By Van Arnold
The University of Southern Mississippi
Some students are forced to hurdle imposing obstacles on the path to a college degree. Others must scale mountains.
Florence James, who grew up in south Chicago, overcame enormous odds to earn her degree in Music Education at the University of Southern Mississippi earlier this year. Her winding odyssey from homeless dreamer to college graduate has culminated with a position as music teacher at Grace Christian Elementary School in Hattiesburg.
“If it wasn’t for God, I’d be just getting by,” said James, known affectionately by family and friends as ‘Flo.’ “Out of several candidates, who were probably more-qualified and experienced, God saw fit to place me here, and it’s the most beautiful thing. Every day, I have the opportunity to help give students what they lack. I couldn’t have, and didn’t even come close to, imagining I’d have a career in my field so soon after graduating.”
When her name was called during the May Commencement at USM, James took her unfettered, sweet time crossing the stage – 51 seconds to be exact. As the first person in her family to even attend college, James wanted to savor the surreal experience.
During the joyous stroll, she let out a satisfying yelp that caught the attention of USM President Rodney D. Bennett.
“Dr. Bennett stopped me and asked me, ‘What’s on your cap? Turn around.’ On my cap I had written, ‘For My Children’s Children,’” said James. “Dr. Bennett then asked me what that meant? I told him that I’m the only one who has left home and graduated from college. Not my sister, my brothers, mom, dad, or grandparents on both sides. I am a first-generation college graduate, and I won’t be the last.”
Later that same day James said that she felt a confirmation from God through the words of the gospel song, “The Blessing:”
“May His favor be upon you and a thousand generations and your family and your children and their children and their children. May His presence go before you, behind, and beside you. All around you. He is with you. He is in you.”
James revealed that during her childhood years she shared a poverty-stricken neighborhood with gang members, rapists, drug dealers, prostitutes, armed robbers, and murderers. Her direction, she says, was not always a straight and narrow one either.
When her mother died in 2009, she went to live with an aunt who ultimately fell under her care. With her father in and out of the picture, James found herself floundering as the weight of her caregiving responsibilities mounted.
She excelled in school, but she often lacked sleep, and she needed help. That would come in an unexpected manner, thanks to the compassionate eye of one high school teacher.
“With all of the running around, of course I stayed tired, and one day I began falling asleep in my honors English class. Mrs. (Elsa) Davenport noticed and inquired, but I gave her no place until the latter part of my senior year,” said James. “As a graduation requirement, we had to write a personal statement to five colleges on why they should select us.”
The strong-willed James did not hold back.
“In that statement, I let everything out, to a degree that Mrs. Davenport had to take action. She made me rewrite my story in an appropriate way because it was quite revealing,” explained James. “With graduation soon approaching, she started urging me to go to college. I explained to her that I couldn’t because I had to take care of home. She told me that if I couldn’t help myself, then I couldn’t help anyone else.”
James did, in fact, apply to colleges in New York and California, eventually earning acceptance to the AMDA College of Performing Arts in Los Angeles. However, the tuition proved too costly.
She took her next shot with Talladega College in Talladega, Ala., where she was accepted and attended classes for a short while.
“No growth there,” said James when explaining her withdrawal.
From there James made her way to William Carey University in Hattiesburg on the recommendation of a college choir director. After enrolling in 2013, she dropped out a year later.
Finding a place where she fit plagued James until she landed at USM. And though she struggled mightily, stopping and starting a few times along the way, James persevered. She laughs now at the thought of graduating at the age of 27. “It took me eight years to graduate because I kept giving up,” she exclaimed.
James credits two people in particular for helping her realize some far-fetched dreams: her adoptive parents – Willie and Avie Nelson of Hattiesburg. A chance meeting at a local Walmart several years ago led to a relationship that drastically altered the course of James’ life.
After walking to Walmart one evening, she approached the store’s Vision Center to inquire about taxi services. Vision Center Manager Willie Nelson, though somewhat baffled, offered some suggestions as he learned more about James’ journey from Chicago to Hattiesburg. Before parting ways, he offered a card that included information about Word of Faith Church and invited James to attend. She politely declined, yet took the card out of courtesy.
“Two weeks later a friend of mine was murdered back home in Chicago, and I couldn’t go because I had no money,” said James. “I was depressed, so I gave the number a call and left a message. They took me to church where I would eventually become a member. They began to offer me shelter during school breaks, car rides and other necessities.”
Until one day, they surprised her with an exciting proposition.
“We were at the Hattiesburg Convention Center walking around the lake and just before everything closed they asked, ‘What do you think of us being your parents?’ I was just stunned,” explained James. “They wanted me. I didn’t know what to say right then, so they told me to think about it, and the rest is history. Here we are now eight years in. What a story!”
The Nelsons say divine inspiration prompted them to accept James into their family.
“We believe the best way to truly help someone is to get them into an environment that will help them flourish,” said Willie Nelson. “What better way to do that than allow someone access to those things that helped you be successful? After all, for the most part, we are products of our environment.”
Avie Nelson uses words like “stressful, cautious, scary, regretful, amazing, wonderful and proud” to describe the years since James became their adopted daughter. The couple also have three biological children: KeUndra, 20, David, 6, and Ethen, 4.
“Flo coming into our lives has made us more confident in God’s love,” said Avie Nelson. “We were not sure if we were equipped for this assignment, but we can’t imagine life without her. She came here with a huge wall up at all times with everyone. She was always trying to run people away. She was just trying to protect her heart from being hurt. Day after day, week after week, the bricks of the wall were being destroyed by love – the only thing that can truly heal a broken heart.”
The overachieving James loves to sing. She plays the guitar, piano, electric bass, violin and cello. Living and surviving on the mean streets of Chicago, she envisioned a completely different future than the one that has materialized.
“I thought I’d have at least a 5-year-old, working a part-time job, on welfare with no car and living in the slums of Chicago for the rest of my life, or worse,” she said.
Like The Supremes once sang: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”