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‘Hold my head high’: Black teens in Carroll reflect on growing up in one of Maryland’s whitest counties

When Kelechukwu Ahulamibe was little and his mom would come by to help out at his elementary school in Carroll County, he’d often notice how the other parents seemed to treat her differently. They’d talk to each other, but they didn’t talk to her very much.

At the time, he didn’t think much of it. As he grew up, though, he started noticing how his neighbors would shut their doors when they saw him, or pull their children and bags close when he passed them on the street. Some people didn’t seem to like him, just on the basis of who he was — the Black son of a Liberian immigrant.

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“I just felt disorganized and belittled,” Ahulamibe recalled. “I didn’t really understand why there was so much hatred brewing.”

Carroll County has been one of the whitest jurisdictions in Maryland for decades: Last year, just 3.9% of its population was Black. Growing up surrounded by so few people who look like them can make some Black children feel like outsiders in their own community — a matter only made worse when their classmates ask to touch their hair, make racist jokes or casually sling the N-word.

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Judith Jones is now the school system’s supervisor of equity and community outreach, but back when she was an assistant principal in the county, her own two children experienced similar microaggressions and harassment. When her youngest daughter was in elementary school, someone scrawled the words “Black whore” on her coat. Another time, her classmates decided she should pretend to be a slave and spent the day balling up pieces of paper for her to pick up.

Now, years later, Jones has carved out spaces in the public school system for what she calls “courageous conversations” to take place — discussions about topics that can make people uncomfortable, such as how race and racism play into the experiences of students and staff. And as of this year, each and every public middle school and high school in the county has established a cultural organization where students of color and their allies can come together to support one another.

But the deficit of Black children in the school system remains. Last year, of the approximately 25,000 students who were enrolled in the county’s public school system, only 993 — not quite 4% — were Black or African American. At some high schools, this number drops below 3%.

It is in this world that these children come of age and grow to celebrate their cultural roots and heritage. After years of laughing off insensitive comments from their peers, some learn to call out racism when they see it. And now, amid a national reckoning over systemic racism and anti-Black state violence, many are working to make Carroll County a more inclusive and welcoming place for the Black children who come after them.

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Here are some of their stories.

Kelechukwu Ahulamibe

Kelechukwu Ahulamibe, a freshman at the University of Maryland, graduated from Century High School last year.
Kelechukwu Ahulamibe, a freshman at the University of Maryland, graduated from Century High School last year.

From the time her children were young, Ahulamibe’s mother made sure they knew the rules of survival: Don’t get home later than 5 p.m. Don’t play with toy weapons — no BB guns allowed.

She told them stories of other Black children as they grew up. Tamir Rice was only 12 when he was shot to death by a white police officer while he played with a toy gun. Trayvon Martin was 17 when he was gunned down by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida.

“It’s just a recurring pattern of all these Black males who constantly walk around in danger, or walking on glass,” Ahulamibe said. “We all have to live by these certain rules and regulations in order to avoid the speculation of we’re doing something bad.”

When he entered middle school, Ahulamibe learned another rule from his mom: When kids are mean, don’t fight back. Just try to ignore it. So, when he was called racial slurs, when students would slap his schoolwork from his hands as he walked to class, he kept his head down and his mouth shut. One day, as he ate lunch alone in the cafeteria, a group of kids came up to him, screamed that he was going to steal from them, and dissolved into giggles as they walked away.

The relentless harassment wore him down, Ahulamibe recalled. But when the external noise ramped up, he had his music to drown it out. He played trumpet back then, and would listen to Chris Brown, Meek Mill and other rap, R&B and hip-hop artists. His twin sister and little brother kept him strong, too — his parents got divorced when he was young, and from then on, he’s felt a responsibility for taking care of them.

“I can’t really let them down. Those things I was going through, I had to keep that in check,” he said. “I had to be that warrior, that soldier for my family.”

Things were a bit easier for him when he entered Century High School, Ahulamibe said, though he noticed a definite spike in racist language from his classmates after Donald Trump was elected president. Around the time he became a junior, he says one staff member — Erica Crosby, who is also his best friend’s mom — started directing Black kids who were struggling with bullying or mental health issues to come talk to him.

