In 1959, Alva Earley was denied a diploma after taking a stand against segregation. Fifty-five years later, with a little help from some determined friends, he finally received what he should've gotten a long time ago.
More than five decades ago, Earley, a then-high school senior at Galesburg High School in Illinois, attended a picnic at Lake Storey Park, according to the Register Mail. Earley, who is black, went to the picnic with a group of friends. The group, which included other black and Hispanic people, decided to eat at a whites-only area of the park, despite having been told by a school counselor that doing so would result in serious repercussions.
"We were just trying to send a message that we are people, too," Earley told NPR. "We just had lunch."
After the gathering, Earley was notified by his school that he would not be allowed to graduate, nor would he receive his diploma. Last Friday, Earley, now 73, finally received that diploma.
"It's far beyond anything I've experienced to date," said Earley, who went on to attend Knox College despite the incident, according to the Chicago Tribune. "I wish I knew where to start. I wish I knew where to end."
Though more than 50 years late, the graduation was made possible by a few of Earley's former high school classmates, who say they were horrified when he revealed at a recent Knox College reunion that the high school had denied him of his degree, according to The Tribune.
"Well, we were thunderstruck," said Owen Muelder, who attended both high school and college with Earley, according to NPR. "Here's this community and college founded before the Civil War, that was a leader in the anti-slavery movement and here it was that a little over 100 years later something so outrageous could have occurred in our community."
Muelder and another former classmate approached the Galesburg superintendent, Bart Arthur, about giving Earley what was rightfully his, NPR reported.
"When they requested that I look it up, they were correct, he had enough credits to graduate, had his transcripts signed and everything," Arthur told KWQC. Arthur told the source that he was honored to be able to make things right.
Though the ceremony was a happy one, Earley says that he had been harboring pain over the incident for some time.
"The fact that I could not get a cap and gown on and march down the aisle with my classmates -- it meant the world to me. It hurt so bad," he told NPR.
Because he was unable to receive a diploma, two colleges that had already accepted him withdrew their offers, according to the Tribune. He went to Knox College after a classmate persuaded his father and then-president of Knox College to allow Earley to enroll.
Now, his other classmates are happy that they were able to correct a long-standing wrong.
"Alva deserved it. When people have been mistreated, we owe it to them to address the injustice," former classmate Lowell Peterson told the Tribune. "This is just a little chance to make something right."