O’Berry.
“I’m beginning to like the University of Miami a whole lot now,” O’Berry joked when he was presented with a birthday cake.
O’ Berry had a few parting words for students to take with them.
“I recommend that they pursue their education, even though it is difficult, because it was difficult for me at that time, and I still pursued mine,” O’ Berry said.
Khris Parker can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.