Under a sheltering sky, on a sweltering afternoon, hundreds of concerned citizens, members of township governance, and key personnel from Cherry Hill Public Schools joined as one for a rally intended to bring about action to address life-threatening issues facing the African American community along with a call for a deeper education on African American contributions to society.
Organized by the African American Culture Club from Cherry Hill High School East, the half-mile jaunt, from the Ellisburg Circle Shopping Center to the Cherry Hill Public Library, took the group along a heavily-traveled section of Kings Highway.
Though taking less than 10 minutes to traverse the route, marchers were greeted by the blare of horns and the raising of fists from drivers on both sides of the road who showed solidarity with the cause.
The fact that the rally was held on June 19, a day celebrated in the African American community as Juneteenth — commemorating the day, 155 years ago, when the 13th Amendment, commonly known as the Emancipation Proclamation, was read to a group of slaves in Galveston, Texas — was intended as a wake-up call to the school district and population at large.
“We are gathered here today because it is Black Independence Day. Today, in 2020, Black Americans are not fully free. We often feel exhausted, angry and dejected. It is extremely tiring to have to constantly make the case for our humanity and for our survival,” said Xandrea McKinley, a rising junior at East, once the protest reached the library.
At the heart of the demonstratio, was the reading of a letter submitted by Beck Middle School sixth-grader Ebele Azikiwe, to Principal Bernard O’Connor, that called for immediate change in the way African culture is portrayed as a whole.
“In our school and my previous school, Sharp Elementary, my continent of Africa is shown as a poverty-filled place. In class, the beauty of my continent is not shown. We keep telling the same tragic story over and over. My continent is beautiful. This is an opportunity for change and not just about Africa,” said Azikiwe, whose great-uncle served as the first president of Nigeria.
On the heels of a virtual forum regarding the diversity of district curriculum which occurred earlier in the week, Superintendent Joseph Meloche said administrators would reach “beyond the framework of the Amistad Curricula,” with expanded requirements for teachers and students beginning next school year.
“In the midst of this pandemic, our nation has experienced unconscionable tragedies, as we have borne witness to the senseless and needless killing of Black Americans, with the death of George Floyd, broadcast and replayed, leaving an indelible imprint on our collective being. We are called upon to address this virus of racism. We must declare in our words and in our actions, that Black Lives Matter,” he intoned.
“Our school district is entrusted with the education of more than 11,000 students each year, and while we meet state-mandated requirements for the minimum content and curricula, we must and we will do more.”
Obinna Okorie, who was a member of the East class of 2020, followed with a treatise on police brutality.
“What could they have done that was so wrong, that police determined the best way to handle the situation, was by pulling the trigger, and seeing what happens next?” he asked.
“I still cannot imagine how Breonna Taylor’s killers are still roaming free, when a black officer who committed the same crime was sentenced to 12.5 years. Is that just? I can only thank the Lord that I have never experienced any unwarranted pressure from the police … yet.”
Dennis Perry, East principal, expressed his admiration for this dedicated group of student activists.
“What an event. What amazing young leaders we have at Cherry Hill High School East. I am so proud of my students for their efforts to make a difference. That difference starts today. I am proud of them for their use of symbolism,” he noted.
“Learning and love was their message, and I am proud of their reach. As a principal and administrator of schools, I come to understand, with respect to the daily experiences of our students, that we must control what we can control, and change what we can change.”
Perry ended by stating that the school’s response going forward will be shaped by the club’s individual and collective guidance, as well as societal impatience with 400 years of systemic injustices — a sentiment echoed by his boss.
“It is not enough to admire what we’ve accomplished in the past, to rest on our laurels, when there is still so much to be done. The learning begins now,” Meloche continued.
“Cherry Hill needs to be recognized as a school district and as a community that is anti-racist. We need to show that this is where people are overt and direct in addressing racist language and racist behavior.”
The full text of Meloche’s speech can be found on the district’s website at: https://tinyurl.com/yaldlmer.