When he joined the school’s fledgling Black Student Union his senior year, his circle of kids to look out for only grew. For some, he was like an older brother. For others, it was almost like he was their dad.

“Those are literally my kids,” Ahulamibe said. “Like, I love them.”

He recently finished his first semester at the University of Maryland, but Ahulamibe is still in touch with Century’s Black Student Union. He said he has to succeed — even if he breaks his leg and has to crawl to keep moving forward. He’s doing it for not only himself, but to show all the Black kids who are growing up in Carroll County that they can do it, too. That they can graduate high school, diploma in hand, or open their own business.

One day, after he graduates from medical school, Ahulamibe says he dreams of investing in an under-served school. He wants to go to where his mother grew up in Africa, and give back to his people there. But in the meantime, he has something he wants Black children in Carroll County to know.

“Those people that are wanting you to fail, you have to prove those people wrong, no matter what. You have to prove to yourself that you’re more than just a statistic,” he said. “You are a human being, and you can do anything you can put your mind to. Because you’re special.”

Chimdi Anude

Oluoma Anude (left) hugs her sister, Chimdi Anude.
Oluoma Anude (left) hugs her sister, Chimdi Anude.

At this point, Chimdi Anude is used to being the only Black girl in a classroom.

She’s been at Century High School for over two years now, but even while she was attending a more diverse high school in Baltimore County, she’d often be the only Black student or girl in the advanced classes she was taking. She knows this is a trend that is going to continue, since she’s planning to attend a predominantly white university and later become an electrical engineer, a field dominated by white men.

So as much as she’s pushed for more women of color to be a part of STEM, she knows what to expect when she walks into a classroom.

“‘Suck it up, buttercup,’” she says she told herself her freshman year. “As much as I would love diversity, as of right now, I’m supposed to be the diversity. And I’m going to have to be that voice in the room.”

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As one of the only Black people in her grade, Anude knows she could easily be excluded from conversations and activities. But she doesn’t let herself be. She raises her voice and inserts herself into discussions, even when others don’t seem to want to hear what she has to say.

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And when her classmates ignore her during group projects? Most of the time, she says, they come around to realize that her idea was right all along.

“That’s usually how I build my credibility,” she said. “People just see that we have the same intellectual level, and they say, ‘Why would we exclude this girl when she has so much to bring to the table?’”

For as long as Century’s Black Student Union has been an official club, Anude has been its president. She’s been there since the beginning, back when it was just a group of Black students gathered in her French teacher’s classroom, talking about how to honor Black History Month.

But unlike similar groups across the school system, Anude says Century’s Black Student Union isn’t centered around promoting advocacy. Instead, she says it’s more of a club to foster community and give a space for Black students to hang out for half an hour twice per week. For her part, she’s made it clear that she is there for any member who needs help on an assignment or with college applications.

She says she’s heard that racism and division is a lot worse at other high schools in the county. At Century, although other Black Student Union members have mentioned offensive jokes and comments they’ve heard from their classmates, she says she personally hasn’t experienced too much prejudice or discrimination.

A reason for that, she says, is because she is vigilant about the kinds of people she picks as friends. If she sees any indication of them being disrespectful, she calls them out for it. And she’s not afraid to cut her losses and move on.

“I don’t tolerate that at all. It’s not like, ‘Oh you made a joke,’” she said. “It’s not funny.”

Oluoma Anude

Oluoma Anude had a rockier transition to Carroll County than her big sister did.

She described moving from Baltimore County to Carroll County in eighth grade as going from wearing a free-flowing dress to being confined in a straight jacket. In Baltimore County, she said she was surrounded by people who looked like her and shared a similar background. There were other families who had come from Nigeria, like her parents had.

But in Carroll County, when she’d make jokes about what it was like to be the daughter of immigrants, nobody seemed to understand them. She felt like she had to change her personality to make her classmates like her. And when they’d make jokes about race that made her uncomfortable, she struggled to tell them to stop.

