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Maryland High School Throws Graduation Ceremony for Alumni Punished for 1969 Sit-In

NBC Washington D.C. logo NBC Washington D.C. 6/10/2021 Cory Smith
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A group of La Plata High School alumni walked across the graduation stage to get their diplomas on Thursday — 52 years after they were denied the opportunity.

It was in 1969 when try-outs for the school's majorettes and warriorettes squads were marred by racism. In a school where 40% of the kids were Black, not one Black person was chosen to be a baton twirler on the squad.

"They knew it was wrong, but they didn’t want to do anything about it. So, we had to do something about it," alumnus Kenneth Shirriel said.

A group of students staged a sit-in and walk-out.

"It took some courage, but we just did and we had the support of our parents," alumna Dale Contee said.

"Me and my brother John, we were the two white boys that were at the sit in," alumnus James Mayola said. "I had to keep my head down a lot of times. I had to pretend I didn’t hear some of the comments that went on."

The protest would cost 23 student activists the opportunity to get their diplomas on graduation night. The school board chose, instead, to mail them out.

Seven students said they didn’t want them.

"We had to sign for them and the parents said, 'Nope, send them back," Mayola said.

In February of 2020, the school board and local NAACP chapter honored the activists. They walked the graduation stage, but the pandemic put the conferral of diplomas on hold until Thursday.

After a solemn moment honoring the classmates no longer with them, it was time to get their diplomas.

"It was something that was denied me 52 years ago. It hurt. I never will forget it -- but I love it now," Shirriel said.

Contee said she felt like a kid again.

"To me, today is a day of victory. Might have taken 52 years, but, in the end, all is well," Contee said.

A fitting end to a 52-year-old story that shows it’s never too late to do the right thing.

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