Carl Tart, Ole Miss’ first ever homecoming king, visited every other university on his list before coming to Oxford as he was preparing to come to college. He thought he wouldn’t enroll here. It was the backup plan.
“As soon as I stepped foot on campus, I was like, ‘this is it,’” he said.
Now, the Yazoo City native is working to make it feel like home for everyone else.
“Not many people from my hometown go to college, and not many people understand this world,” he said. “And so not even just serving this position for Ole Miss but for serving this position for young black males, one from Yazoo City has been, I think, impactful as well, to show them that they’re able to use the good that they have to make change in their lives and to make change on campus or anywhere they decided to go.”
Tart, an allied health studies major, came to the university without knowing all of the challenges he would face: having to work to pay for his education, facing mental health challenges and overcoming the racism that was ever present — in his history and on campus.
History, especially familial history, has shaped Tart into who he is. It’s evident from the tattoo on his arm of his grandmother’s signature and a rose, her favorite flower.
“She really instilled in all (13 of her grandchildren) the knowledge that we needed in order to be successful,” he said. “She made sure that we knew how much love and family and support was needed, and how much like she wanted us to keep that going, even after she passed.”
Tart’s grandmother died from Alzheimer’s in May, but his memory of her still guides him.
“She always talked about the moment like, ‘If I die, y’all got to keep it together,’” he said. “We were like, ‘Grandma, you’re not going nowhere.’”
When she died, Tart got a tattoo to remind himself of her legacy and his place in continuing it.
“She realized that she was losing her ability to write, so she kept a journal,” he said. “She would just practice her name over and over again, just in case she had to write. So I just took one of the transcriptions that she wrote and just copied it over to the tattoo.”
Tart lived with his grandmother and mother in Yazoo City, where he went through an almost-entirely segregated school system.
“My grandmother always told me and my brothers to never be a walking statistic,” Tart said. “When she was a child, she witnessed her father be killed over racial tension.”
It was his grandmother, with history in mind, who encouraged Tart to focus on positivity and kindness, for others and himself.
“She saw that I was a huge black male, and she always — and I, personally — didn’t want people to be scared of me, as well. And so that’s why I kind of just spread positivity all the time, and spread love. Because I know that when you look at me, you don’t automatically see that. And so I want to make sure that once you’re around me or you have any type of impression of me, that you feel some type of joy or love or appreciation from me. That’s just like my main goal.”
Moving to Oxford gave Tart a new perspectives on his identity, helping him understand what his grandmother meant when she told him to “not be a walking statistic.”
“I honestly did not know what it was and what it meant to be black until I got to Ole Miss,” he said. “Like, what people mean by you have to sometimes present yourself with different way or you have to make sure you’re enunciating every word and making sure that the way you participate in certain events. You have to make sure that you’re not overdoing it or underdoing it.”
Tart’s grandmother was always a caretaker, so caring for others was one of the main things she taught him and her 12 other grandchildren.
“She was a primary caretaker for a lady named Miss Ramsey in Yazoo City,” Tart said.
Ramsey lived in Yazoo City without other family members nearby.
“My grandmother lived with her every day, for like, eight or nine years, until one of the children came back home,” he said. “Once my grandmother left, Miss Ramsey was like, ‘You know, I’ve never been in your house. Where do you stay?’My grandmother was like, ‘Well we stay in the projects. So she was like, ‘You’re not gonna stay in the projects, and this family gave my grandmother a house.’ So that was a really big thing for our family. And that house is in our family. We currently rent it out right now.”
Tart has taken on the role of caretaker, even as a leader. His initiative as homecoming king is to take the initiatives from all of the candidates and implement parts from each. The plan falls under the acronym HOME, which stands for happiness, opportunity, maturity and experience.
Tart took those principles to create a program to help students from his high school pass the state exams required to graduate. The program encourages students who pass the test to help those who do not.
He has also had to learn to help himself in order to help others.
“My grandma always said the phrase, ‘don’t grow up too fast,’” Tart said. “In a sense, I’ve had to grow up a little faster than I wanted just simply because I am a working student and my family can’t afford to help pay bills and stuff while I’m here.”
Tart has worked to support himself since the first weeks of college, prepping food for restaurants and answering phones at front desks, tutoring elementary school students and planning student activity affairs events. He now works as a manager at the new student union and director of SAA, where he brings students together — whether under a roof or at an event.
“At times it’s been a real struggle,” he said. “But I always kept by what (my grandmother) said and the lesson she taught me in the back and kept fighting, kept pushing.”
Support from the FASTrack program allowed Tart to afford a tutor, which allowed him to focus his time studying instead of stressing. He also emphasized the support he got from those who lived in Burns Hall with him during freshman year and the brothers of his fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma.
Tart also found the support from loved ones and university mental health programs after being diagnosed with mild bipolar disorder.
Tart reflects the part of the university that is often forgotten, especially in elections that are about personifying the student body. Tart has learned a lot: from his grandmother, from his students, from life experience. As homecoming king, he is teaching the university, which has actively held previous generations of his family back, how to do better, how to be a caretaker, how to be hopeful.
Tart has another tattoo on his right arm — of a proverb. In Arabic, it says: “What is coming is better than what has gone.”