“They introduced us to the real world because the world that we live in is jacked up. It’s not easy for African-Americans," said a recent graduate of the historic African-American high school.
It got crowded as people huddled in the lobby and under the marquee of The Orpheum Theatre while trying to stay out of the rain on Saturday afternoon. Folks were waiting for the gown-clad seniors at the Booker T. Washington graduation ceremony to finish their procession to the stage. Ushers of the historical venue held people at the doors until the students took their places under the spotlight’s warm glow.
The high school, which is located near the intersection of Mississippi Avenue and Lauderdale Street, had outgrown the auditorium’s capacity for its graduation ceremony in the mid-2000s.
Principal Alisha Kiner was an assistant principal at the time when enrollment began to increase. This year, with enrollment maintaining steady despite the closure of the Foote Homes housing project and the neighborhood in transition, she was proud to see her school graduate 111 students.
“We’re excited, but prayerful for the students,” she said. “They now have to be 100 percent accountable outside of the covering of school.”
Students, families and friends embrace following the graduation ceremony for Booker T. Washington.
Booker T. Washington opened its doors in 1926 and was the first public school in Memphis built for black students deep in an era of overt segregation in the city. Students that graduated this year can almost all call back a generation or two of BTW alumni in their family.
The folks that had been patiently waiting in the crowded lobby were now in the seats in the audience and balconies and singing along to the BTW alma mater.
On stage, along with 110 of her classmates, was Jalessa Wallace. She is the youngest in a family of seven brothers and sisters that all attended BTW. During the short ceremony, she sat in the front row along with the other students that make up the top 20 of her class, sometimes wiping tears from her eyes during the ceremony.
“They always told us here at Booker T: No matter what neighborhood we come from, what family come from,” she said, after the ceremony. “If you put your mind to it, you can do it.”
Wallace grew up in the old housing project Cleaborn Homes and now lives at Cleaborn Pointe at Heritage Landing, the project’s recent renovation, with her mother and siblings. She earned Youth of the Year two years in a row at the Porter Goodwill Boys and Girls Club down the street. She’s going to Middle Tennessee State University to study nursing making her the first of her family to leave Memphis to go to college.
Her mom, Doloris Stewart, works in custodial services at a local hospital’s emergency room. “My mom has always been the biggest support,” Wallace said of Stewart. “She aimed to make our lives better than hers and make better decisions.”
LeAntonio Jones gets ready to cross the stage during the Booker T. Washington graduation at The Orpheum Theatre.Stewart worked hard to keep her two youngest children at Memphis Catholic School for most of their schooling, but when given the choice for high school, Wallace decided to transfer to BTW.
“It’s like a legacy,” she said of the school and her family’s generations-long relationship with it. “When I first went to private school, I had to transfer to a new world. Going there helped me with my personality and attitude. I was the only kid at Cleaborne not going to the neighborhood school. But then I got back to the world that I used to be and it felt good. I got to see two worlds.”
At BTW, Wallace also found support in the friends she made. Many of them, including the valedictorian Shanoya Roberson and salutatorian Kaitlyn Finch, are also attending MTSU with her in the fall. Another of her friends, Myneishia Johnson, was a source of inspiration for her when it came to self-determination.
“I played two sports and have never been the best sports player,” Wallace said. “I used to want to quit because I sucked and the coaches were hard on me. She (Johnson) used to make jokes that kept me focused and kept me trying.”
Pastor Noel Hutchinson leads a prayer outside the home of a local resident on East Georgia Avenue before a group of folks in a regular Bible study group walk to the site of the previous evening's shooting. The group wanted to engage in prayer against the violence that happens in the community and take it to the place where a candlelight vigil was interrupted by bullets.
While she was hanging out Downtown with friends last year, Johnson was killed by a bullet that wasn’t meant for her. She was 18 and it happened a few days before her own graduation from BTW. She left behind a one-year-old son.
During last year’s ceremony, he was carried across the stage to receive her diploma.
On May 22, two days after BTW’s graduation, gunfire from a passing unrelated incident interrupted the candlelight vigil for Johnson at the corner of Danny Thomas Boulevard and Mississippi Avenue. No one was hurt, but it has shaken up the community.
Wallace credits BTW for helping students plan for success while also coping with setbacks and tragedies. “They introduced us to the real world because the world that we live in is jacked up,” she said. “It’s not easy for African-Americans.”
“Things like this are why we stay prayerful as our students are graduating,” Principal Kiner said referring to the what happened to Johnson, the recent candlelight vigil and other things staff at the school have helped students through. “We prepare them academically, expose them to entrepreneurial programs, support them, but after they graduate, it’s all them.”