Yorktown High Holds School-wide Assembly Honoring Black History

Yorktown High Holds School-wide Assembly Honoring Black History

Ask yourself how you may have contributed to racism and do better, students say.

Marguarite Gooden told the group of over 1,200 Yorktown High School students at an assembly Feb. 26 that as one of two Black students in her class at Yorktown, she was called a “jungle bunny” — among other things — by her classmates. She was integrating a school 59 years ago in her own neighborhood that had not allowed Black students to attend. She was so harassed in her math class, several boys had to be taken out of the classroom to allow her to remain. Tia Alfred and Ben Moody Jr. also attended Yorktown as it slowly integrated, and told similar stories of being Black in a mostly white school.

Students saw, in a video about housing segregation in Arlington, newspaper advertisements from the 1950s designed to lure white residents of Washington, D.C. to safe Arlington neighborhoods with fresh air and “nice white neighbors.” Many property deeds excluded people of African heritage from purchasing homes.

But the biggest emotional impact for Hannah Knittig, a senior who had been an organizer of the assembly, came when recent students of color at Yorktown said they could relate to the stories of being Black at Yorktown. It was all too real to them in the year 2021, 50 years later.

The mandatory school-wide assembly on Feb. 26 this year was partly the result of a Restorative Justice Conference held at YHS last June after the incident of a racially insensitive banner. At the conference, students demanded more attention be paid to racism at Yorktown. See http://connectionarchives.com/PDF/2021/031021/Arlington.pdf page 9.

Dr. Kevin Clark, Yorktown’s new principal, and Shari Benites, the school’s Coordinator of Equity and Excellence, Director of the Center for Leadership and Public Service, and Coordinator of Restorative Practices, collaborated with the John M. Langston Citizen's Association and several student leaders from Sister Circle and Minority Men United to plan the assembly. Their stated objectives were that students and staff would learn an overview of the history of housing segregation in Arlington, connect to the history of segregation through personal stories, and reflect on the legacy of housing segregation in Arlington.

The panel of previous and current Yorktown students spoke openly about their struggles — Gooden, Alfred, and Moody, along with Rylei Porter, a current senior, and Galilee Ambellu who graduated last year. The assembly was mandatory. More than 1,260 students confirmed their presence with exit interviews; 80% said the "video was interesting and informative" and 85.1% said the "panel discussion was interesting and informative." In the open-ended comment section, the vast majority of student responses were positive and appreciative of learning this history which most said they had never learned.

Some comments were racist.

Hannah Knittig, who had been active in marshalling support for the Black Lives Matter movement and who did a video on Yorktown’s effort to move beyond its reputation as a mostly white high school, helped moderate the assembly. About 50 students and staff asked questions, according to Knittig. She added that seeing the questions that were asked was super helpful — because it drove home the different levels of “awareness” in the school population. One student asked, “Why do we even need to have an assembly about this?” and another asked, “What advice can you give for white people, so they can do better?”

“I was thrilled to see our administration work hard to make this happen and I think it was a fantastic step in the right direction and a success. There is definitely more work to be done. The lack of awareness in the Yorktown community was evident in the anonymous questions that were submitted during the assembly. Several people criticized the importance of the event, saying “racism isn’t as big of a deal anymore.” Others mentioned their frustration over our school’s “discriminatory” minority achievement programs. There were even blatantly racist statements that referenced commonly-used stereotypes about Black people.”

But the comments demonstrated that a problem remains. “This is what black and other non-white students have been saying for decades.”

Benites added, “This conference is absolutely one small piece of our work. I am so heartened we were able to do this. We have never been able to have a school-wide assembly for [Black History Month]. They have always been offered to whichever teachers want to sign up to bring their classes. I think the assembly would have happened even without the RJ Conference because of Dr. Clark's leadership. This assembly was focused on our local history and the experience of these alumni, but we are doing other things to address the broader issues. I am also heartened that we are finally openly naming racism, anti-blackness, hate, etc. for what it is. In the past I have been frustrated by the unwillingness to address these issues head on and honestly, usually because of fear.”

ONE OUTCOME of the conference was a list of the questions posed by students. “There were some questions about what non-POC [Person of Color] folks can do and that will be addressed in the Q&A document we are preparing,” said Benites. “Our messaging is that white people need to seek out ways to learn the history, dismantle their biases, etc. without expecting People of Color to do this for them. Having said that, we will provide continued opportunities for our community to have discussions. Dr. Clark is the first principal I have worked with who does not hesitate to have these often difficult conversations. We don't always get it right, but we have to try, learn and try again,” said Benites. “On a side note, Wilma Jones, who is part of the Langston civic group and wrote a book about Halls Hill, provided copies of her book to Sister Circle and came to one of our meetings to talk with the young ladies. We are working with some history teachers to have her do the same in their classes. Students really expressed interest in learning about this history because it is so connected to their lives, where they live, and not just an abstract lesson.”

