Larry Darnell Weeden wasn’t supposed to make it. At least that’s what those who look at stereotypes thought.
After all, he graduated in 1969 from Rosa Fort High School in Tunica, a town that once was a national symbol for what poverty looked like, a town whose name, whose identity, got lost in one of its geographic pieces – Sugar Ditch Alley. No matter where you lived in Tunica, the nation had only heard of Sugar Ditch, a neighborhood that gained America’s attention as a picture of destitution.
“(Growing up) people didn’t expect much out of you because you’re from Sugar Ditch,” he said. “Sugar Ditch came to de ne all of Tunica. But the people of Tunica were a family. They came together to help each other. People weren’t paid well but everybody worked. Hard work, consistent work is the great equalizer.”
Weeden didn’t live in the Sugar Ditch area, and his life and aspirations weren’t aligned with the symbolism that came to define the town. When he sat down to make a college decision, he did so like any other high-achieving student. He looked at comfortableness, intellectual challenge and most important – money.
“If you were economically disadvantaged, there was scholarship potential,” said Weeden, now 67. “I was from Tunica. I was 99.5 percent sure that I qualified.”
While he had other college opportunities, he made the decision to attend Ole Miss, where he would become the first African-American student to graduate in journalism. He was a newspaper carrier in high school who was influenced by a teacher who told him he had the skills to be successful in journalism. Weeden agreed. He loved the storytelling aspect of journalism and, as a participant in high school quiz bowl competitions, he knew he was developing the intellectual capacity. Besides, he had an advantage: Each day, he read the newspaper to prepare himself for competitions.
“I wanted to be an athlete, but not all of us can run fast and shoot,” he said. “Once I got cut a couple of times, I moved on.”
He moved on to Ole Miss, a place that he found comfortable, intellectually stimulating and accepting of his presence in the classroom — just seven years removed from James Meredith’s admittance to the university. But his being there was not without interesting moments. “I was the only black in probably 95 percent or more of my classes. It was like an E.F. Hutton kind of commercial. When I would speak, there would be dead silence.”
But Weeden said that didn’t last long. He soon became just another classmate expected to learn the craft of journalism. “Over time, people became comfortable with me. They judged me on merit. It really became performance-based. If you performed, (classmates) respected it.”
Weeden practiced journalism for a short time at the Greenville Delta-Democrat Times under the Hodding Carter family’s regime. He would find, however, that there was another calling for his professional life. He made the decision to return to Ole Miss for law school. As intimidating as law school could be, he chose the School of Law at Ole Miss for the very reason he came to appreciate it as an undergraduate: It was comfortable, not too big, which he felt would give him a greater chance of success.
Today, Weeden is a law professor at Texas Southern University. He’s spent 26 years at the school, which continues to challenge him intellectually so that he in turn can do the same for his students. But he is quick to reflect about his time in Ole Miss’ journalism program and the ways it prepared him for law school and his career. In journalism school, he learned to organize his thoughts and his writing. “Once I made the transition, I still had to focus on what’s key: Who, what, when, where, and why. Journalism helped me to reach logical conclusions. Having worked for a newspaper, I was also able to engage intellectually with other people.”
Classmate Burnis Morris, a professor of journalism at Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va., remembers Weeden as inquisitive, solution-oriented and ready to confront injustices.
“Journalism was probably too confining for him,” said Morris, who has recently authored a book on African-American author and journalist Carter G. Woodson. “Most journalists are just happy bringing issues to the public’s attention, whereas Larry seemed to be all about solutions. I was not surprised he ended up in law school because he had a tremendous sense of social justice and a strong desire to make things right.”
Morris, also among the first African-American journalism students at Ole Miss, said he didn’t see his former classmate for 30 years, but faculty member Samir Husni called Morris while he was visiting Oxford and told him Weeden, who was also on campus, wanted to see him. A reunion of old classmates soon took place. “I got to meet his family that day, and he told me he wanted to make a donation to Ole Miss because the university had contributed so much to his success. I was delighted after I left Ole Miss to see a photograph of him making that donation two years later.”
Weeden gives much of the credit for his academic pursuits to his mother, who raised three children after a divorce, and also to the Tunica neighborhood that was more like family. His mother worked in a quilt factory to support her children but took a test to become an emergency medical technician when she was in her 30s. “My mom was a lot smarter than me,” he said. “She just didn’t have the opportunity.”
It was those lessons of hard work that Weeden remembers about Ole Miss. So does retired Ole Miss journalism professor Jere Hoar, now 87, when he talks about his former pupil.
Weeden considers Hoar his favorite professor at Ole Miss, saying that Hoar “was engaging, didn’t play favorites, and was extremely smart.”
“The thing about the terrific students I had at Ole Miss was they didn’t know how good they were,” said Hoar, who has become a successful author. “They needed to be pushed out of their comfort zones. Larry was one of those. The harder you pushed him, like rubber, the more he bounced back.
“I am so proud of my former students. Larry is one of the leaders in that group,” Hoar said. “As a teacher, you have to challenge students and you’ve got to work as hard as they do. You have to pay attention to their strengths and challenge them in areas where they’re not as strong.”
Had Weeden decided to pursue a career in journalism, his favorite professor said he would have been one of the best. “He would have been a first-class journalist. He has the demeanor, confidence, successful relationships with people to really have been a good investigative reporter.”
Through Weeden, his law students have studied a range of subjects, from constitutional law to labor law. His early experiences as a law professor took him to such places as North Carolina Central University, Southern University in Baton Rouge and Antioch College, where he received a fellowship in their legal clinic. Without Ole Miss, he doesn’t see how the success he’s had would have been possible.
“I am very glad I went to Ole Miss,” he said. “It turned out to be a very good marriage. Is my life better from having gone to Ole Miss? I say absolutely.
“As I see how Ole Miss has progressed, I see African-American athletes, professors, students. African-Americans and others are helping Ole Miss as a growing institution. I’m not surprised that a lot of people want to go to Ole Miss. The pluses I had far outweighed the negatives.
“The only regret I have is that I didn’t take full advantage of what Ole Miss had to offer.”
By Ronnie Agnew. Photography by Timothy Ivy.
The Meek School Magazine is a collaborative effort of Journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications students with the faculty of Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Every week, for the next few weeks, HottyToddy.com will feature an article from Meek Magazine, Issue 5 (2017-2018).
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