As Black alumni call for racial reforms, N.J. private schools apologize for students’ pain

Even after she finishes graduate school and launches her professional career, Chelsea Greene said she won’t be giving back to her high school alma mater, Mount Saint Dominic Academy, because of the racial ignorance, insensitivity and micro-aggression she and other Black alumnae say they were subjected to by some of their white classmates and even faculty members.

“A lot of us want nothing to do with the school so we don’t want to give,” said Greene, 21, of West Orange, who received her bachelor’s degree in special education this spring at American University in Washington, D.C, where she’s now pursuing her master’s.

“My class had about 12 or 15 students of color freshman year, but by the time I graduated, there was, like, five of us,” Greene said. “So, a lot of the Black students literally cannot deal with every single day going to school with teachers making assumptions about you, administration treating you less-than. It’s a lot to be a 15-year-old and have to go through all of this. Students telling you, ‘When is your dad going to get out of jail?’ or administrators assuming that you’re lying about things.”

“A lot of us want nothing to do with the school so we don’t want to give,” said Greene, 21, of West Orange, who received her bachelor’s degree in special education this spring at American University in Washington, D.C, where she’s now pursuing her master’s.

“My class had about 12 or 15 students of color freshman year, but by the time I graduated, there was, like, five of us,” Greene said. “So, a lot of the Black students literally cannot deal with every single day going to school with teachers making assumptions about you, administration treating you less-than. It’s a lot to be a 15-year-old and have to go through all of this. Students telling you, ‘When is your dad going to get out of jail?’ or administrators assuming that you’re lying about things.”

The Newark Academy graduate who launched the petition, Becca Zimmerman, is one of the white allies in the fight for racial justice.

Several schools contacted by NJ Advance Media acknowledged there were problems with race relations that needed to be addressed, and offered apologies the pain they had inflicted or allowed.

Tom Nammack, the headmaster at Montclair Kimberly Academy in Essex County, acknowledged there had been problems at MKA, an institution with roots dating back to 1887. Nammack said the school had already begun implementing reforms under a set of recommendations released by a school task force in February, including a ban on speaking the N-word aloud under any circumstances, including reading historical or literary works.

Nammack downplayed the notion that school officials were motivated to implement reforms out of fear they would lose donations from angry alumni.

“It’s more about the quality of our relationship with our alumni,” he said, referring to the role graduates play in recruitment, job networking, and the spirit of an institution.

Newark Academy did not make its headmaster, Donald Austin, available for an interview. But the school issued a statement saying officials had listened in recent weeks, “as our Black students and alumni shared painful experiences of racism within our school community,” and “we acknowledged those experiences and have apologized for actions, unintentional and intentional, that have been a source of pain and isolation for our students and alumni.”

The school noted it was already scheduled to host an “Equity and Inclusion Summit” this week, “where the petition’s recommendations, and those made by our current student body, will be developed into an action plan to ensure that every member of our community feels valued, included and safe.”

On Friday, Mount Saint Dominic released an open letter to the school community from the head of school, Sister Frances Sullivan, in which Sullivan condemned “racism, bigotry and hate” anywhere around the globe, while promising action at the school and apologizing to Black students and graduates.

“We must also look inward and listen to the voices of our Black students and alumnae who have recounted their own experiences of racism, micro-aggressions and implicit bias within the walls of our school,” Sullivan stated. “We have made mistakes, and have been blind to what has been within our sight. For this I sincerely apologize.”

“However,” Sullivan added, “it is not enough to apologize, we must commit to action and we are committed to doing just that, taking action!”

At Newark Academy on Saturday, Black students and women graduates led a rally on the campus in Livingston, the affluent Essex County suburb where the school relocated in 1964, during a period when many white residents were also leaving Newark. The rally drew a crowd of about 200 current students and graduates, parents, faculty and school officials, most of them white.

There were chants of “No justice/No peace! No racist/Police!” and many people wore Black Lives Matter: Newark Academy T-shirts. There were also impassioned remarks by the Black students and alumnae challenging white students and other school community members to take a more active, lasting interest in improving racial sensitivity and equality on campus.

