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Timothy Ivy/The New York Times
Timothy Ivy/The New York Times
Culture

Racial Tensions Marred My Daughter’s High School Graduation

Named as her majority-Black town’s first Black valedictorian in recent memory, she was abruptly forced to share the honor with a white student. Was this a clerical error, or something else?

My daughter Ikeria Washington was named valedictorian of West Point High School in West Point, Mississippi, during the Awards Day program in May 2021. It was amazing. I was crying. I was hollering. I knew that she worked so hard to get there.

Ikeria is a very smart child. She’s self-motivated. She’s determined. She puts her all into anything that she does. For her to be named valedictorian in the end was very exciting and rewarding.

Within the past 20 years, there has maybe been one Black valedictorian and salutatorian before Ikeria and Layla [Temple]. It’s always been a white student. It’s like almost making history for this town because you rarely see that happen here.

Four days later, on the day of graduation, I got up early, excited: Oh, this is going to be the big day. All that week, I had this big old grin on my face. I was showing my coworkers, “Hey, look at my daughter. She’s valedictorian.” I couldn’t wait to see her walk across the stage. It was just, to me, historical. We were all happy inside.

Within the past 20 years, there has maybe been one Black valedictorian and salutatorian before Ikeria and Layla [Temple]. It’s always been a white student. For the Black students to get it was a big turnaround for everybody, so everybody was ecstatic about it. It’s like almost making history for this town because you rarely see that happen here.

But everything changed when I got a call from Ikeria. She was hysterical and she was crying. I tried to calm her down. “What’s going on?” I asked.

She told me, “Mom, they are making me share valedictorian with the white student,” and she said a girl’s name and a guy’s name. She said she saw a Facebook status from one of the white students’ parents saying the two white students were being awarded valedictorian and salutatorian.

And that’s how Ikeria found out. The principal called her and told her to bring one of her graduation stoles back. She had two of them that had “valedictorian” on them. When she took one back to the school, the principal told her that he had to give it to the other student.

That’s when I got involved. I was at work at the time she called me, crying and upset. I didn’t know how to process it. Who would do that the day of graduation?

She said she saw a Facebook status from one of the white students’ parents saying the two white students were being awarded valedictorian and salutatorian. And that’s how Ikeria found out. The principal called her and told her to bring one of her graduation stoles back.

So I called the principal. “What is this rumor I’m hearing that there’s going to be two valedictorians and two salutatorians?” He wouldn’t discuss it over the phone, but he told me the superintendent’s decision was firm. I told him I had no problem leaving work to come to his office so that he could explain what was going on.

It was explained that Ikeria and Layla’s [Temple] advanced placement classes and college dual credit classes, which were weighted heavier than other classes, should not have been considered in the total calculation for grade point average. But in the end, Ikeria and Layla had the highest average. When you combine all the classes that they‘d taken, they had the highest average. But district leadership decided to congratulate all four students.

We ended up leaving that conversation, and it was just a mess. The day was ruined. Nobody really wanted to attend graduation. I can’t think of no other reason why it wouldn’t be racism. I can’t think of anything else other than race.

But in the end, Ikeria and Layla had the highest average. When you combine all the classes that they‘d taken, they had the highest average. But district leadership decided to congratulate all four students.

Ikeria didn’t even want to go to graduation. She felt like the valedictorian honor was stripped from her. Even though they acknowledged both students [white and Black], she still felt like if the shoe was on the other foot, it would’ve never happened that way. If it was the two white students [who had been named valedictorian and salutatorian], nothing would’ve been made a big deal out of it. But because it was them [two Black students], it was.

I even went up to one of the board meetings to try to reason and explain to them how unfair it was for our kids to be stripped of the valedictorian and salutatorian titles or made to share them when they so rightfully earned the honors. But the board voted against it. I almost felt like I failed her, even though it was out of my control.

But in the end, Ikeria realized that there’s only so much that I could do. I told her this may not be the last time something happens like this, but at least she’ll be more prepared for it in the future, and it won’t be so surprising to her. It was surprising to her. It was surprising to me, too, but like I told her, you just have to stay strong about it and just don’t let it get you down.

Some things just not going to be fair, and then some things will be out of your control. There’s nothing you can do about it.

We just try to not think about it and move forward. But I still, from time to time, think about it. I mean, it’s something that’s going to always be with me. You don’t get to do that over. You know what I’m saying? You don’t get to repeat that moment, so for it to be ruined for her, I felt it.

I know how hard, and the time and the effort Ikeria put into [her academics] to achieve [valedictorian]. In a way, it is heartbreaking, but you just have to try to get past it.

This just shows that racism still exists here. We weren’t expecting it, but it’s definitely here. I told Ikeria to just keep your head up. Don’t let this get you down. It took a little bit from her. It did.

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