Jones has advocated in the past for the history of segregation and discrimination to be taught in Arlington schools.

One of the panelists, a recent graduate of YHS who attends university, Galilee Ambellu, was awed by the courage the volunteer panelists showed to speak in front of 2,000 people about their difficult experiences at Yorktown.

“I hold my fellow panelists in high regard. All were incredibly vulnerable during the assembly and I appreciate their bravery. Although I believe racism should be openly addressed, I am hesitant to attend events like these since they contribute to the desensitization of Black trauma. The panelists’ experiences in Arlington County were simultaneously heartbreaking and unsurprising because of racism’s prevalence in America. Despite my hesitancy, I agreed to be a panelist in an attempt to provide solace for any student who may have experienced microaggressions at Yorktown.”

People of color being tired of having to educate the rest of the country is not unusual in Arlington. In Challenging Racism discussions this year, several Black women noted they were getting tired of educating white people about their pain. “It’s the oppressed being asked to help the oppressors,” is a theme heard increasingly as speaking honestly about racism becomes more common. Ambellu said: “Instead, I would ask white people to self-examine, where have I contributed to this and how can I make it better?”

One of the hopes of the organizers of events like the assembly is that students who have not given a lot of thought to racism and its impact on their fellow students will begin to understand how it remains difficult to negotiate a path through Yorktown when you aren’t white. Some Black students feel they can’t showcase their blackness, “because you could be perceived as too black, or too ‘real.’”

“I chose to speak out on the matters that impact my race (racism, discrimination, misogyny, etc) but I want to challenge Yorktown and non-Black people to do better. I want people to ask themselves: ‘What are your practical steps to fostering a more inclusive environment? How are you actively educating yourself? Are there methods of cultural appropriation that you are contributing to; if so, how can you change? Why do you want to do better: for selfish ambition or to foster a more inviting environment?”

Hannah Knittig said as a white student she witnesses racism at Yorktown. “Whether it’s a teacher ostracizing their Black student in a conversation about the Civil War, a student being shamed for wearing their natural hair, or a group of students treating racist micro-agressions like jokes, race-based discrimination is still very present at Yorktown.” Knitting continued, “It is promising to see the action that has been taken in the last year, but it is still not enough. And in my opinion, It should not have taken a racially insensitive banner controversy and this summer’s surge in the Black Lives Matter movement to stir these changes. But I do think Yorktown’s new Equity Team and Social Emotional Learning Committee have made some difference. Especially after this assembly, I think there is an increasing awareness surrounding racial insensitivity. Moving forward, I think we need to rely less on BIPOC students and alumni to educate white students and staff. Instead, I believe we should focus on what the administration can do to finally answer the outcry for restorative justice. Many before me have called for an updated curriculum. Our textbooks often ignore the contributions of people of color and that needs to change. And as many have pointed out, we should not be learning about black historical figures only during Black History Month. We should be reading more books by authors of color. And I believe our teachers need more sensitivity training. There continue to be examples of staff making racially insensitive remarks and ignoring discrimination in the classroom. I acknowledge how difficult these demands may be to meet. But they’re necessary to make Yorktown a safer and more inclusive environment. Assemblies and committees are a great start, but we need real action.”

Benites agrees. “We formed an Equity Team in August with staff, students and parents. We are participating in the No Place for Hate initiative, and all students participated in an ‘Introduction to Equity’ lesson the week before Easter during Patriot Period that had them thinking about the difference between equality and equity and what it looks like in our community. I offered a restorative circle after the insurrection at the Capitol on [Jan.] 6, and after the shooting in Georgia; while these were not well-attended, I am hoping as students and staff get more experience and knowledge of Restorative Practices, these healing circles are better attended.”

To see the video on housing in Arlington, see: https://www.allianceforhousingsolutions.org/blog/uncovering-the-history-of-race-and-housing-in-arlington

To see Hannah Knittig’s video on the efforts of students at YHS to highlight the BLM movement, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luS7MVeaFuo

And to see one of the suggested websites for what people can do to address racism in the community, see: https://www.racialequitytools.org/resources/fundamentals/core-concepts/system-of-white-supremacy-and-white-privilege or see https://www.challengingracism.org/, a local group exploring racism together.