Recent Events Bring Back Old Memories for Hampton Institute Graduates

William Paul Ellis | Staff Writer

AP/Rob Ostermaier

Fifty years ago, students at what was then known as Hampton Institute encountered a situation eerily similar to the scenario faced by current students. It was May 1971, and after months of on-campus student protests, the institute’s president, Dr. Roy Hudson, announced that the campus would be closing for the rest of the school year.  However, this was not the only stipulation mentioned in the letter. The annual commencement that the class of 1971 had eagerly begun preparing to participate in would be cancelled. 

The 150th Hampton University Commencement scheduled for May 9, 2021 would be the “golden anniversary” of the class of 1971, signifying 50 years as Hampton Alumni. However, in an ironic turn of events, the in-person commencement has also been cancelled in favor of a virtual ceremony. 

Today, Zarina Sparling is a retired healthcare insurance executive who lives in Holly Springs, NC. But in 1971, she was one of  approximately 600 seniors who were given the unexpected instructions to immediately leave the waterside campus for the final time as undergraduate students. 

“There was a lot of unrest around the campus and around the city of Hampton, so I think that it kind of got out of hand,” Sparling said. “The administration decided that for the safety of all, they were going to shut down the school, which caught us all by surprise.”

The events of the 1970 – 1971 school year that culminated in the spring semester’s abrupt end have long been a part of Hampton’s lore. Sparling recalls a slew of on-campus protests with the purpose of pressuring administration into making more progressive changes. 

A WAVY 10 news report from 1981 describes the protests as being one of numerous protests taking place on college campuses in response to U.S. involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia. Both recount fires in campus buildings allegedly set by students, and an attempted siege of the administration building. 

Fortunately for the class of 1971, a new administration led by Dr. Harvey would formally invite the class to participate in the 1981 commencement ceremony. The news clip taken from the WAVY 10 archives notes that in a class of approximately 600 graduates, only around 100 returned to walk across the stage a decade later. A member of the 1971 class interviewed at the time also mentions that “two or three” classmates were already deceased. 

Similar concessions for a later in-person ceremony have been offered to the class of 2021. In a March 24 letter from the Committee on Ceremonial Occasions, the university agreed to “explore hosting an opportunity for graduates to return to campus to commemorate graduation and their Hampton experience,”  after the COVID-19 infection rate has reasonably subsided. 

However, senior students have still expressed disappointment in not having a variation of a traditional ceremony. 

  “We all worked so hard to get to this moment, and it hurts that we can’t celebrate it the way we intended,” said Selena Roberts, a senior strategic communications major. “Senior year is full of many milestones that the class of 2021 did not have the chance to enjoy, and now graduation is added to that list.”

 Sparling is quick to express that while not having a commencement was unfortunate, it was not detrimental to her overall Hampton experience. Still, many of her memories echo sentiments expressed by this year’s graduates. 

“You never got to say goodbye to anybody, you didn’t have that farewell kind of stuff that usually takes place during graduation week.”

Much has happened in the half-century since the class of 1971’s final year came to a sudden end. Class sizes have significantly grown, new buildings have been erected, and the famed Hampton Institute is now the nationally-renowned Hampton University. Recent events have revealed a unique bond shared between Hamptonians of the past and present, and brought with it a familiar lesson that time often runs out more quickly than anticipated.

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