“Eighth grade year was rough,” she said. “I felt so lost.”

But now a sophomore at Century High School, Anude says she has since found her voice. When people are making her uncomfortable, she tells them as much. She’s dropped a lot of friends, especially the ones who were making those sorts of jokes, but she’s made new ones — including others who are the children of immigrants.

Joining the Black Student Union has helped, she says, because it’s shown her that she wasn’t as alone as she thought. But she says it was becoming a part of the Century Opening Knights — the high school’s drama club — that really helped her claim her identity. It’s just been such a beautiful, loving space where she feels free to be herself.

Now, instead of trying to contort her personality to make others like her, Anude has a new perspective.

“Yeah, I’m in a place where everybody doesn’t look like me. I might get stares if I have my hair a certain way, talk a certain way, but I’m gonna flaunt that because that’s what makes me me,” she said. “And if they don’t like it, oh well. Because they’re gonna hate me regardless.”

Recently, the high school drama club presented its “Quarantine Cabaret,” a virtual performance of skits, songs and other creative pieces conceived by students. For the show, Anude spent weeks writing a poem that captured the toll of racism on the county and on the nation. The resulting work isn’t something she could’ve written when she was in eighth grade, she said — all of her emotions would have come gushing out on the page, and it would’ve been too angry.

But over the last two years, she feels like her perspective has expanded. Now, she doesn’t just understand the damage hatred wreaks on the Black community — she also understands where it originates.

“This disease is called racism, and there’s only one cure,” she says in the poem, “To put on a mask of compassion and love. And the strength to do that can only come from above.”

Jamil Yacoubou

Jamil Yacoubou, a sophomore at Westminster High School.
Jamil Yacoubou, a sophomore at Westminster High School.

From the time Jamil Yacoubou was little, he and his two older siblings were homeschooled. But when his brother started high school at Century, his mom decided to send Yacoubou off to middle school, too.

All of a sudden, Yacoubou didn’t have control over his schedule — he could no longer double up on math or science during the week so that he could spend an entire Friday in gym or art class. He also had to start taking a bus to school, where sometimes his classmates would harass him. They’d say the N-word, or make bomb jokes, making fun of Yacoubou for being Muslim.

At first, when he was in seventh grade, he wouldn’t really say anything to defend himself. But he eventually got fed up with their behavior.

“I’ve been raised to always hold my head high — like, I have a heritage. I know who I am,” he said. “And I got to the point where I finally realized, like, if I don’t stand up for myself, they’re not going to learn.”

Over the years, Yacoubou’s father — an immigrant from West Africa — has made sure his son stays connected with his roots, even though he lives across an ocean from them. Though Yacoubou lives with his mom in Carroll County most of the time, where he and his siblings are the only people of color in their neighborhood, before the pandemic, he’d go into Baltimore to stay with his dad every other weekend.

He says his dad is always turning real-world situations into life lessons — like the time a woman standing outside of a grocery store, preaching Christianity, wouldn’t leave them alone. Sometimes, these lessons stretch on for hours. They’ll talk in the car, then keep the conversation going as they prepare dinner and eat together. Then, after they pray, they’ll return to the discussion.

A few months ago, a youth-powered social justice group in the county started following Yacoubou on Instagram — Carroll County Kids for Equality. At first, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to join it, he remembers. He wondered if white people in the county would feel threatened or alienated by the existence of a group with the word “equality” in its name. But he and his friend eventually decided to give it a shot.

Recently, he’s had more time to be active in the organization. And last year, when he was a freshman at Westminster High School, he got involved with the school’s Minority Student Union. He has ideas for how the community could become more welcoming for people of color, too. For one, rather than just teach students about the same 10 Black people during Black History Month year after year — like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks — school should teach students about Black changemakers year-round.

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And, he says, if parents would do a better job of normalizing different cultures and ideas to their children, there would be less prejudice and racism in the community.

“With everyone understanding everyone else, there’s less room for hate,” he said. “And we do better.”

Kristian Whitehead

Kristian Whitehead, a senior at Winters Mill High School.
Kristian Whitehead, a senior at Winters Mill High School.

