Some of his classmates from 1959 and acquaintances from Galesburg greeted the 73-year-old – whose high school graduation came 55 years later than it should have.
District 205 took the opportunity to organize a graduation ceremony for Earley after he was denied his high school diploma for attending a picnic in a restricted section of Lake Storey in Galesburg.
“It is sad that some things occurred then,” says District 205 Superintendent Bart Arthur. “Hopefully we’re trying to get all of those things repaired and it is certainly my pleasure to present him with a diploma.”
In 1959, African Americans were disallowed from being in this particular section of the park.
Because the young Earley experienced what can only be described as verbal and physical abuse from his father, he chose to focus on his studies.
Despite earning quality marks, the transcripts of which were on hand during Friday’s ceremony, and completing his classes, Earley was told by GHS faculty at the time that he would be unable to complete graduation.
“I’m not a hero,” says Early. “I’m somebody who does what he thinks is the right thing. I did the right thing and I paid a 55 year price for it.”
The setback led Earley to be accepted into Knox College at the request of the college President’s son Jim Umbeck, who was also a classmate of Earley’s.
These years later, Earley’s story of injustice was learned of by local historian and Director of the Knox College Underground Railroad Center Owen Muelder during a gathering of Knox College graduates residing in Galesburg.
Muelder took the time to help organize the resources to, at the very least, attempt to rectify the situation.
“Had it not been for steps taken by then president of Knox Sharvey Umbeck, Alva’s college education would not have gotten underway,” says Muelder.
Earley donned his graduation gown on Friday afternoon and settled into his seat before being called to receive his diploma and address the crowd.
Although he has both spoken to, and sung in front of, thousands of people, Earley at one point fought back tears as he shared what he described as difficult.
Earley’s speech showed his respect for excellence in any discipline, even soap which he gave as a gift to a pastor; work in favor of one’s community, even in New Mexico – which he compared to Illinois; and his thoughts on the nature of hate.
“Hatred is awful,” says Early. “Hatred is not dislike.”
Earley went on to earn graduate degrees after his acceptance into Knox College.
He closed his remarks on Friday by encouraging those in attendance to work to be the better people that, in his words, the world needs.
After collecting his transcripts, Early held up his diploma to the bevy of photographers and community representatives in attendance to say “I’m out of here.”