A group of 122 St. Mary’s alumni penned an open letter to the school’s administration this past week, calling for changes in the school’s culture surrounding Black students.
The letter petitioned for St. Mary’s to re-examine how it supports its Black students and community while educating its non-Black population on unlearning racism, in light of the recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Floyd, who was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police in May, and Taylor, who was killed in her home by three plainclothes Louisville officers in March, have sparked protests and conversations across the nation over the last month.
In the letter, alumni stated that they were “disheartened” that St. Mary’s had yet to release an explicit statement of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The school’s pastor, Father Patrick Woods, and Deacon George Russell delivered homilies for Catholic feasts the past few weeks that discussed Floyd’s death. On Pentecost Sunday, May 31, Russell questioned if the listeners were willing to speak out against racial prejudice when they saw it. During the Corpus Christi feast, Woods expressed solidarity with the family of Floyd.
“St. Mary’s High School seeks to treat all students with the respect and dignity that all people deserve,” wrote St. Mary’s principal Mindi Imes in an email, through communications and marketing director Lauren Hartman. “We are a Catholic high school that welcomes students of all faiths, colors, nationalities and cultures who desire the Catholic tradition to live the Great Commandment of Jesus: love the Lord with our whole mind, heart and soul as well as our neighbor as ourselves. We will continue to listen, learn and evolve in order to make our schools and our community as welcoming as possible.”
The joint alumni asked the school to implement a scholarship fund for prospective students of color to promote greater accessibility to the school.
While 22% of Annapolis residents identify as Black, according to the most recent US Census information, more than 90% of the St. Mary’s student body is white according to multiple school review websites.
Taylor Cottle, Class of 2010, recalls only three Black students in her graduating class of 120.
Cottle spoke about the school’s efforts to attract minority students with a member of her class who works in admissions. .
“I think that’s one thing, with our money, that we could do really easily, to have a fund for minority students to go to the school,” Cottle said, “but obviously, it goes a lot deeper than that.”
In an email, Imes cited the St. Mary’s Tuition Angel program, where individuals can pledge monthly or one-time donations through the school’s website to enter a fund that would provide assistance “for any student of any race with demonstrated need.”
Justin Noel, who graduated from St. Mary’s in 2013, didn’t feel like he fit in his school’s community as a Black student. Throughout elementary to high school, classmates teased him over his tucked-in shirts, or the way he spoke “proper.”
“I didn’t fit the stereotypical mold of an African-American student. As a result, I caught a lot of flack for that from a lot of my peers both in the classroom and outside,” Noel said. “‘Justin, why are you such an Oreo? You’re so white.' It definitely did a lot to damage my self-identity. It made me question, why was I born Black?”
It would take years of self-work and conversations, Noel said, to unlearn his own self-hatred.
Noel commiserated in his experiences with other Black students in the school, but there weren’t many to do so with. Noel loved his school, and still feels proud to be a St. Mary’s Saint, but he felt isolated when he arrived, until the day a new classmate enrolled in his sophomore year that looked like him.
“I definitely hope that’s something that can change,” Noel said. “It was a tough experience. I’m a quiet person. One of the things I could have done better was been more vocal about it. But at the same token, that should be happening regardless.”
The alumni called upon St. Mary’s to review of its race-related policies in its student handbook and to schedule bias training for all of its staff and faculty. Seven years after his departure from high school, Noel still knows which staff members supported him when classmates made racist comments toward him.
“I remember clearly when it happened in front of them twice, they were the only two teachers who ever stood up for me in that regard and actually said something when they witnessed it,” Noel said. “It’s just an issue because it’s a predominantly white school that I wish it would address during Black History Month, or just in general, that, I don’t want to say gave Black students special treatment, but just checked in on them and every now and then.”
The alumni also implored St. Mary’s to update its U.S. History curriculum to better address the struggles of marginalized individuals.
“I took an entire class on the history of the state of Maryland. I hardly remember hearing anything about actual African-American history and oppression,” Cottle said. “It’s very white-washed, very vague. It doesn’t tell the real story.”
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Per Imes, St. Mary’s will be examining its handbooks and other “relevant materials.”
Woods, who has served St. Mary’s as pastor for 10 months, published a letter to the editor in The Capital on Tuesday denouncing presumptions of racism in Catholic schools.
In a response to the alumni letter, on Thursday Woods wrote that he fully supported many of the ideas proposed by alumni, working toward a scholarship fund and review of the student handbook.
“We want to ensure that we take the appropriate time to attentively review all of your suggestions, consult with appropriate resources and evaluate all necessary next steps in order to enact significant and beneficial changes in regards to this matter,” Woods wrote.
The St. Mary’s alumni are hopeful their former school will implement their ideas.
“It is a very good school, and I had some great experiences there. But there are issues in the letter that need to be addressed, to do a much better job of providing a much more welcoming and safe environment for Black students there,” Noel said.