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South Carolina college graduate goes viral after paying tribute to ancestors in graduation photos

Julian was so proud to attend the historic Black college, which was founded in 1870, to educate newly freed slaves. Slavery was abolished in 1865.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Alonzo Julian graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Music from Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina last Saturday.

Julian was so proud to attend the historic Black college, which was founded in 1870, to educate newly freed slaves. Slavery was abolished in 1865.

"Thank you to my ancestors, Richard Allen and anyone else who played a part in building Allen University putting their lives on the line so African-Americans can get an education," Alonzo said. 

Knowing how hard Black people fought to get an education resonated with Alonzo due to his own personal journey to college.

“This is my second attempt at college,"  Alonzo told WCNC Charlotte's, Billie Jean Shaw.  "Having an institution like Allen University which took me in and gave me that love, its almost as if my ancestors were guiding me.”  

To pay homage to his ancestors, Alonzo came up with a unique concept for his graduation photoshoot.

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In one picture he poses as his ancestors who were slaves and had to sneak to get an education. Slaves would be beaten, have their limbs amputated, or even killed if their owners found out they were learning how to read and write.

In the photo, Alonzo is wearing a dirty tank top, ripped jeans held up by a white string instead of a belt, no shoes, a graduation cap and poses walking up the steps holding a black book.

Alonzo said a lot of thought went into his attire.

“The no shoes represent to me my African descents that came over to America. The ripped jeans represent not having proper clothes and being out in the field working all day," said Alonzo. "The wife-beater represents prison reform, and how African- Americans are so deeply rooted in the prison system for petty crimes. The cap represents ok, we can still make it no matter our struggles, no matter what we've gone through. The black book represents during the time of slavery this is the only thing we had to look forward to, whether it’s a bible or whether it’s a school book.”

The second photo shows Alonzo sipping out of a water fountain with a "whites only" sign. The inspiration behind this picture comes from South Carolina Civil rights pioneer, Cecil Williams who took a similar picture in the 1960s.

“I have that picture right in my [student president] office,” said Alonzo. "I drew my inspiration from that photo."

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Since posting the photos on social media one week ago, they’ve been shared over 44,000 times, garnered over 130,000 likes between Facebook and Instagram plus supportive comments from celebrities like Macy Gray and gospel recording artist Erica Campbell of the group "Mary Mary."

"I didn't do this for clout," Alonzo said. "I've been thinking about this idea since my junior year."

Alonzo said the attention is nice but he’s more proud of the conversations his photos have sparked.

"Regardless if the opinions are great," said Alonzo. "Regardless if opinions are bad, at least the conversation of our ancestors are happening once again in this society.”

Alonzo said he is planning to create a foundation to further pay tribute to his ancestors. He plans on gifting deserving college students with a scholarship so they won't face the struggles he went through. 

If you have a "For The Culture" story idea, contact Billie Jean Shaw via Facebook, Instagram, or e-mail at bshaw@wcnc.com.