Black graduates celebrate big at 2021 Rites of Passage ceremony!

SFUSD high school graduates Shavonne Hines-Foster and Serenity Payne at the “Resounding, Resilient and Rising” Rites of Passage Ceremony for the Second Annual Black Graduation held at Kezar Pavilion Stadium on Friday, June 4, 2021. – Photo: Daphne Young

by Education Reporter Daphne Young

The sound of African drums filled the air during the Black Graduation on June 4, 2021. Black graduates at SFUSD high schools across the city were honored during the “Resounding, Resilient and Rising” Rites of Passage ceremony.

This was actually the first in-person Black Graduation ceremony for SFUSD students of color due to the pandemic. Last year, the Annual Black Graduation was virtual because of COVID-19 restrictions.

The in-person event was held outdoors at Kezar Pavilion Stadium, with nearly 130 African American high school seniors from SFUSD area high schools honored during the cultural festivities. 

SFUSD high school graduates seated on the field at Kezar Pavilion Stadium during the Black Graduation. – Photo: Daphne Young

The Second Annual Black Graduation began with a cultural prelude led by Presiding Elder Brother Clinton Sockwell II. The ceremony included the Lions Pride Drummers, Lorraine Bowser and her son Sha’Ron Brown. Together they created the cultural vibe for the event, with African drums permeating throughout the entire neighborhood.

Overall high school graduation rates across the U.S. have dropped drastically for the first time in a decade. So this graduation was a true celebration, especially for students of color.

“It was amazing,” said Lincoln High School graduate Emoni Tillman. “Especially because it was all African Americans. So it felt like a really special event.”

Black graduates from the Class of 2021 were presented with special Kente stoles before they marched into the stadium. They were then seated in chairs on the field while family members and friends filled the stands. Although it was a breezy afternoon, the wind and cool temperatures didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of these graduates.

“I think that it’s a great thing that we had a Black Graduation in that it’s something special to all of us,” said graduate Chastity DeCuire.

Lamiya Cotton added: “I think it’s amazing that all of us as a Black community could come together and have a good celebration. I think it’s wonderful. I really do.”

Graduates weren’t the only ones excited about the event. San Francisco Mayor London Breed joined SFUSD administrators and community leaders onstage to congratulate and encourage Black graduates from the Class of 2021.

“This is a time to celebrate our heritage and be proud, no matter what your circumstances are, no matter where you come from,” said Mayor London Breed. 

The Second Annual Black Graduation was sponsored by the San Francisco Alliance of Black School Educators. Linda Martley-Jordan along with fellow Black Graduation Committee members Cheri Miller, Brittany Ford, Taffany Davis and Dr. Salindra McRay began working on the event last year.

“We wanted to make this happen,” said Taffany Davis. “It was a labor of love. A lot of hours were put in. To see everybody sort of wrap around that and make it happen was a beautiful sight.”

What’s most inspiring is that the students helped plan every part of this event, from start to finish. In a year when in-person learning only took place for a few weeks, this was a feat in itself. 

Graduates Isreal Laviene and China Dior Perry served as masters of ceremonies as they introduced guests and keynote speakers throughout the two-hour event. The program also included poetry readings and other performances, all done by students. 

Black Student Union President and SFUSD School Board Student Representative Shavonne Hines-Foster gives a heart wrenching speech at the graduation, telling parents, “Don’t ever stop advocating,” on behalf of children of color. – Photo: Daphne Young

But it was Shavonne Hines-Foster’s heartfelt speech that stole the crowd’s hearts and left us speechless as she talked honestly about her struggles over the years with teachers and students at Lowell High School, a high school riddled with controversy over changes to the admissions process. 

Recently, SFUSD switched admission requirements at Lowell from test-taking to a lottery system in hopes of getting more students of color admitted to the top-ranking school. During her speech, the 2020-21 SFUSD School Board student delegate shared stories of being ridiculed as an African American student about her hair and weight. 

“It was a speech just to tell graduates that just because I went through a lot, and we all go through a lot, we can make it out after,” said the 2020-21 Black Student Union president.

Despite the challenges, Shavonne Hines-Foster has prevailed. Fellow students at the Black Graduation related to her message of overcoming obstacles. 

Terrica Hines, a graduate of Abraham Lincoln High School, added: “It was honestly the hardest year ever, balancing not really having a senior year while also having to prepare to go to college.”

Jaeylynn Stevens, a graduating senior from Mission High School, said, It’s been a roller coaster.” Stevens continued, “During the pandemic it’s been a lot of times that I didn’t want to go to class, I didn’t want to do the work. But once I started getting in touch more with college professors and stuff, that started to really help me.”