In a separate telephone interview, Samanta Powell, a 2019 Newark Academy graduate from West Orange, recalled one incident that she said was particularly disturbing to her and other Black students, and one that also illustrates the complexity that educators face when attempting to present unvarnished lessons on less comfortable aspects of the country’s history.

It involved a guest speaker named Daryl Davis, an African-American blues pianist, lecturer and author of “Klan-Destine Relationships,” who for decades has made it his mission to befriend Ku Klux Klan members, often through music, in order to inform their ignorance and soften their hearts.

But when Davis showed students a set of the authentic KKK hoods and robes he collects from new friends who renounce the Klan, Powell said it was too much to bear.

“I cried,” she said, wishing school officials had anticipated the visceral impact the unholy vestments might have on her and other Black teenagers.

Kerri Breznak is a friend and former classmate of Chelsea Greene at Mount Saint Dominic, and has remained an ally. Breznak, 22, of Montville, said the racism was sometimes cloaked in the language of concern.

Breznak recalled an occasion during her junior year in 2015, when she was approached privately by a teacher who had seen her with a group of Black friends and classmates.

“And she said, ‘I know you have morals and goals, and I want to see you go to college, and I don’t know if the people you’re hanging out with are going to get you there,’” said Breznak, a physical therapy PhD candidate at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. “And I remember thinking, like, hmm, these are my good friends. They all have the same morals and goals that I have.”

Although private school alumni may hold more financial sway over their almae matres, public school graduates have also pressed their institutions on racial reform.

Former students at Northern Highlands Regional High School, a public school in Bergen County, formed the Northern Highlands Alumni Action Committee. The group has submitted a letter to the regional school board, requesting a series of specific steps to implement action.

“There was definitely a lot of micro-aggression,” said Brianna Weck, an NHRHS Class of ‘14 member and alumni committee co-founder, whose mom is Black and dad is white. “In terms of when I was going to the school it wasn’t as overt. There was just a lot of ignorance, and a lot of people trying to be funny when it was just hurtful.”

Weck said school officials would take up the committee’s requests after the school’s July 8 graduation, a complex endeavor for all schools this year thanks to social distancing requirements of the coronavirus.

Students and alumni of some independent schools have been posting about their experiences on “Black at” Instagram pages, which typically allow anonymous posts to encourage students or alumni to speak candidly.

Students and alumnae from the Kent Place School for girls in Summit have been posting on Black At Kent Place.

“There was a point where most of the black girls in high school wore name tags saying. ‘I am not…’ and listed all the other black girls in the school,” one post read. “It’s a shame we had to do this because the administration and our fellow white classmates didn’t bother to take the time to recognize us as individuals, felt our names were ‘hard to pronounce’ and generally saw us all as the same.”

Kent Place officials posted a statement on the school’s website last Sunday acknowledging the pain expressed by its students and alumnae, and vowing to engage students, examine the school’s own policies and practices, and build an equitable environment for all students.

“We serve students of all backgrounds, and it is clear we have not succeeded for everyone,” the statement read. “For that, we sincerely apologize.”

Students at Montclair Kimberly Academy post on a Black at MKA page, which describes itself as “a safe space for black MKA students and alums to share their stories.”

Nammack, the MKA headmaster, said he had been reading the Black at MKA page “every day.”

“I think it’s an extraordinary look into the experiences of our Black students, and there are a number of the administrators who are reading it, and some of our trustees,” said Nammack, who has led the K-12 school for 15 years.

Nammack said the school had created a Black Student Experience task force that released recommendations this past February on curriculum and hiring practices.

Although the origin of the school’s recent reforms predate Floyd’s killing under the knee of a white officer on May 25, Nammack said that and other police-involved deaths had spurred discussion and awareness of racial issues among members of the school community.

“Our Black students are speaking up, along with their white allies,” he said. “I’m proud of them and it’s a force for good.”