Black alumni create refuge for BLS students
As a black teenager in the 1980s, Charmane Higgins treasured her experience at Boston Latin School. She was active in student government and wrote for the school newspaper. Teachers were always in her corner, including one who steered her to Wellesley College. And, she said recently, choosing Wellesley was the best decision of her life.
“It felt like love,” said Higgins of the support she received at Boston Latin.
But for Laura Brown, her six years at the iconic school were rife with pain and frustration. She recalled being the only black girl in the first group of female students ever accepted to the school. And she felt alone. Nearing graduation in 1978, she told a guidance counselor of her plans to apply to Boston College. His response, she recalled: “They don’t want you there.”
Since a video by two recent Boston Latin graduates triggered a racial debate and a federal civil rights investigation earlier this year, black alumni such as Higgins and Brown have stepped forward to chronicle their experiences as part of a new group formed to support the school’s current black students.
The group’s goal is to convey to the younger generation that they are not alone.
The 30-member Black Alumni Advisory Council, which had been quietly meeting since summer, has started to go public with its outreach to the Boston Latin community. The group was created out of frustration when members believed neither the school nor its alumni organization, Boston Latin School Association, responded quickly or sufficiently to the crisis, some organizers said.
The council wants to be a refuge for students bringing their racial issues forward.
“We all felt, as we watched on the sidelines, that the school we knew really well seemed to be paralyzed about how to handle what was going on,’’ said Ed Burley, a football captain in the 1980s and a member of the council. “The school was being trashed in the media, and we wanted to help the school — and the students.”
Higgins, who chairs the alumni association’s board, said that blacks who attended Boston Latin through the decades were quietly trying to get the facts, while also striving to acknowledge the concerns raised by the students in the video.
“I was listening with two hats on — both as a black alumna of the school and as the chair of the [association] board,’’ she said. “So the concern was, let’s get to the facts. Let’s figure out how we deal with this in a positive way.”
Magda Hernandez, a 1986 graduate whose 12-year-old son attends the school, said she felt strongly that the students’ racial concerns had to be addressed. But she also had attended the high school with former headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta and said she was confident that Teta was doing all she could to address the problems.
The black alumni council, Hernandez said, hopes to create more formal channels to reach and mentor students.
“As an alum, you have to have a relationship with the school as your alma mater, but you don’t always have a relationship with the students,’’ she said. “I want students to feel we are there for them.”
The black alumni council is still evolving, but its aim is to respond quickly to racial distress at the school, help improve black enrollment, and be a bridge between black students and the faculty and administration. Despite their varying experiences at the school, members also want to share their pride in Boston Latin’s classical education.
The council held its first meeting with students on a Saturday last month in the school’s cavernous library, where members had lunch and swapped Boston Latin stories with the step squad members who were in the building for a weekend rehearsal.
A buzz filled the library. The video controversy had given way to new tensions on social media over the election of Donald Trump as president, some of the students said.
“Do you feel comfortable here?’’ Ron Bell, a 1981 graduate and a community advocate, asked a group of girls at his table. “Do you feel it’s welcoming?”
“I would say I feel comfortable — to an extent,’’ said Chika Chuckwu, a sophomore with purple tints in her corn rows. “I know which people I should not be around, especially since after the election.”
In an interview before the mixer, Bell said the YouTube video on the school by Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau triggered long-buried memories among some black alumni. It put him back to the time he was in the eighth grade and, he said, a teacher called him the n-word. He didn’t tell anyone, he said, because he thought no one would believe him.
“People take pride in their alma mater, whether they had good or bad experiences,’’ Bell said. “Some people wanted to do something to help these students because it brings them back down to memory lane. We could feel their pain. A lot of people from Latin School are walking wounded.”
That includes Prince Charles Alexander, a Grammy-award-winning Berklee College of Music professor who returned to Boston Latin after three decades of “self-imposed exile.” He had been part of the last all-boys class at the time of heightened racial strife over the school desegregation crisis. And it was rough.
“At Boston Latin, I felt there were more mind games being played,’’ said Alexander, who graduated in 1975.
A white student stuck gum in his afro, he recalled. He said he was punished for reacting to the incident and the other student was not. As president of the Black Student Association, he said, his demands for better treatment and “civility in the halls’’ were met with suspensions.
Alexander said he wrote off the school after a message under his yearbook photo was changed to say something disparaging without his permission.
He eventually returned to the school in 2010 to heal old wounds with the donation of 15 computers. He said he wanted to reconnect with the school for the sake of himself and, now, his 5-year-old twins, who he hopes will one day attend Boston Latin.
On the other end of the spectrum of experiences, Nicole Dumas-Little’s journey at the school was paved with support. She was a social butterfly who was on the pep squad and the gospel choir. But as a seventh-grader, her grades plummeted.
However one of the teachers refused to let her quit, she said. He took her to the headmaster and appealed to her mother: These things happen, he had said. Give her time.
Six years later, she graduated and never forgot what her teacher and headmaster did.
“I was just a black girl from Hyde Park who came home with a D and an F,’’ said Dumas-Little, who graduated. “And they were not having it.”
For Brown, the first black girl at the school, the healing is advancing. In her yearbook picture, her shoulders droop and her eyes seem sullen.
It took her two decades to come back to the school, and when she did as a television producer on assignment, she did not tell anyone it was her alma mater. She returned on another occasion last year to help a student on her project on blacks in the school. And then in February, she fully embraced the school after accepting an award from BLS BLACK for her achievements.
“For a long time, I did not step foot in Boston Latin School,’’ Brown said. “But it was the students from today that brought me back.”