EAST ST. LOUIS — They heard messages from former East St. Louis District 189 students who sat in the same seats as they at one time and then went on to launch prominent careers that have catapulted them to places that are a long way away from the neighborhoods that they grew up in East St. Louis.
They told the students that growing up in East St. Louis is not a stumbling block, but they themselves are the stumbling blocks. The speakers on Wednesday told the students that if they want to achieve a goal, that they must plan to achieve it without allowing any distractions to separate them from their goals, then they too will be successful.
Bishop Kenneth Ulmer, senior pastor/teacher of Faithful Central Baptist Church in Inglewood, Calif., told them he came back to say "thank you to the city that molded and made me what I am. I came back to say thank you to the teachers who sought greatness in me and taught me to thine own self be true."
"If you remember who your God is, it will teach you to dream big dreams," Ulmer said. "You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you."
The students heard other messages from the panelists like: You have options. There was a time when you could only be a teacher or a nurse. Just follow the trail. Before you start down the trail know what you want from it. You can achieve anything you want to achieve.
The event was called the Prominent American Workshop Series and its inaugural workshop "The City Across the Bridge."
The panelists were Abraham Bolden, the first black to be assigned to President John F. Kennedy's Secret Service detail; Gloria Bozeman Herndon, president and CEO of GB Group Global; retired St. Clair County Judge Milton S. Wharton; Larry D. Gladney, world renown astrophysicist and professor of physics at the University of Pennsylvania; Wesley G. McNeese, a medical doctor and the assistant dean for diversity at SIU School of Medicine; Bernadette Officer, CEO and president of Officer Funeral Home.
Bolden, who was scheduled to testify before the Warren Commission about Kennedy's assassination, but was arrested, framed and put in jail six years to keep him from testifying, told the young people to be prepared and to say to themselves "I will not stop and nobody can turn you around."
"That's how you have got to frame your mind. Fifty years ago, I became the first African-American Secret Service agent. I was stationed in Chicago," Bolden said. In the 60's there was a racial divide, and Bolden told the students that when President John F. Kennedy came to Chicago, "they tried to hide me out in the basement. I was put near the front of the wash room. I was prepared. The first thing the president wanted to do was use the wash room. And that's where I stood." From that encounter, Kennedy recommended Bolden to become a member of his Secret Service detail. "I was prepared. You must be prepared," he told the students.
"You heard most of us old people picket and demonstrate, hoop and holler and concentrate on when, what and who. We have not solved the why. That's the basis for you. We need thinkers. We have enough dancers and rappers," he said.
Bolden told the students to prepare, to learn, to think, to analyze and to remember that they are standing on the shoulders of others who gave up much so they could have equal opportunity. "Your education is very important. Take it serious," he said.
Wharton said he has always remembered a teacher he had at Lincoln Senior High School named Selle Jones.
"He taught chemistry. And a message on a black board behind him was 'There's no disgrace in having to spend twice as much time as someone else to master an assignment. The disgrace comes in giving up before you have mastered it.' "
Gladney told the students when you are black and a physicist you are in a section where you are going to be talked about as a first.
"It's not a about how smart or energetic you are or who you know. You can get people to know you. You have to be persistent. Follow your dreams. Very few follow through. Never give up. Be the person who keeps coming back," Gladney said.
Gladney also implored the students to finish school and then leave East St. Louis to see what people are doing in other parts of the country.
"Then come back. I love the city. It gave me the foundation. I left to see what else is available and then came back to share that and bring along others," Gladney said.
He said because of the profession he chose he has gone to Chile and been atop an 18,000-feet-high mountain there and to the bottom of a mine in Canada.
"This is what physics allows you to do," he said.
Officer told the audience that there are so many that went before her and paved the way for her.
"They gave me the road map to follow." Officer said she hopes the students will apply themselves and know that if they believe in themselves and set goals they will be successful.
District 189 Superintendent Arthur Culver is not from East St. Louis. He told the students he had read the rich history of East St. Louis.
"That's why I am so humble and so proud to serve as superintendent," he said. I know the greatness that has come from this city. You have a history of producing high quality, high achieving individuals with high character."
He said there have been some setbacks, but "a setback is a setup for a come back. We're going to bring back the glory and greatness of East St. Louis. Today's program recognized the success and greatness of many people from all walks of life," Culver said.
One student Romoneshia Ross, 17, is a senior and said the program was very inspirational to her.
"They inspired me to want to strive to be a better person. They taught me that it is alright to do something different from the normal -- teacher, doctor, lawyer. They taught me I can be a physicist or whatever I want to be. It's very important to listen," Ross said.
Andrew Jarriett, 18, a senior, and vice president of the senior class, said he plans to become a pharmacist or a veterinarian. He said he was glad the panelists were all from East St. Louis and had been students there, too.
"They understand what we go through. I am glad they wanted to come back to talk to us. What they had to say was good encouragement for us."
Jarriett said "people tell us we can't do anything. They are proof to me that we can and are doing plenty of good and great things."