By Marian Dennis, The Mercury
PINE FORGE >> This year’s graduating class at Pine Forge Academy will have some important guests at their commencement today.
As students make their way to receive their diplomas, not only will they be celebrating 70 years as a school, but they will also have an influential force behind them to witness the milestone.
Members of the class of 1966 were among the first to benefit from the affirmative action programs of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Today they are special guests of the Class of 2016. Many of the returning class members have attributed their lifetime success to the opportunities they received through the federal programs, which in many cases were the reason students were able to attend Pine Forge Academy.
“We were the class of 1966 and that was at a time when President Johnson had really implemented all the civil rights legislation and everything and we really benefitted from that,” said Rockefeller Twyman, who was the valedictorian of his class. “I have just really been involved with trying to make sure that his legacy is carried on. I think that many people have forgotten the significance of his contribution.”
One person who hasn’t forgotten is Dr. Barry Black, a member of the class of 1966 who spoke at the Baccalaureate. In his address to students on Saturday, he discussed the importance of planning for excellence and referenced the school’s motto, “Excellence is no Accident.”
Black talked about his road to success which includes earning two doctorate degrees, receiving seven honorary doctorates, writing three books and becoming both the only African American Admiral in the history of the United States Navy Chaplain Corps and the only African American to serve as chaplain for the United States Senate.
“The Great Society Program is what permitted so many of us to come to a school like Pine Forge Academy and have the foundation laid that enabled us to accomplish some things,” said Black. “Pine Forge laid the foundation in this beautiful rural setting that brought so many of us out of urban jungles.”
Other members of the class of ’66 noted that their shared history and philosophy on education are what allowed them to succeed.
“The whole thing is many of our parents were from the South and so they knew big-time what segregation was and so then in preparing us for life, they would tell us that we have to be 150 percent better,” said Bryan Akil Marshall, president of the class of 1966. “With the action of the civil rights, which was real and live in living color, we had determined, almost making a pact with each other, that we were going to be great American citizens and that we were going to work at winning in America; to make a place, to make a name and to be, as Dr. Black talked about, prepared for success.”
Since his time at Pine Forge, Marshall has played professional football, published several books, become the first “strength coach” in the NBA with the Cleveland Cavaliers, become the first African American in the U.S. to have an exercise show on television and become a nationally known leader and innovator in arts, education and culturally responsive teaching.
“When we got ready to graduate, most jobs for African Americans and minorities were not there,” said Joan Justiss-Tynes, a 1966 class member who has made an illustrious teaching career for herself, taking after her mother who was a former teacher at Pine Forge. “You could get a good education, you could work for the companies but you weren’t in the circle. With the affirmative action and with voting rights and things, those doors were opened … The door was opened to us. We got our foot in the door and the generation after us had both feet in the door and that’s what it did for our class.”
The school has a rich history dating back to before its opening year in 1946. In the 1940s, Elder John H. Wagner, Sr., former President of Allegheny Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, envisioned a boarding school in the North where African-American high school students could attend without the racial issues of schools in the South, according to the school’s website. The 575-acre Rutter Estate was later purchased for $46,000 and the school was first called Pine Forge Institute. It opened its doors on Sept. 9, 1946 with its first 90 students.
The school continues to carry on its deeply rooted history even in today’s ceremony. This year’s valedictorian, Taylor Simone Roper, is the granddaughter of one of the school’s first graduating class members, Marguerite Dixon.
“I have two sons that graduated from here. It becomes generational. We see the benefit. You are more mentored and tutored than taught. So the teachers actually get involved in your growth and your development.” said Black about the importance of the school. “This school makes an amazing contribution to producing contributing members of society so it’s something that really should be celebrated and more people should know about it.”
Commencement exercises for the Pine Forge Academy Class of 2016 are scheduled for today at 10 a.m. at the Luther R. Palmer Pavilion.