The award winning actress and dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Alabama State University spoke for the Talladega College Convocation celebrating Black History Month, and delivered a message of finding purpose and to learn where you’re going.
“When I was a little girl, it was my job to look after my grandfather,” she said. “I would go in and out from the porch with him, bring him what he wanted and always be within hearing distance from him,” she said.
“Papa Dallas” was blind, and it was years before the young actress to-be learned why.
She had noticed the scars around his eyes, but never heard the story of how it happened until one day, she just asked him.
When she did, he told her it was a long story and he really didn’t like to talk about it.
But Papa Dallas had a knack for knowing people’s purposes in life, he made predictions for some of Stewart’s friends that came true.
Papa Dallas called Stewart’s friend Essie Mae “Nurse Essie,” though she always denied his vision when he said it to her.
Another youngster who frequented Stewart’s childhood home in Mississippi was called “preacher,” he denied the prediction, too.
The day Stewart asked her grandfather about his eyes, he decided to tell her, and delivered more than one important message to her.
“He said maybe he needed to tell me because I was going to become a spokesperson,” she told the audience that packed the chapel Thursday morning.
The prediction for Stewart came true, and so did the ones he made for her friends.
Now, as the spokesperson she has become, she has told his story all over the United States and beyond, a story of horrible things that took place before the days of civil rights and racial equality.
It turned out that Papa Dallas, who was a slave, had wanted to learn to read and write as a youngster.
He would sneak away from everyone on the farm and try and study and learn the alphabet.
One day, Stewart told, he was discovered by the landowner as he studied.
He was dragged away and in front of all the other farm workers, “whooped,” and then the overseer burned his eyes out.
Stewart told her grandfather she was sorry, and she’s never forgotten what he said that day.
Tears from that day returned, and Stewart paused to wipe her eyes.
“Hush, don’t you cry for me,” Stewart said, repeating Papa Dallas’s words. “Without eyes, it seems I see further then those with eyes.”
He continued, telling his granddaughter to promise him she would read every book she could, “from cover to cover,” and to promise him she would go all the way through school.
Not only did Stewart fulfill her grandfather’s vision of her becoming a spokesperson, she read plenty of books and went all the way through school, earning her Ph.D from Florida State University’s School of Theatre, the first African-American woman to do so.
She’s also fulfilled Papa Dallas’s request to tell his story, thinking at the time he meant to the others in her family, not that she would be telling it in places like Korea, in Europe and on National Public Radio.
“I guess you could say that now, I’m a spokesperson,” she said.
Papa Dallas always followed his predictions with another comment, “Sho’ as you’re born,” Stewart said.
She used the story to urge students in the audience to know where they’re going and follow their dreams.
“You have dreams like Dr. King did, that’s how we’ve made it this far,” she said. “If you know where you’re going, you’re already there.”
Stewart also encouraged students to connect with their community, their school and to learn from the role models available to them on their very own college campus.
She recalled other incidents of racism that a younger generation may not have known of.
Things like not being allowed to try on a pair of shoes before buying them, not being allowed to have a drink from a public water fountain and how her father was humiliated in public because of his color.
Her father worked for an electrical company and was called to the site of a brand new cooled water fountain at a local department store.
The fountain wasn’t working and her father’s boss called for him to fix the fountain.
After getting the fountain working, her father turned to get a drink. His boss yelled out his name, reminding him to stay away from the fountain.
Her father overlooked the action, and told Stewart he would be home shortly.
“My daddy was the one who fixed that fountain,” she said. “And his great big hands could have knocked that boss man down.”
But he didn’t.
Stewart said that day, “I felt so small, and I looked at my skin and I wanted to rip it off.”
Stewart reminded her audience of how far things had come since those days, and the pride there was in the legacy of the Freedom Riders and so many others who paved the way for African-Americans to be treated equally and without prejudice.
“But there were also white people who believed this, too, remember the Underground Railroad and others who supported equality,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s a black people thing, it’s really a God’s people thing.”
That comment brought one of many rounds of applause during Stewart’s remarks, the audience rising to their feet time and time again in response to her words.
Her visit brought many “thank yous” and gifts, including the very first key to the city manufactured in Talladega from Mayor Larry Barton, a framed replica of one of Talladega College’s Amistad murals that brought tears to her eyes from Talladega College President Dr. Billy Hawkins and members of the college’s chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., which Stewart is a member of, delivered their own plaque of appreciation for the role she has had in her career and public pursuits.
During her study, at Florida State University, Stewart also received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Stewart is a native of Greenwood, Miss. and received a bachelor’s degree in speech and theatre from Jackson State University and a master’s degree in theatre arts from the University of California at Santa Barbara.
She earned an NAACP Image Award nomination for her role in the film adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill” and The Gold Medal Award for narration of Public Radio International’s series “Remembering Slavery.”
Stewart began her acting career in 1969 and became the first African American to direct and appear on stage at New Stage Theatre, the most prestigious equity theatre in Mississippi. Since then, she has performed on stage in Canada, Mexico, South Korea, and throughout the United States, including Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center,
Stewart is a spokesperson for “One Church, One Child” of Alabama and for NOSAP, a Texas-based organization aimed at youth development. In 1995, she was inducted into the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame. She has honorary doctorates from Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa and Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas and has received numerous keys to cities throughout the United States.
Stewart is a member of the Order of the Golden Circle, a life member of the NAACP, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. and is a dedicated member of the Hutchinson Baptist Church.
She is married to Dr. Allen Stewart. They have three children.
Thursday’s convocation was followed by a public reception and luncheon on campus.
Concluding her remarks, Stewart returned to her grandfather’s story and how everyone has a calling.
“Sho’ as you’re born,” she said.
Taking her seat, Stewart again wiped a tear, as the Talladega College Choir performed, her eyes turning to the members, her hands moving in time to the music.
Contact Laura Nation-Atchison at firstname.lastname@example.org.