CONCORD — A week of controversy at the Middlesex School over the decision to rescind a speaking invitation to New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones culminated Friday with hundreds of students walking out of classes in protest.
The students left their classrooms shortly after 1 p.m. and gathered at Eliot Hall on the Concord campus, where printouts of tweets criticizing school leaders for disinviting Hannah-Jones were displayed on the doors. The demonstration was designed to show the students’ “disappointment in our leadership,” an organizer said.
“This decision was made by the leader and not by our school, and our school represents something totally different than the decisions of our leader,” said AliJah Clark, a 17-year-old junior.
The school has been in the spotlight since Monday when Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the creator of The 1619 Project, revealed on Twitter that the school had cancelled plans for her to speak on campus next February for Black History Month. The 1619 Project re-examined US history through the lens of slavery’s legacy, and immediately became a target of the political right which sought to discredit the publication and Hannah-Jones.
Speaking to the Globe on Tuesday, she said schools face “intense pressure not to invite speakers that are considered to be focusing too much on race and racism and the Black experience in American history.”
David Beare, Middlesex’s head of school, hinted at that pressure on Tuesday in a statement about the rescinded invitation.
“While we are confident that her insights would have been valued by our students, we were concerned that individuals from outside our community might inadvertently distract from the insights and perspective that she intended to share,” he said.
Since then, officials at the private school have called the decision to disinvite Hannah-Jones “profoundly wrong,” and Beare has met with students twice, including an emotional session on Thursday, students said. After Thursday’s meeting, students said they met privately with faculty members to discuss plans to seek “accountability, apologies, and transparency,” and stage demonstrations until their goals are achieved.
Nearly 100 faculty and staff members also wrote an open letter to the school’s trustees, saying they opposed the rescinded invitation. They called on trustees to have Beare “formally apologize to Ms. Hannah-Jones, as well as to the school, which he deprived of an exceptional moment of learning.”
“We also ask the Board to take action, in partnership with the faculty and staff, to rebuild our trust and to regain the community’s confidence in Middlesex’s commitment to the anti-racism work that is so vital to the growth and future of our school,” they wrote.
On Friday, Onyeraluobu Chibuogwu, a senior, said students have been striving to implement anti-racist initiatives at the school and believed school leaders’ encouragement had been “performative” in light of the Hannah-Jones decision.
School officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.
At the rally, students read aloud tweets about the decision to disinvite Hannah-Jones and later listened to The New York Times’ 1619 podcast, demonstrators said.
“Even if you’re going to try and cancel us learning about anti-racism, we’re not going to let you stop us, and we’re going to try anything we can to continue on to have an anti-racist community,” Clark said.
Xander Starobin, 16, said the decision to disinvite Hannah-Jones confused students, who decided to demonstrate after reading online discussions about the school’s decision.
“Instead of presenting everything in a clear and understandable way, it caused a lot of students to just be confused” Starobin said. “It was only after people started to examine [Beare’s] words a little more closely and look into the context of everything that people began to realize the weight of this.”
Not having Hannah-Jones visit, Starobin said, is a missed opportunity.
“In the past with all of this diversity, equity, and inclusion work, the messaging has always been how we need to have difficult conversations, how the work must continue,” Starobin said. “And this speaker and the conversations that she likely would have catalyzed perhaps would have been the most difficult conversations that the school has had in a long time about race and equity.”
Tonya Alanez of the Globe staff contributed to this report.