SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - There is a popular religious phrase and song that goes, "show up and show out."
Newly-elected Mayor Al Heggins charged students to "show up" during her remarks at Livingstone College's winter commencement held Friday at Varick Auditorium.
"I decided to show up. I decided to show up for military duty. I decided to show up even in junior and high school when I was on student council. I decided to show up when I went to college. And I want to thank you and everyone in this audience for showing up because you showed up to vote," she said to applause.
Heggins won the most votes in the race for Salisbury City Council in November, becoming the first African-American female elected to council. On Dec. 5, she was elected by the new City Council as mayor, making history again.
Speaking at Livingstone College was among her first speaking engagements since the historic win.
"Showing up is very important," she told the graduates. "Today, you have shown how you have showed up. Because you showed up for your classes, you showed up for orientation … and now you are showing up today for your graduation. So today begins your new season."
Heggins shared with the Livingstone College audience a deeply personal story of her ancestry, in which she said she had not shared before in such a setting.
Her grandfather, James White, was born in 1882 into a white family in China Grove. His mother was white and his father was black. When White was born, his mother's father sent her away to Pennsylvania and told her not to return until she was sure her child looked white, she said.
The mother lived in Pennsylvania for three years. Upon return, Heggins' grandfather was integrated into his white family and grew up thinking he was white, she said.
When he became an adult, his grandparents told him the truth and that the woman he thought was his aunt was actually his mother, and that his father was African-American.
"He had to go through a divestiture of how he had been raised and taught," she said. Here's a man who had grown up with every imaginable privilege: He was male and white and his family had money. Now, he had to incorporate into his existence something that society said was less than: "That he, too, was African-American."
Heggins said it took her grandfather a few years to accept that fact, and that is how he met her grandmother, who by the way, is a part of the family that Dr. Charles Price married into. Price is the founder of Livingstone College.
Her grandparents would build a life together in a way that was bold an unapologetic. "He had to show up. They had to show up - and show up courageously," she said.
Heggins said she shared the story with the graduates because "every opportunity for learning the story of your ancestry is critical. It gives you a peak into where you come from and who you are. It provides dimension for deep self-reflection."
She asked the graduates: "How can you use your degree to pursue a life defined by purpose and service to others?"
There are many challenges that await their innovative approaches to transformation – approaches they have learned at Livingstone College. How will they transform immigration, tax reform, global warming, food deserts, opioid abuse, homelessness and diminishing public education opportunities?
Citing heroes from the Bible such as Amos, Sarah, Isaiah, Hannah, Micah and Paul, to name a few, Heggins said, "just like you, there came a season to venture from their village and carry their work beyond familiar borders. Today, the time has come for you to carry your learning beyond the walls of Livingstone College. There is no doubt in my mind you are able and ready to take on this task."
In the words of her mother, "Don't be an educated fool," she said, meaning don't be so proud or entrenched in your titles that you forget where you came from."
Heggins was presented with an honorary doctorate degree from Livingstone College – the Doctor of Humane Letters – by Dr. Jimmy R. Jenkins, Sr., Livingstone College president, and Dr. Carolyn Duncan, vice president for Academic Affairs.
"Let it be known that Livingstone did it first," Jenkins said.
Jenkins charged the graduates to run the race of life with patience and to be deliberate and committed. The education you received at Livingstone College is a God-given opportunity. "God gave you the opportunity to come to this place to be able to go out and make a difference in this world."
Fifty students walked across the stage to receive their degrees in the December graduation program, which started at Livingstone in 2014.