By Kysa Anderson Daniels
Estell Halliburton set out to earn a college degree nearly 60 years ago. The long wait is about to finally end for the 76-year-old grandmother who was born as a sharecropper’s daughter in rural Mississippi.
On Dec. 17, Ms. Halliburton will graduate as part of the Georgia State University Class of 2021 and receive her associate degree in education from Perimeter College.
“l just wanted to finish,” Ms. Halliburton said in a gentle tone, explaining that she’d always encouraged her children and grandchildren to pursue higher education. In May of this year, her granddaughter, Amina Kadric, graduated from Georgia State University with a bachelor of science degree in biology and Halliburton is beyond proud.
“I’m just so enthused about wearing this cap and gown; it’s like candles on the cake,” she said.
When Ms. Halliburton walks across the graduation stage, she’ll be miles away from her roots in Aberdeen, Miss., where—as a teen and when she had time—she’d flip through lifestyle magazines and dream of being anywhere but home.
She says she was tired of drinking from segregated fountains and watching her hardworking parents, Wardell and Estell Sims, endure daily indignities.
“I always thought ‘there’s gotta be something different,’” Ms. Halliburton said of growing up, sometimes barefoot, in Aberdeen where the most she could aspire to was to be a maid or floor sweeper.
But Ms. Halliburton had bigger goals. In 1964, just after high school, she went to Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University. Her college studies lasted a year before money ran out and she had to return home.
Ms. Halliburton eventually moved to New York at the invitation of a cousin who lived there. She met her late husband Joseph in Brooklyn and immediately fell in love with his intellect and how he looked in his Army uniform.
“He knew all this black history” she said proudly.
Ms. Halliburton also says she liked that her husband, whom she married after knowing for only six months and 10 days before he left for Vietnam, didn’t seem to mind that she was from the Deep South.
While in New York, Ms. Halliburton modeled for magazines, worked as an accountant, became a Muslim, gave birth to two of three daughters—but never got around to going back to college.
She and her family moved to Atlanta in 1974. Years later, when in her 60s and after her husband had passed, Ms. Halliburton went to Disney World for the first time. That trip, she says, sparked a desire to travel the world. So, she got a passport and visited Egypt, England, France and Switzerland just before deciding in 2018 to enroll in Perimeter College for a third time. She’d studied at Perimeter in 1988 and 2000 previously.
During her final stint at Perimeter, Halliburton immersed herself in the classroom and student life. She participated in TRiO, a federally funded program that provides support services to students whose parents didn’t go to college. She even won TRiO’s Outstanding Student Award in 2018.
Ms. Halliburton also joined the Writers’ Circle, a Perimeter organization that encourages and helps students and community members develop their writing skills. Ms. Halliburton wrote about her family’s experiences as sharecroppers to illuminate what life was like for her family who she says had a lot of love between them, but often not enough food to eat or clothes to wear.
“For the longest time, I really didn’t tell people about my life, because I was kind of ashamed and because of the anger, hurt and pain that I felt,” Ms. Halliburton said.
The Writers’ Circle encouraged her to turn her short stories into a book. She did and is now a published author. “Leaving Aberdeen: Memoir of a Southern Girl” released earlier this month.
“I wanted to jump up and down and dance in the street,” she said. “It’s kinda like a spiritual thing also, because the people I’m writing about are dead—my mom, dad, brother and sister. But now, people will know their names and their stories.”
Ms. Halliburton wants to help other write their own stories, so she created a company called Halliburton Publishing. She also intends to pursue a bachelor’s degree, although she’s not set on when. One thing’s for sure, Ms. Haliburton says there’s no slowing down now and that we certainly will hear more from her.
“I just have this fire in me,” she said. “I’m diving into so many things right now.”
Photos by Bill Roa