When the world watched George Floyd take his dying breaths over the summer, the reverberations reached Carroll County, some 1,000 miles away. But Kristian Whitehead had to wonder: America had seen Black men gunned down by police officers before, and hadn’t turned out to the streets to protest en masse. What was different now?

Maybe it was the callousness the Minneapolis police officers had displayed in the widely circulated video of Floyd’s death, their blatant disregard for his life. Maybe it was that the video stretched for an entire eighth minutes, rather than just show 30 seconds of an encounter that some could claim had been taken out of context.

Seven months later, though, Whitehead says the incident already feels like it’s fading into the background in the county.

“I’m sure you guys have all heard of performative activism,” she said, referring to shallow actions taken by people seeking to elevate their own social standing, rather than to seek justice. “I think at the beginning, that’s what a lot of what was displayed within kids in our country.”

But at Winters Mill High School, where Whitehead is now a senior, she’s been able to push for lasting change in her community through the school’s Cultural Differences Unite organization — a club similar to Century High School’s Black Student Union.

Over the years, she and other members of the organization have shared stories with teachers about what it’s like to be a person of color in a majority white community — the microaggressions they’ve faced and how it feels when staff members don’t call out misbehavior when it happens.

They’ve spoken with the county’s Board of Education, too, advocating for a curriculum that celebrates and delves into the history of marginalized communities, outside of times when they were suffering or being oppressed.

And last year, even before demonstrations erupted in the wake of Floyd’s killing, the organization held a protest during the school day, wearing black and staying silent all day to call attention to Michael Brown, Atatiana Jefferson and all of the other unnamed Black and brown men and women who have been killed by the police. While CDU members were supported by some of their classmates throughout the day, Whitehead said there were others who made ignorant comments.

“We just had to let it slide,” she said. “Because we knew that what we were saying was right, regardless of what other people have to say about it.”

She remembers how she came to join the CDU. One day, while she was complaining to a friend about how some non-Black kids had been throwing around the N-word on her bus, her teacher pulled her aside to ask her about what happened. Though she says she was hesitant to speak up at first, the teacher told her about the organization, and encouraged her to check it out.

Growing up in the county, Whitehead says she has always had a great group of friends to turn to and has always felt a sense of belonging in her community. But she knows that if she ever runs into trouble, the CDU will have her back.

“If I have ever felt unwelcome in a classroom environment, I can always come back to the kids in the CDU, and I will feel that welcomeness again,” she said. “And that’s really reassuring to have.”

Tobi Olawale

Tobi Olawale (pictured on the far left of the second row from the front) poses for a picture with her church at the Reisterstown Parade.
Tobi Olawale (pictured on the far left of the second row from the front) poses for a picture with her church at the Reisterstown Parade.

When Tobi Olawale was younger, she tried to ignore the fact that she was Black — something that was hard to do, since she was typically the only person of color in her class. She used to be embarrassed by her parents’ thick Nigerian accents, too, and the way they’d dress.

As she was growing up, she mainly made friends who were white. When she was with them, she’d try hard not to offend anyone. She’d also try to fit in with them, straightening her hair, dressing like them and even trying out a few “white activities.” That’s why she started playing soccer, she said, laughing as she added, “I love it now, so it’s fine.”

But no matter what she said or how she dressed, she’d always feel beneath the white girls at her school. As if she would never live up to them.

“I was always the second option. And it was always due to my race,” she said. “Because no one obviously wants to date the Black girl.”

That pervasive feeling hurt Olawale’s self-esteem. The little jokes added up, too — like how after “Black Panther” came out, her classmates kept walking up to her and saying, “Wakanda Forever,” a salutation from the film.

At first, Olawale says she found it funny. But as the joke dragged on for months after the movie had been released, she stopped laughing. Now, anytime she hears that phrase, she gets flashbacks to her classmates making fun of her.

She used to laugh off other racially insensitive jokes, too, or offensive comments.

