By Harriet Vaughan-Wallace
Years of waiting to live the American Dream came down to one moment under the hot August sun on the grounds of Fisk University last Friday. A group of 116 immigrants representing 39 countries were sworn in as Tennessee’s newest American citizens during the latest naturalization ceremony hosted by the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.
The two-hour ceremony started with a welcome from Fisk University President Hazel O’Leary, followed by the reading of each immigrant’s name. Each stood when their name was called and announced their native country.
Immigrants are sworn in as American citizens during the ceremony at Fisk University
“It feels happy. I feel accomplished,” said Jovita Njoku of Nigeria. The wife and mother of two was naturalized during the ceremony after four years of going through the process of citizenship. Her husband Chucks Njoku of Nigeria, who is also a recently sworn in citizen, watched on with a big smile and anxiously paced the grass as the ceremony carried on. “I’m excited that it’s over. It’s been a long process,” said Chucks Njoku.
l-r, Judge John T. Nixon, John Seigenthaler, Sr., Hazel O’Leary, President of Fisk University and Judge William J. Haynes, Jr.
The Njokus are first generation Americans. They came to America for more opportunities and a better life. Jovita said women in Nigeria where she lived did not have as many rights as they do in America. “(In Nigeria), you are subject to environments you don’t like. You have no identity. Here, you have liberty and security,” said Njoku.
It’s stories like Njoku’s that O’Leary said she enjoyed most about the swearing in. “I looked into the faces of those whose names were called. They weren’t a group of 100 or so people. They were citizens who are now part of this country. We are all family” said O’Leary. Four naturalization ceremonies are held each month at the courthouse.
The Fisk program was the first ceremony in Nashville to ever be hosted on a college campus, according to Joyce Brooks, naturalization clerk for the Federal Court.
During a speech Haynes presented in the swearing in, he talked about Fisks’ deep and rich history in the fight for the rights of slaves as part of his reason to select the Historically Black University. “For me, it was an honor that Judge Haynes chose this place as an exemplar of the struggle of freedom. How great it was to be reminded that we have always stood for the rights of not just Blacks, but of all people,” said O’Leary.
The next ceremony will be held on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University. About 240 people are expected to be sworn in as citizens. Nashville hosts more swearing in ceremonies than other Tennessee cities, according to Brooks. Memphis, Greenville, Knoxville and Chattanooga host about four ceremonies a year.
John T. Seigenthaler, Sr., Publisher Emeritus, The Tennessean and Rosetta Miller Perry, Publisher, The Tennessee Tribune welcomed the immigrants to Nashville in speeches giving a historical perspective about Fisk University and Nashville.
l-r, Judge John T. Nixon, John Seigenthaler, Sr., Tribune Publisher Rosetta Miller Perry and Judge William J. Haynes, Jr.