Clark Atlanta University students Eric Wilson (from left), Warren Hawkins, Adrain Artary, Stacy Roberson, Lejohn Tate and Elisha Harris made history when they were elected president of their classes last semester. It was the first time men were elected to all the leadership positions. Wilson was elected freshman class president; Hawkins, sophomore class president; Artary, president of the undergraduate class; Roberson, president of the graduate class; Tate was elected president of the senior class; and Harris won the junior class president race. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Clark Atlanta men make history

We’ve known for some time now that women outnumber men in American colleges, and that’s particularly true among African-Americans.

At Clark Atlanta University, for example, women not only outnumber men nearly 4-to-1, but they outperform them in the college’s leadership ranks.

And so when the university’s men took all the top leadership positions in the university’s student government election last semester, it was hard to miss the significance.

It was the first time in Clark Atlanta’s history that black men were simultaneously elected president of each of their classes and undergraduate and graduate offices.

CAU President Ronald A. Johnson said their election personifies the university’s mottoes — “I’ll find a way or make one” and “Culture for Service” — in a way few had seen coming.

“They have taken the challenge to create opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others,” Johnson said.

Elisha J. Harris, a business administration major from Lawton, Okla., Warren Hawkins from St. Louis and Eric Wilson, who hails from the South Side of Chicago, were among them.

Harris, the junior class president, attributed the all-male sweep to a “lift-as-you-climb mentality” that is pervasive on the campus.

For most of my adult life, young black males have been seen and stereotyped as threatening, enraged, and beset by hardship.

That’s true in far too many cases, but trust me, Harris, Hawkins and Wilson are representative of the range of complexities of black men that the public often neither sees nor accepts because American culture, the media in particularly, often defines them negatively and far too narrowly.

Who would’ve guessed given recent news out of Chicago, for instance, that anything good could come from the South Side of Chicago?

I told you recently about Dr. LeRoy Graham, the pediatric pulmonologist who grew up there and who returns often to visit his mother, but Graham is from another generation known for pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.

In many ways, Graham, who recently founded the nonprofit Bridge Medical Center, might seem like the exception. Like Dr. Ben Carson. And like our outgoing President Barack Obama.

Eric Wilson, 19, was recently elected president of the freshman class at Clark Atlanta University. Wilson, who lost both his father and younger brother to violence on the South Side of Chicago, said his mother inspired him to attend college and set an example for his three young sisters to follow. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

But Eric Wilson just celebrated his 19th birthday.

That might not seem like a big deal, but both Wilson’s father and younger brother were killed in the violence that has been plaguing the Windy City for years.

“Eric is one of our shining stars,” said Mario Boone, a university spokesman. “He not only left that stuff behind, he is thriving here and is a classic example of what can happen when we nurture our young men.”

Wilson was just 4 when his father was killed in 2001; 18 when his 15-year-old brother, caught up in gang wars, died from a gunshot wound to the head.

By then, the college freshman said he’d already set his sights on enrolling at Clark Atlanta, but even he wonders whether he would’ve actually made it had it not been for such personal losses.

The violent deaths of both loved ones fueled his mother’s dreams for him and are his motivation to see them to fruition.

“The violence was her main issue,” Wilson said of his mother, Veronica Coney. “She always talked about wanting to move, for me to experience something other than the South Side of Chicago.”

Because of the violence, Wilson was constantly reminded to be aware of his surroundings, to avoid crowds, and if he ever saw anyone in an altercation, move as quickly and as far away as he could.

“That was just the harsh reality that I lived in,” he said. “My mom got me a car when I was 16 because she didn’t want me to be on a bus. Just having a nice phone or shoes made you a target.”

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Coney enrolled Eric in one of the top schools in the area, Kenwood Academy, and made sure he took advantage of every opportunity to engage in youth programs, including at church and a city-run program called After School Matters.

The teen discovered Clark Atlanta during a college tour and fell in love with the location. It also helped that the university offered a degree in mass media arts, his intended major.

He arrived in August full of the hope that he’d make his mother proud and that his three sisters would follow in his footsteps.

“My mom always stressed the importance of education, but I realized early on that I had to be an example for my siblings,” he said. “I can’t just sit. I have to be proactive and lead by example even for older family members who aren’t educated because it’s never too late.”

Coney raised Eric and his sisters alone on her nurse’s salary until she suffered a stroke in 2006 that left her paralyzed on her left side.

Her fight to regain the use of her legs inspired him even more.

“She always had hope,” he said.

Because of that, her son always believed he’d leave Chicago and make something of himself.

“I always knew that education was going to be my ticket out,” Wilson said. “I used the bad things I saw growing up in my neighborhood as motivation to be successful and come back to help my family.”

Let’s pray he makes it.

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