“I would just shrug it off, and say, ‘Oh, they didn’t mean it,’ or, ‘They were just playing a funny joke on you,’” she remembered. “It would definitely hurt deep inside, but I would just shrug it off and give them another chance. But they will still continue to do it over and over again.”

“And that’s when I decided I needed a new group of friends,” she said.

Now, Olawale is a freshman at Winters Mill High School. Her current friend group is much more diverse than the one she had in middle school. She feels like her personality has changed too — something she says her friends never believe when she tells them. But she’s more outspoken now, and she and her friends talk about politics all the time.

She also isn’t embarrassed by her parents or her culture anymore. Far from it. Now, she begs her mom to buy her dashikis, which she’ll sometimes wear out to restaurants or during casual month at the Black church her family attends.

But lately, especially after protests exploded in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing, Olawale has been more conscious of what Black people living in a white society have to do to keep themselves safe. In the days leading up to the 2020 election, she watched her dad install security cameras around their house to prepare for any unrest that could follow. Her parents also reached out to other family members in America, urging them to stay at home and lay low in the days following the election.

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Over the summer, though, Olawale became a member of Carroll County Kids for Equality, which she says has already helped her. It feels good to be contributing to the fight to break a cycle that makes people feel like they’re less than others just because of the color of their skin. And it feels even better to be doing so with a group of young people, many of whom are not even old enough to vote.

“I just find it really cool that me and my friends and just other people are aware about what’s going on in our society and what we can do to change it,” she said.

Cynthia Winn

Cynthia Winn, a junior at Westminster High School.
Cynthia Winn, a junior at Westminster High School.

Cynthia Winn hadn’t wanted to move to Carroll County. She had lived in Timonium when she was growing up, and remembers what it was like to be surrounded by mostly white faces. When she’d play the simulation video game “The Sims,” she’d make her characters white to pretend that she was, too.

Then, when she was in sixth grade, her family moved to Perry Hall in Baltimore County. All at once, she was going to school with classmates who looked like her, and others who were Hispanic and Asian. There, she had the highest self-esteem she ever had, she remembers. She had a bunch of different friend groups and multiple teachers who were people of color. She just felt comfortable.

But when she moved to Finksburg in eighth grade, it was elementary school all over again.

Once again, she had to watch what she said and wore to avoid being painted as a stereotype. That pressure was heightened, she says, because she was very aware of the fact that she could just be the first Black person her classmates met. Wanting to set a good example, she became quieter and would work really hard to be at the top of her classes.

No matter what she did though, she couldn’t escape the harassment she faced on the school bus to and from school. There, kids would sometimes scream the N-word or talk about how Black people love fried chicken. She doesn’t remember the bus driver ever intervening. Once, she swears she saw him smirking in the rearview mirror. So, she would just put her air pods in and try to ignore it all.

When she entered Westminster High School, the bullying eased off a bit, although sometimes her track and field teammates would make comments about how she’s fast because she’s Black. One of her classmates would always touch her hair, too, and exclaim things like, “Oh it’s so poofy!” One time, the same girl asked Winn if she was from a gang.

It doesn’t feel like people mean to hurt her, she says. Instead, she thinks it just comes down to ignorance. But that doesn’t make the stares any easier. Her family is interracial, and when she’s out with her mom, she says sometimes people will ask if she was adopted.

After Floyd’s killing, Winn watched as the same people who stood by as she faced microaggressions posted black squares on social media in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Months later, she’s now a junior at Westminster High School, and it feels as if the movement is already fading into the background of the county.

“It feels like Black people are a trend, or something,” she said. “It’s not a trend. It’s something you have to stand by for everything, not just when it’s popular.”

Over the summer, Winn also joined Carroll County Kids For Equality. Even though she’s only been a member of the group for a few months now, she says it’s given her hope that things could change in the county — that it could become more inclusive and welcoming for kids who look like her.

Maybe the school system will hire more teachers and counselors of color, and more staff members who are LGBTQ. Maybe the curriculum will grow to honor the histories of communities that have long been marginalized.

But for now, she has a message she wants Black children growing up in the county to remember.

“They’re not alone,” she said.

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