Feature: Black History Month


Momument Archives

African American Students showing black excellence showcasing the words black is beautiful. A term carried through the civil rights movement.

Jaydin McMickle and Paris McNutt

Washington High School was a completely different place back in the 1960s and 1970s compared to now. The fashion, the music, even the building was different. A big difference is how African-American students were recognized and treated throughout the hallways in Wash. “There was a small amount of black students when I was there,” Peter Harris, ’70, said.

Harris is an African-American alumnus of Washington High School. Harris grew up on the southeast side of Cedar Rapids. His father, Percy, was a doctor and his mother, Lileah, was also a doctor. Both of his parents were very progressive civil rights leaders in Cedar Rapids. In 1957, Percy and Lileah were having a difficult time finding a larger house for their growing family because of racial discrimination in housing. St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, in a controversial vote, agreed to sell property on Bever Avenue to the Harris’. Robert Armstrong, a local department store owner had donated the property to the church, according to Cedar Memorial.

When it came to high school in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Peter found himself sheltered and focused more on his music.

“There were some black kids in music, but it wasn’t like we all hung out,” Peter said.

However, at Wash they celebrated their diversity by having a Black Student Union. The union celebrated their excellence and their civil rights. The yearbooks from that era highlight pages of sports, activities and classes. The 1978 yearbook even feature photos from a spring fashion show put on by the BSU.

The early yearbooks also show more and more African-American students in prominent positions, such as homecoming queen and class officers.

      Peter tended to focus on his music and studies more than being a part of Wash’s African-American community. He remembers not many students being a part of the BSU, or having to be friends with other black kids. They were just friends with whoever they wanted to be friends with. “There was no need to bond over it,” Harris said.

During Peter’s high school experience, he worked on his music, even writing jazz charts for the school’s jazz band, his excellence being shown throughout the music department.

After high school Peter received a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Miami and continued on in his music career, leaving an imprint at Wash. Peter was inducted in Wash’s Performing Arts Hall of Fame in 1994.

Peter believes that Wash shaped him into the person he is today. He was encouraged by teachers and had been given a big push for being an African-American student in that time period.

He never felt that he was oppressed in school, although outside school still some students parents would not  talk to him or outcasted him just because of the color of his skin.

Some would say that today those  traditions and excellence are shown at Wash today, but not as much as some black students would like. Senior class vice president Katiana Arnold, ’19, doesn’t feel that way. “Going to Wash now is no different from the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, in my opinion. It’s just a new year and people inside of Wash are very subliminal to how they treat African-American students,” Arnold said.

The last photo of the BSU as a group was in the 1978 yearbook. Up until the 2017-2018 school year, there was no group for African- Americans at Wash. That changed with the introduction of Brothers to Brothers and Sisters to Sisters.

Arnold feels that the school looks down on black students at times. “Instead of understanding where these kids come from, they label them as -unfit to attend Washington and so they kick these students out,” Arnold ‘19 said.


Prior to Brothers to Brothers and Sisters to Sisters there was no primarily African-American excellence group, unlike in middle school, where each school had their own African-American Awareness program. Those programs involved black students going somewhere after school to learn about their culture and background.

“All we want is the students to be educated about who (African-Americans) are and what our culture is about.” Sarah Swayze, founder of Brothers to Brothers and Sisters to Sisters,  said.

Swayze is very passionate about the achievement and awareness of African- American culture. “When people think of Black History Month, they instantly think of Martin Luther King Jr., and that’s it, they don’t think about the inventions (African-Americans) created.” Swayze said.

Swayze is very passionate about the representation of African American students in school and tries to preserve the culture as best as she can. She even advocated for, and helped organized the inaugural Black History assembly last February.

Last year Swayze started the steppers club. She invited all students to come to the club and learn dances. She wants students to know about this type of dance and where it comes from, so people can appreciate the art. “All you need is rhythm and discipline, emphasis on the rhythm part,” Swayze said.   

The steppers go to practice and learn different routines to perform. Their biggest performance is during assemblies, specifically the Black History assembly. The group performs a routine. “We just want to educate the students using different languages they can all understand,” Swayze said.

During Swayze’s time at Wash, she has noticed the change of students’ behavior and how they treat school.

“I want to remind African-American students the excellence they can have, and how people died for them to be able to go to school, they need to stop taking advantage of it.” Swayze said.

Brothers to Brothers, Sisters to Sisters, and the steppers worked with Swayze to get Wash to have a Black History assembly. In 2018, Swayze and Chris Wright created the first Black History Month assembly, which featured black excellence in a variety of ways.

“After 25 years of teaching here so far, last year was the first year of the Black History assembly,” Swayze said.

This year’s assembly included African-American speakers, performers, and recognition of them and African-Americans in general.

“The goal of the assembly is to simply educate people that African-Americans are high-achievers.” said Swayze.

African-American courses were introduced to Washington in 2017. Kyle Phillips showed interest in the courses, preparing himself over the summer before beginning to teach it.

“Currently, in the African-American Literature class, we focus on contemporary issues and works,” said Phillips.

African-American History is offered as well and an African-American writing course, The Art and Craft of Writing: The African-American Experience. If the writing course is taken with the African-American literature class, students can receive one year of language arts credit. These courses are rich with African-American history, works, and achievements of over the years.  

Over time Washington has changed the recognition and the way African-American students are highlighted and will continue.