John O’Connell High School graduate Daemaurion Hann added: “It has been just really difficult to stay focused because a whole lot of distractions have happened. But, I made it through.”

Overall high school graduation rates across the U.S. have dropped drastically for the first time in a decade. So this graduation was a true celebration, especially for students of color.

The good news is that all of the Black graduates in attendance made it through a really tough year, and most of them are heading to college in the fall.

Shavonne Hines-Foster, one of the keynote speakers at the graduation and a person to watch in coming years with all her activism on behalf of students, will be attending Hampton University in the fall. But before leaving the graduation ceremony, she shared some advice for parents raising Black students.

“Don’t ever stop advocating,” said Hines-Foster. “I just ask the parents to be your students’ foundation. You know after a year of distance learning there can be a lot of challenges that students may encounter. Go above and beyond to make sure they have the resources, whether you can provide it financially, or really push so that they have all those resources.”

It’s apparent that these students of color utilized their resources despite the challenges they faced. And now they have big plans for the future.

“I’m graduating from Abraham Lincoln HS and I’m going to Southern University in New Orleans,” said SFUSD graduate Terrica Hines. 

Fellow grad Daemaurion Hann told the Bay View, “I’m going to go to Cal State LA.” He added, “I’m going to graduate from there and I’m going to go into the music industry.”

John O’Connell High School graduates DaJon Edwards and Daemaurion Hann attended the Second Annual Black Graduation at Kezar Pavilion Stadium. After graduation Edwards plans to work in his community and Hann is headed to (CSU) California State University Los Angeles. – Photo: Daphne Young

His classmate at John O’Connell, DaJon Edwards, said: “I plan on getting a job, stack up money, you know, be financially literate. Help provide for my community.”

Whether these Black graduates go to college or go to work, they’re headed in the right direction. “I am attending the University of San Francisco,” said Lamiya Cotton.

“I’m going to Georgia State University,” said Chastity DeCuire. And Micah Ware said proudly, “I’m going to UC Riverside.”

Mission High School student Jaelynn Stevens is heading to a Historically Black College, “FAMU – Florida A&M University – in Tallahassee, Florida,” she said with a huge smile.

Twins Le’Moni and Emoni Tillman attended the Black Graduation on June 5, 2021.  They are both attending City College of San Francisco in the fall, where they’ll play for the Women’s Basketball team. – Photo: Daphne Young

Meanwhile, twins, Le’Moni and Emoni Tillman will be attending college closer to home. “We’re going to City College of San Francisco to play basketball,” they both said in unison.

The event left anyone in attendance feeling a sense of pride for these students, in spite of the challenging year of distance learning they all endured.

Organizer Linda Martley-Jordan was like a proud parent – especially towards the end when she invited graduates to STAND UP! The Rites of Passage ceremony wrapped up with students walking across the stage to officially receive their Kente stoles, which were adorned on them by SFUSD Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews, Deputy Superintendent of Instruction Enikia Ford Morthel and other SFUSD administrators.

Linda Martley-Jordan, with the San Francisco Alliance of Black Educators onstage with Shamann Walton, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors representing District 10, and other dignitaries during Rites of Passage ceremony. – Photo: Daphne Young

Linda Martley-Jordan wants to be sure to credit the success of the Black Graduation to the many community partners who supported the event. “This wouldn’t have come about in the manner that it did if it weren’t for our partners,” Jordan told the Bay View.

Partners of the SFUSD Second Annual Black Graduation include: the African American Arts and Culture Complex, Salesforce, the Golden State Warriors, 100% College Prep, Beyond12, Mo’ Magic, College Track SF, Black to the Future, SF Achievers, the African American Achievement and Leadership Initiative (AAALI), the African American Parents Advisory Council (AAPAC) and the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).

Overall, the Black Graduation was a huge success and served to uplift spirits during a challenging time for students and their families. The impact of the pandemic has been traumatic, especially for the Black community and for students of color.

Therefore, on behalf of the SF Bay View newspaper, we congratulate the Black graduating Class of 2021 on a job well done. 

As an African American mother, it was uplifting and inspiring to witness so many successful education stories during an extremely challenging year and time in our history. So raise your heads high, Class of 2021, and march on. Your future awaits you!

Readers, be sure to check out video of the 2021 Black Graduation on our website! Read more about high school graduation rates across the U.S.:

Daphne Young is the Education Reporter at the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper. The Chicago native is an award-winning journalist who’s covered news for radio and TV stations around the country. She attended San Francisco State University and is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. If you have an education story that you’d like to see the Bay View cover, please contact Daphne by email: education@sfbayview.com.