ARUN RATH, HOST:
There was no pomp and circumstance, no procession with classmates, but a school district in western Illinois finally handed a high school diploma to an African-American man - five decades late. In 1959, Alva Early went to a park that was unofficially off-limits to Blacks. So Galesburg High School banned him from graduating and denied him a diploma. And NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Alva Early says he never thought the day would come when he'd receive his high school diploma, but as the Galesburg High School class of '59 gathered for its reunion this weekend, there was Early, a retired attorney dressed in his college gown as the school superintendent called him forward to accept his high school diploma.
BART ARTHUR: Congratulations, Alva.
ALVA EARLY: Thank you so much.
CORLEY: In 1959, Early and other African Americans held a picnic in a Galesburg park where Blacks and Hispanics weren't welcome. A school counselor had warned him there could be a price to pay for any challenge to the city's entrenched segregation, but Early went ahead.
EARLY: We were just trying to send a message - that we are people too. We just had lunch. For that, I didn't graduate.
CORLEY: Universities, including Northwestern and the University of Chicago, also withdrew their acceptance letters. Later, the president of Knox College in Galesburg allowed Early to enroll after learning about the park incident. He'd go on to graduate from the University of Illinois Journal, earn a law degree and a doctorate of Divinity. But the lack of his high school diploma haunted him. Growing up with abusive father, Early said the high school with both his home and a refuge.
EARLY: So 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.
CORLEY: And it was secret until he told some of those former high school classmates, like Owen Muelder at a Knox College reunion last year.
OWEN MUELDER: Well we were thunderstruck.
CORLEY: Muelder, a Knox College historian, runs the Underground Railroad Museum on campus.
MUELDER: Here's this community and college founded before the Civil War that was a leader in the antislavery movement. And here it was that a little over a hundred years later, something so outrageous could have occurred in our community.
CORLEY: Muelder and another classmate, Lowell Peterson, turned to Galesburg school officials for help. Superintendent Bart Arthur says after a search, the district found Early's transcript, which showed he had enough credits and was even marked with the word graduate.
ARTHUR: He had A's and B's on his report card. I guess he did have a couple C's, but one of them was in typewriting and I can sure understand that.
CORLEY: In a sometimes emotional speech during the ceremony, 73-year-old Alva Early thanked his former classmates.
EARLY: The important thing was not that I got the diploma - it's that they tried to get me a diploma. They succeeded. They cared about me.
CORLEY: And it was important they said, to rectify a wrong. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.