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Sen. Howard Lee Joins Student Panel at Carrboro High Community Dinner

Carrboro High School (CHS) hosted their Community Dinner on February 7, highlighted by keynote speaker former Senator Howard Lee, and followed by a panel of CHS students. The young people shared their experiences as students of color, addressing the year’s theme for the annual dinner, “Black Excellence: Student Voices, Community Connections.” The program was months in the planning as a collaboration between the Minority Student Union and the CHS Equity Team.

Rev. Williams at CHS The evening began with a dinner catered by Chartwells, the district’s Child Nutrition Department, in the decorated Cafe Commons. Principal Beverly Rudolph welcomed the students, staff and community members, and in opening the floor to speakers, she said, “We have to let our students speak the truth, and we need to listen.” Andrea Wuerth of the Marian Jackson Center introduced Reverend Albert Williams, a member of the Northside Nine and the first African-American firefighter in Chapel Hill. He spoke about the challenges of preserving community history, and said, “We have to understand during the civil rights struggle, the UNC journalism students and the newspaper weren’t allowed to come and write our stories, because town leaders said, ‘We are the Village.’”

When people moved into the auditorium, the 84 year old former mayor Lee stepped to the podium. “I really like the idea of bringing students and community members together to hold these conversations,” he said. He spoke without notes, in a deep voice that seems unchanged since the days of his mayoral campaign during the 1960’s.

Lee’s career in public service has included state senator and chairman of the N.C. Board of Education, but his journey into the political arena began in Chapel Hill. During his address to the audience, Lee spoke about meeting Dr. Frank Porter Graham at an event in Georgia, and Graham telling him, “I hear you’re looking for a university to study social work. I want you to come to a real university.” So Lee brought his young family to Chapel Hill in 1964 and entered graduate school at a time when there were only 18 black students enrolled at the university.

He described segregated pools, discriminatory housing policies and the pervasive threat of violence living in a majority-white neighborhood. “For the first year when our family lived on Tinkerbell Road, any time I had to travel out of town, my friend Billy Barnes came and slept on my porch.” These experiences pushed Lee to run for mayor, for the opportunity to “interject and put decision-makers in the corner” to pressure policy makers to pass an open housing ordinance. “I went stone crazy making promises,” Lee said about the changes he advocated for during his campaign. Lee won the election for mayor on May 6, 1969, becoming the first African-American to lead a majority-white southern city. His tenure as mayor included the period when Lincoln High School was consolidated into the new Chapel Hill High School on Homestead Road, and he shook his head as he said, “Not one piece of Lincoln High’s heritage was transferred to the new school. There were exploding tensions during that time.”

One of Lee’s self-proclaimed proudest accomplishments was his work with the Saturday 16, a group of 16 African-American students that Lee mentored every Saturday morning at the University Baptist Church. Many years later, during a visit to Frank Porter Graham Elementary, Lee ran into a young, excited teacher who identified herself as one of the Saturday 16.

In the final moments of his speech, Lee turned his attention to the students seated in front of him. “You have a voice; use it. You have thoughts. Express them. Don’t apologize for questioning,” Lee said, encouraging the young audience to challenge policies and seek out opportunities for growth. “People like me make policies, but people like you inherit those policies,” Lee said. “If you don’t participate, you will be the victims of others’ policies.”

CHS Community dinner panel Eight student panelists introduced themselves, and began by sharing their hopes for CHS in the future, such as making it a place where “race is transcended.” CHS English teacher Matt Murchison moderated the panel. He asked the students to speak about their lunch time experiences in the Commons. “During lunch, we all have our little groups,” one student said, and he proceeded to detail the precise location of where various racial and ethnic groups sit. Another student said, “If you go upstairs and look down on the Commons, you’ll see all the white people in the middle and then mostly black people on the sides.” She noted that international students are often not even in the Commons area, but in other parts of the school.

During their discussion, one student noted the importance of diverse faculty members for all students: “Black faculty offers the availability [for students] to see other parts that they won’t see otherwise.” These students also described a sense of trust with African-American faculty members, commenting that it can make the experience of school easier. “I want to push myself to be the strongest student, and that has nothing to do with race,” one panelist said. When Murchison asked the panel why they think students of color rarely take AP classes, several students weighed in. “It’s like a social construct where people think they can’t do better than they’re doing, and that mindset has really gotten to people of color.”

“It’s not that we don’t want to take those classes,” another student said. “We do. It’s the uncomfortable part. It’s like we’re thinking, who are we going to sit with? And we don’t want to say the wrong things and look stupid.”

While some students described a culture shock as they entered CHS from other school districts, on the whole, the students expressed that CHS has been a supportive community. The students all seemed to agree that a crucial aspect of their ability to succeed in school has been finding the right networks and support systems.

When asked about the event, Kayla Hampton shared her perspective. “The Community Dinner was a great experience, but it was very nerve racking. I feel like we were so nervous, we weren't able to express every single issue we faced because we were scared of backlash. Every single one of us as an individual did very well, but I feel as if in our community we have so much to say, but we’re afraid of backlash, so we don't speak about how we truly feel unless we’re all together.”

“As busy educators, it's easy to forget to take a moment to listen to what students have to say,” Murchison said. “But their voices will soon become the voices that affect real change in our society, so it's important we give them space to be heard. It was my privilege to moderate the student panel at the Community Dinner, and I was proud to hear our students speaking their truths and sharing their experiences in a public forum. This was the type of experience that leaves everyone involved a bit more awake and aware, and I hope that it leads to a continued dialogue.”

programs for CHS dinner “The Community Event Dinner was an amazing way to kick off Black History Month, as it offered opportunities for dialogue between Senator Howard Lee and the student panelists,” said instructional coach Anna O’Connell. “We can’t wait for all the upcoming opportunities and events to celebrate and remember the crucial influence of our African-American community.”

Student panelists were Junelle Bridges, Jarrad Cotten-Fox, Connor Hall, Kayla Hampton, Jacobie Lewis, Kyla Staton, Chris Thompson and Kameron Walker.