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Amid Racial Isolation, High Schoolers Petition for Black History Month Assembly

Kathryn Palmer

Last year, racist language interrupted the annual Black History Month assembly at Battle High School.

“During the actual assembly a young man had yelled out the N-word while someone was reciting a poem," senior Daimontre Yancy said. "This group of boys who happened to be white got up because they were asked by a black teacher to leave. They did not receive any consequences and were in class later on that day.”

The incident left some students disappointed.

Principal Kim Presko told KBIA that “if it happened, then I didn’t hear it and we didn’t idenitfy who it was.”

The school was revisiting whether and how to do the event this coming February, until a group of concerned students organized to save it. Now, the Black History Month assembly appears to be on the calendar.

But earlier this week Yancy worried it wasn’t going to happen. So he used his lunch period Wednesday for collecting signatures to petition the school to hold a Black History Month assembly in February.

Yancy says the racist outburst and sorrowful undertones soured last year’s event, which typically features student performances.

A better Black History Month

This school year, though, Yancy and a handful of other students are pushing for a better Black History Month assembly. Last year’s assembly included a screening of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech and a chorus sang slavery-era spirituals. Yancy wants to produce an assembly focused on more than the history of hardship.

That’s one of the reasons why senior Kiessence Bassett says she signed the petition.

“So often when we talk about black history we talk a lot about slavery and we talk about the oppression of black people, but we don’t talk about the success of black people,” Bassett said. “I think that’s important but we don’t know the success of black people because we don’t talk about it. The Black History Month assembly will give us that opportunity to see that success and learn about that success. Rather than just learning about slavery in our textbook and that black people are just oppressed and that’s all we learn.”

Named after Muriel W. Battle, a black woman who worked some 40 years for Columbia Public Schools and led the crusade to desegregate the district, Battle High School opened in 2013. The school’s held an optional Black History Month assembly during school hours for the past several years.

It also celebrates other individual minority groups throughout the year. There’s Pride Prom for LGBT students and recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, though there was no assembly for Hispanic heritage this year.

Black History Month originated in the 1920s, when historian Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week. In 1976, President Gerald Ford designated February as Black History Month as an opportunity to celebrate the history and contributions of African-Americans.

Yancy got a headstart on planning for 2019 this fall.

A move toward multiculturalism  

He took his ideas to Presko and says he eventually heard from William Palmer, a theater and speech teacher who helps plan student performances. Palmer says he and other administrators had talked about pausing, then reframing the Black History Month assembly as a celebration of broader multiculturalism.

“We had discussed taking a year off, this year, in order to prepare for next school year — a potential multicultural event because we wanted to reflect the diversity of our school," he said.

Thirty percent of Battle’s student body is black, 7 percent Hispanic and 55 percent white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Presko says she never canceled the Black History Month assembly — the planning committee just hadn’t yet decided how it would approach the event. But she says she has considered organizing a broader multicultural assembly instead of one purely focused on black history.

“I have Hispanic kids, we have all of these other cultures represented that don’t get any time at all," she said. "I’ve been in schools where it’s multicultural and you do part black history, part Hispanic history so there are more and more kids involved in the process of sharing their culture than just black students.”  

Petitioning for Black History Month

The possibility of skipping the black history assembly bothered Yancy, who’s graduating this spring.

“It kind of got to me emotionally,” he said. 

So he wrote up the petition. 

Credit Kathryn Palmer / KBIA
The petition Yancy created to rally student support to have a Black History Month assembly this school year. Hours after he started circulating the petition, the principal scheduled a meeting to discuss planning for a black history-specific event.

“I felt as if my voice wasn’t being heard. I felt like giving up. I talked to my counselor, my friends, my mother and they all said I should keep at it.”

For Bassett, one of the students who signed the petition to save the Black History Month assembly, celebrating black culture is critical to countering everyday racism on campus.

“For example, I had a student call me the N-word on the bus the other day," said Bassett. "If he thinks that’s OK, that shows that Battle, along with his parents, are not showing that Black culture is important."

Bassett says the idea of rebranding the assembly at a school where students flaunt Confederate imagery also gets to her.

“You cannot say (other students) can wear a Confederate flag belt (buckle) and celebrate their culture — and I can’t celebrate mine,” she said.

Wearing disruptive clothing is against the school's dress code policy, Presko said in an email to KBIA.

She also said Battle is committed to moving cultural discussion beyond designated months and diversifying the year-round curriculum. Battle offers black history course electives and is hosting a conference on teaching black history next summer.

A bevy of research shows black history is not well-integrated into most standard history curricula.

As a black student who’s felt the sting of racism on campus, Yancy says Battle can’t afford to forego its Black History Month assembly just yet.

“If we’re talking about Black History Month and we’re doing a Black History Month assembly it should not have to say multicultural to make people feel comfortable,” Yancy said. “Because during the entire school year black students are not feeling comfortable in their learning environments because their voices aren’t being heard.”

Yancy and his classmates hoped to rally support to show the school that for them, formally celebrating the history and culture of black Americans matters.

And it’s already working.

Hours after students started circulating the petition, Presko scheduled a meeting with them. The purpose? To discuss plans for this year’s Black History Month assembly, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 7.