Local high schools celebrate and educate during Black History Month

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By Josh Bootsma

LANSING, Ill. (March 1, 2021) – The pandemic did little to stop two local high schools from celebrating Black History Month; in fact, it provided new and helpful ways for them to do so. Both TF South in Lansing and Unity Christian Academy in South Holland have a predominantly black student population, and though the two schools are vastly different in size, they both found ways to celebrate and educate during Black History Month.

TF South

The pandemic has kept TF South students at home this school year, meaning the school’s Black History Month programming was done virtually as well.

Black History Month dress-up days

The month was bracketed by two spirit weeks, one during the first week of February and the other during the last. During these weeks, students were encouraged to dress according to the theme for that day. The first day of Black History Month was “Kitenge and Ankara Day,” and students were welcomed to wear clothes with an African print. Other dress-up days included invitations for students to dress like a Black inventor, someone from the Civil Rights Era, someone from the Harlem Renaissance, and a Black artist.

Black History Month
TF South Principal Jake Gourley makes use of one of the school’s virtual Black History Month backgrounds during a District 215 Board Meeting.

Black History Month-themed virtual backgrounds were also made available for students to use. The backgrounds included photos of Black leaders along with the colors of the Pan-African flag (red, black, and green). School staff and teachers also used the virtual backgrounds throughout the month.

Virtual seminars

In addition to posting a daily photo on social media recognizing Black leaders, TF South made 13 seminars available to its students throughout the month. These seminars focused on a diverse array of topics and welcomed many different speakers and facilitators.

One seminar focused on Black inventions in everyday life and was taught by TF South teacher Lauren Senter. Another was presented by Cam Sanchez, a Black TF South student who has started a nonprofit called “We Are Lansing.” Principal Jacob Gourley and Dean Janine Collins facilitated discussion during a seminar titled, “Double Standards and The Capital Insurrection: The Effect on the Black Community and How to Respond.”

Black History Month
During one of the Black History Month seminars at TF South, participants watched a BBC News video comparing the police response to the Capitol riot on January 6 to Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. (Screenshot from bbc.com/news)

Mozella Brown-Brooks is a business teacher and work coordinator at TF South, and has worked at the school for 16 years. She estimated that this year’s Black History Month attracted more participation than ever before.

Brown-Brooks said that in contrast to a normal year when speakers would have to be physically present on campus—and often available only to a smaller group of students—this year’s virtual format offered all students the opportunity to join. “A lot of times I can do things in my classroom,” she said, “but now, because of the pandemic, we were able to reach out to the entire staff.”

Black History Month
Mozella Brown-Brooks was the first person recognized in TF South’s daily social media Black History Month posts. The posts highlighted a different notable Black individual each day. (Graphic from TF South’s Facebook page)

In addition to the voluntary seminars, a Black History Month trivia night occurred on February 26.

Making voices heard during Black History Month

Lansing has become increasingly diverse in recent years, a trend that TF South has also experienced. Keeping in mind the racially-charged events of last summer, the Black History Month “focus group” formed at TF South was intentional about making voices heard and celebrating Black history while also acknowledging the steps that still need to be taken.

“We try to take time out and celebrate [Black History] in our community,” Brown-Brooks said, “and I think education is so very very important, because I believe American history is Black history.”

Brown-Brooks said that when she first started teaching at TF South 16 years ago, the school did next to nothing to celebrate Black history. In fact, she said it is only in recent years that TF South has been more active in celebrating February as Black History Month.

“I think it was a very successful month,” she said. “I think the interaction from our students in each of those seminars was outstanding. And we’ve been so bottled up during this pandemic that this was like a breath of fresh air.”

Unity Christian Academy

While TF South has nearly 2,000 students, Unity Christian Academy in South Holland has little more than 50. The private school’s size has allowed it to continue in-person learning throughout the pandemic, with students coming to school on Monday through Wednesday, and staying home on Thursdays and Fridays. Started in 2018, the high school has a mission statement that includes a commitment to “empowering a diverse community.”

Unity Christian had a Black History Month-themed dress-up week and also had quotes, photos, and other literature focused on Black history placed around the school.

Black History Month
Photos, quotes, and other Black history literature adorned the lockers, walls, and doors of Unity Christian Academy throughout February. (Photo: Josh Bootsma)

Black Professionals Symposium

Taking advantage of the virtual opportunities the pandemic has brought about, Unity Christian hosted its first ever Black Professionals Symposium as a way to connect its students—the majority of whom are Black—to Black working professionals.

Open to current and prospective students as well as the eighth grade class at Calvin Christian School in South Holland, the symposium allowed students to sign up for whichever sessions they were most interested in. Black professionals from many different careers were part of the symposium, including a reporter, financial advisor, beautician, mechanical engineer, attorney, nurse, music producer, retired lieutenant colonel, cloud architect, and more.

Black History Month chapels

Fridays are virtual chapel days at Unity Christian Academy, and the February chapels all had a Black History Month bent to them. Steven Harrison, the school’s assistant principal, Faith Formation teacher, and chapel coordinator, named the theme for the Chapel series “Joy & Justice.”

Unity Christian Academy Assistant Principal and Faith Formation teacher Steven Harrison leads a virtual chapel on the history of the Black Church on February 12. (Screenshot from weareuca.org)

Harrison said the theme stemmed from his reading of Isaiah 61 in the Bible, where the words “joy” and “justice” are found in close proximity to each other. “[In Isaiah 61] the Lord is promising to give his people joy, and in the very next line he talks about how he also loves justice. So there’s this idea of only being able to experience true joy when all is just or when things are … bending toward justice,” he said. “Fundamentally, if something is not just, it’s not right … so as things are made more right, we are able to flourish and enjoy that which God has made.”

The first February chapel helped define and explain the theme of “Joy & Justice.” In the second chapel, Harrison walked viewers through some of the history and common practices of the Black Church in America.

Poetry Slam

The third chapel was a virtual poetry slam hosted by two juniors that featured both original student work and students reading other works. Harrison said the freedom of expression shown at that chapel was evident of a positive “generational difference” between the students of today and previous generations.

“I don’t know for some of them if it is even in their mind that this experience is not a given in all contexts or all Christian school contexts,” he said, adding that older generations know that the free space and rein given to Black Unity Christian students to express themselves and their anxieties, desires, and opinions has not always been the norm in educational institutions. “There’s almost an innocence to their expression, which is really cool to see,” he said. “It’s one of those moments where we can see ‘Ah yes, this is what the previous efforts have been for.’ To get to a point where being Black and expressing that Blackness just is. There’s not any pretense for that expression. You’re just living it. That’s been cool to see.”

Juniors Barbraje Bobo (center) and Caleb Purnell (right) talk to freshman Kenyun Mazique after he read an original piece of poetry during Unity Christian Academy’s first ever Poetry Slam. (Screenshot from weareuca.org)

The final chapel in February examined the question “What does it mean to be Black in America?” through the lens of four generations of Black individuals. Chapel videos from Unity Christian Academy can be viewed here.

“Not monolithic”

Harrison said he thought the Black History Month at Unity Christian Academy was successful, adding that that success was achieved by a “showcasing of the diversity of the Black experience in America.” He continued, “Not all Black people are the same. We are not monolithic. We are a diverse people within our own communities. And so, my hope going into the month—and I believe this has been felt—is that more than one representation of Blackness would have seen, or felt, or experienced throughout this month.”

TF South High School is located at 18500 Burnham Avenue, Lansing, IL. Unity Christian Academy is located at 16341 South Park Avenue, South Holland, IL.

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