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Why 7 La Plata students just received their diplomas Thursday, 52 years after graduating

WJLA – Washington D.C. logo WJLA – Washington D.C. 6/10/2021 Lesly Salazar, John Gonzalez, Brad Bell (7News)
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La Plata High School held a special ceremony Thursday to provide diplomas to students, some posthumously, who didn't receive them 52 years ago.

In 1969, seven students chose to participate in a sit-in, walkout protest for racial justice. As a result, their diplomas were withheld.  

The students protested because the school would not allow Black students to be part of school programs such as majorettes.

In February of 2020, the NAACP and the school board held a special ceremony to allow the students to finally walk the stage. Today, they made it paper-official.

Caption: 7 La Plata students just received their diplomas Thursday, 52 years after graduating

It is a graduation photo more than 50 years in the making. 

Dale Contee says the memory is still vivid.  

“We were hurt, yes," he said. "We were disappointed, we were afraid after all we were all minority children.” 

Jimmy Mayola says their cause was just.

"Forty percent of the student body was Black and only one Black person was on the majorettes and it wasn’t fair representation, and we wanted it changed," he said. 

Kenneth Shirriel says it was important to be a part of a student sit-in, even though he knew the consequences. 

“I marched with them," he said. "I sat with them and I didn’t get that opportunity to go across the stage and get that diploma that hurt. That really hurt.”

As a result of their actions, school policies changed. After meeting with the then superintendent of schools, a panel of white and Black people was set up to handle tryouts for the school programs. 

On Thursday, the Charles County School Board hosted a graduation ceremony to confer those original diplomas on the seven and several others who were denied the right to walk with their class. 

 School Board Latina Wilson told them, “Class of 1969 you are an example of courage.”

One by one they crossed the stage and got those diplomas the school system kept stored all these years. 

“I feel great today,’ said Shirriel. “We accomplished something. We accomplished something for all the people who followed us. So I feel great.” 

Jimmy Mayola, holding his diploma said, “Finally. I have three other degrees, but I finally got my high school diploma, it’s official.”

And as they wrapped up that group photo, they let out a cheer for the “Class of 1969.” 

One of them observing said with a laugh, “1969, I didn’t know we were gonna be 69 when we got our diplomas.”

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