Pictured Above: Dale Contee(Submitted)
LA PLATA, Md.– Although it took over 50 years, the protesting students who were supposed to graduate from La Plata High School (LPHS) in 1969 will finally get their opportunity to walk across the stage as a high school graduate.
The Charles County NAACP and the Charles County Board of Education are working together to honor these students because of their back story.
In 1969, a white principal barred protesting black students from graduation. The students protested because the school selected only one black girl, Diane Contee, to the school’s cheerleading team.
Even though it seems small, the problem was bigger. At the time, the school had just integrated, and discrimination against black people was evident. Black students could barely take part in classroom activities freely, let alone do extra-curricular activities.
For example, Contee’s sister, Dale, remembered her chemistry teacher announcing that none of the black students in her class would receive a “C” or better in the class.
“There were only two black people in the chemistry class, and I worked as hard as I could,” Dale Contee said. “I’m sure I did everything everyone else did, but I remember her telling me I would get nothing better than a C.”
Another student, Kenneth Shirrel, remembered how he could not even write about Nat Turner in his history class because black history was not allowed according to the Washington Post.
Because of constant prejudice and discrimination, these students had to hold a sit-in. They felt like they had to fend for themselves or no one would.
“We had to fight for ourselves. The sit-in was like a last resort, but what else could we do,” Contee said.
Since protesting, some of the class of 1969 have died without their high school diploma while others just have not received/accepted the diploma.
“They are 70 years old, and some of these students have never touched their high school diploma,” President of the Charles County NAACP Dyotha Sweat said.
The Charles County Board of Education has acknowledged actions from the past and will host a graduation for them this year.
“Our efforts are completely focused on respecting and bringing dignity to the class of 1969 that was not afforded to them when they were in high school. This is a rite of passage that they deserve,” Latina Wilson, Chairperson of the Charles County Board of Education, said. “In the end, I hope that every effort that the board of education has made can make them feel honorable as a graduate of the class of 1969.”
However, the Charles County NAACP is pushing for the graduation to be live-streamed for the public because this graduation does not negate the fact that these individuals were shamed and punished publicly.
“It has always been our desire that the graduating students of 1969 could receive our diplomas in a public ceremony just like all other graduates,” Contee said.
Besides the graduation not being live-streamed, the communication between the Charles County Board of Education and the class of 1969 has been minimal according to Dale Contee. This lack of communication caused the board of education to fix major issues like the ceremony being held in a building that represents oppression to the class of 1969 at the last minute.
“The Starkey Building is named after someone who was crucial to denying these students their diplomas. I think it is unacceptable and disrespectful that we are asking these students to come in to get their diplomas in a building that is named after a person who spearheaded the situation in 1969,” Sweat said.
In the meantime, the Charles County NAACP on behalf of the class of 1969 believes that a public graduation instead of a private ceremony needs to be held now rather than later.
“The Charles County Board of Educations needs to understand that it is time to end this fight, and it won’t be happening in 2024 or 2025. It needs to happen now.” Dezmond Rosier, Youth Council President of the Charles County NAACP said.
Even though the board of education is still working out these issues, they are dedicated to resolving these issues, so they can do the ceremony right.
“It was decades in the making, but we are going to get it right. They deserve for us to make it right. We are committed to making that happen to the best of our abilities,” Wilson said.
Although the board of education is holding a ceremony for these students, they may fracture the relationship with the class of ’69 if the graduation is not open to the public.
“If they do it in the setting in which they are planning on doing it, I still think it should be pushed out to the public,” Contee said. “I think there should be a public apology for what happened. It was not them personally, but they represent the board of education. The board of education needs to come clean, so people can move forward.”
Currently, the class of 1969 will have their graduation on June 10 at La Plata High School.
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