We can learn about Black history from books. Or we can experience Black History like the students did at Forest Park Middle School (FPMS). “Black Excellence: A Panel Discussion” was held on Feb. 16. The students were treated to testimonials from five speakers who personify what Black history is all about. 

Joseph Almaoui, a sixth-grade Science Teacher, organized the event, with the help of LaToya McRae, who is an HR manager at Rush University Medical Center. McRae was one of the panelists and is also a parent of an FPMS student. 

McRae recalled her own middle-school years and how she was influenced by a member of a Black sorority to later join Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. Getting into a sorority required McRae to have good grades and be active in her community. Although she emphasized the service aspect of the sorority, like granting scholarships for academic achievement, they also had fun. McRae displayed the sash she won for taking third place at the Black and Gold Pageant hosted by Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Incorporated during undergrad. 

Mary Hodges was another panelist who was a proud member of a sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated. She has been a member for 51 years. Hodges is a retired speech and language pathologist for the Kenosha, Wisconsin school district but shows no signs of slowing down. 

Besides hearing from the panelists, the students watched videos, narrated by Henry Louis Gates Jr., about how the HBCUs and Black fraternal organizations came into existence. These schools and organizations were necessary because white colleges and fraternal organizations were not accepting Black students. At their peak, 95% of Black students attended HCBUs. As racial barriers fell, the percentage declined to 8%.

Recently, though, there has been a record increase in enrollment at HCBUs. This has been attributed to Black students perceiving a resurgence of racism in the country. There is also the positive example of Vice President Kamala Harris, who graduated from Howard University. Funding for HBCUs has also increased dramatically, with the Department of Education distributing $2.7 billion.

Emani Green, who works in HR for the Rush University Medical System, earned his bachelor’s degree at an HBCU called Florida A&M. Green was influenced by his grammar school principal to attend an HBCU. He felt very welcome in college and said there was a sense of community. He said it was valuable to be surrounded by classmates and professors who looked like him.

Isaiah Teixeira said he attended Morgan State University, another HBCU, because the school gave him a football scholarship. A student asked why he went into nursing instead of pursuing a career in sports. Teixeira explained that sports paid for his education but wasn’t his ultimate goal. He earned advanced degrees in nursing and now works in the ICU of Rush University Hospital.

Charles Chime is also a nurse. He likes the flexibility of the profession, and the money is good. He graduated from Rush University with a master’s degree in Nursing, after earning a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. He plans to pursue a career in the psychology unit of a health-care organization. 

After the assembly ended, three books about Black History were donated to the FPMS library, Black is a Rainbow Color by Angela Joy and I Am Enough by Grace Byars, were donated by Michelle Melin-Rogovin. She is continuing the work she started with her late husband, Mark Rogovin, to support our local schools. I also donated Free At Last by Sojourner Kincaid Rolle, which I had the privilege of reading at our Juneteenth Pool Party last summer. 

When we celebrate Juneteenth and learn about Black excellence, Black History comes alive. 

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.