Cultural Commencement: Black High School Graduates Honored
Updated: Mar 31
Students at some Sacramento area schools have been told that they cannot decorate their graduation caps and the Elk City Unified School district allows seniors to wear a “single item of personal significance and/or individual expression” to their commencement ceremonies.
Shaun Smith, a student athlete at Monterey Trail High School, missed the deadline to inform his school of his one item, but he’s getting a second chance, participating in an upcoming Black Graduation Celebration for high school students being put on by the Black Youth Leadership Project (BYLP) and BOSS Cares on Sunday, June 23 at BOSS Church.
“A Black Graduation Celebration validates the Black student’s accomplishments, presents them before the community to be acknowledged for their perseverance and allows the community to come together in a display of love, unity and support,” says BYLP president Lorreen Pryor.
Students will participate from throughout the Sacramento region with their heads held high. Atop Smith’s head will be a cap that reads, “Morehouse College Bound.” His new school sent him the cover to place on green cap, in anticipation of his fall arrival.
Smith, who plans to major in Business, admits he didn’t know much about Historically Black Colleges and Universities like Morehouse prior to his junior year. School officials, he said, steered students more toward California institutions.
“I didn’t know the significance of it (Morehouse) until my parents told me all about it’s history,” Smith said.
“It sounded more like me, it sounded like someplace where I can be me, where I can fit in.”
Smith was invited to speak at his recent high school graduation and will share his words of insight from “The Last Steps on the Trail” again at the Black Graduation Celebration.
“We are the trail,” Smith said of how he re-imagined the graduation speech theme and made it his own.
After overcoming challenges in high school, focusing on completing tasks, Smith jokingly says he’s “glad it’s over.” He’s now looking for a job to tide him over in the two months until he leaves for Atlanta. He looks forward to delving into his future and becoming a role model. He points to his parents and Eric Tagg of Studios 4 Students as positive influences. He includes Ms. Pryor as a role model as well. He was introduced to her and BYLP in the eighth grade. “She changed my life,” Smith said.
Another participant, Naiyonah Allen graduated Thursday from The MET Sacramento, a local charter school. In addition to her standard blue gown, Ms. Allen wore a kente cloth stole and a cap lined with light blue fur and featuring the motivational quote.
She says this new ceremony is also special, as it recognizes students for who they are.
“It’s a good opportunity for Black students to come together and honor their high school experience,” Ms. Allen said.
Ms. Allen attended The Met the last two years, after first attending John F. Kennedy High School for her freshman and sophomore years. The smaller charter school was a “better fit” for her, she says; there were 58 students in the Class of 2019.
“The Met helped me stay on track,” Ms. Allen said.
The school and its requirement that students complete annual internships, she says, helped broaden her job skills. She interned at a law firm her junior year and at the Sacramento City Unified School District Serna Center this school year. A talented artist, Ms. Allen participated in her school’s Black Student Union and is active in the community. She plans to become a nurse and will attend Grambling State University. She’s following in family footsteps, as her mother, father and grandfather all attended the Louisiana school. Grambling’s motto is “Where Everybody Is Somebody” and Ms. Allen also fell in love with the idea that she’d be in an environment with “lots of Black people.”
“It makes me feel at home,” she said.
The local teen is excited and nervous to begin the next leg of her journey. She’s ready to be an adult, but is still counting on her family’s support.
“They’ve always told me that if I want to be something in life, I have to stay focused on school and my education. To watch out for distractions,” Ms. Allen shared.
Like Ms. Allen and Smith, Tori Belton is also heading to an HBCU this fall. She graduated last week from McClatchy High School, where she was active in cheerleading and volleyball. She also participated in a program on campus called the Law and Public Policy Academy (LPPA), which gives students a chance to explore careers within the field of law. Ms. Belton learned to fight for her own rights as a student at McClatchy.
“I have overcome a tough challenge with racism at my school which resulted in me being on the news in 2016 and having to switch out of a class since the teacher was not giving me the grade I had worked hard for,” she shared.
Ms. Belton, a self proclaimed “overachiever,” will attend Tuskegee University. She’ll major in Biology and hopes to become a pediatric neurologist.
While she’s already donned her burgundy cap and gown and walked across the stage at her school’s graduation at Memorial Auditorium, Ms. Belton is looking forward to participating in BYLP’s ceremony as well.
“I was shocked when I was enlightened about Black Graduation and what it was,” she shared.
“I believe it is an amazing idea to acknowledge young Black men/women for their accomplishments. In a world of White supremacy, we may not always have the chance to be recognized for our accomplishments, but Black Graduation makes sure you are recognized. They are needed to show the community the great things we are capable of,” she said. “They may also inspire other younger children to do great things within their lives.”
Ms. Belton is grateful to have her family cheer her on at the upcoming graduation, and in life.
“They are really supportive and they’ve never let me fail. They see that I take my education seriously and they are by my side every step of the way supporting my decisions academically,” she said.
“Without their support or motivation would not have made it this far, for them, I am very grateful,” she added.
In addition to giving young people their chance to shine, organizers of the Black Graduation Celebration will also honor standout educators.
“We are going to be recognizing a teacher of the year and administrators who give Black kids hope,” Ms. Pryor shared. There will also be a Graduation Cap Decoration Contest and scholarships given out. Black graduations are annual traditions at universities, but are rarely held at the high school level. Locally, there is an eighth grade graduation for Black students, put on by BSU leader and retired educator Frank Withrow, and recognitions of Black students hosted by RoLanda Wilkins of Earth Mama Healing and Maria Herndon of the California Alliance of African American Educators.
In recent years, at some local schools, students have had expressions of their culture banned from commencement ceremonies. One student in Elk Grove was escorted out of his graduation in 2018 after refusing to remove a kente cloth stole before walking across the stage. Other Black students, Ms. Pryor said, have experienced “unfair suspensions, expulsions and arrests” and therefore aren’t allowed to participate in their school graduations.
“We are doing it because it is needed,” Ms. Pryor said of the upcoming ceremony.
“This is the demographic that we serve and throughout our advocacy work in the school districts we have seen how the ability to walk is dangled as a carrot to terrorize Black children. We want to offer a space for not just the students, but their families to celebrate this milestone with all the cultural regalia, in a place where their voices are highlighted and their stories are shared.”
The Black Graduation Celebration is set to run from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. on Sunday, June 23 at BOSS Church, located at 6524 44th Street, Suite # 208. Organizers say all are welcome. For more information, visit www.bylp.org or for tickets to attend the free event, visit eventbrite.com.