When Phil Johnson stepped up to the microphone at a Black Lives Matter rally June 18 in Cooksville, he spoke about his life as a biology teacher, coach and adviser to the Black Student Union at Glenelg High School.
With origins dating back 35 years, the Black Student Union is finding the issues it has long addressed now central to the national dialogue amid the ongoing rallies and protests for equality and justice across the country.
Twice a month, when the school was still open, Johnson’s biology classroom filled with students for Black Student Union meetings.
As the club’s faculty sponsor, Johnson, who is African American, is responsible for assisting and guiding the students. He sits at his desk and listens to Glenelg students talk about what it’s like to be Black at the whitest high school in Howard County.
The history of Glenelg’s Black Student Union ties directly back to Johnson. His wife, Karen Darden-Johnson, was one of three women who petitioned then-Principal Walter Caldwell Sr. to start the organization, called the Black Awareness Club, 35 years ago.
“We wanted the students of color to have a voice,” said Darden-Johnson, who is African American. “Not being fully represented, we thought that this club could help us as far as having our voice and our culture. We felt there was a need.”
Darden-Johnson, who graduated in 1988, pushed alongside Bunmi Stewart-Moore and Jackie Blackmon, 1989 graduates, to create a space for Black students to talk about their experiences and share their culture.
“We felt compelled; there was something that was missing from our experience,” said Stewart-Moore, who is African American. “Being minorities at Glenelg, we wanted something that we could say was for us.”
When the club first took form Darden-Johnson served as president, with a white English teacher serving as the club’s sponsor. Darden-Johnson and Stewart-Moore both said that teacher was the only one who would agree to advise the club.
“Growing up in the area, you kind of get acclimated to being the Black person in your class,” Stewart-Moore said. “We wanted something that created a community that pulled the African American students together.”
In those first years, on top of their regular meetings, the club organized a dance on Martin Luther King Jr.‘s birthday to help promote Black culture and music. At the time, Darden-Johnson recalled, many white students listened to rock music, so this was new exposure for them. The Black Awareness Club also made their own float for the homecoming parade.
“There was push-back; there were students who said, ‘Why would you need to have a club like that?’” Darden-Johnson recalled. “We tried to get the students as well as the staff to recognize that this is something that is needed.”
One year during Black History Month, the club organized a soul food lunch for the staff in an effort to get teachers to recognize Black culture and embrace the club, according to Darden-Johnson.
“As the club went on and the years went on, they were more accepting of it,” she said of the teachers.
From 1985 to 1988 Darden-Johnson estimated there were about 25 members of the Black Awareness Club, and about 50 Black/African American students at Glenelg.
Today, Glenelg has the smallest Black/African American population of the 12 high county schools, according to Joan Fox, coordinator of public information for the Howard County Public School System. At Glenelg, 45 of 1,201 students are Black/African American and among the 12 HCPSS high schools 4,325 of the 18,050 students are Black/African American.
According to current Black Student Union president Raja Ukondwa, a 2020 graduate, there were approximately 15 to 20 members during the 2019-2020 school year.
Before in-person classes stopped due to coronavirus, the club hosted a spoken word night at Glenelg and attended a field trip to the African American History Museum in Washington.
The present-day bi-weekly Black Student Union meeting comes in two forms, according to Ukondwa. The first is a Glenelg-focused meeting, where students talk about specific experiences or events that have happened, giving advice to one another. The second is an educational discussion in which the group has a conversation about something happening in the world. Topics range from pop culture to politics.
“When you leave the meeting, you feel like you’ve learned a lot about what’s going on in the world, or about yourself,” Ukondwa said.
Ukondwa said the group uses its adviser, Johnson, as a resource during those conversations, like when the group discussed the swastikas and racial epithets found on Glenelg campus sidewalks, outside walls and the parking lot in 2018. After the graffiti incident, as Ukondwa refers to it, the Black Student Union devoted entire meetings to discussing the experience and how Black students could work through it.
“For me, personally, I didn’t have that many Black friends in school, so [it was good to have] a place to talk about the topics I couldn’t talk about with my friends,” said Nicole Wildy, a rising senior and member of the Black Student Union.
That incident of explicit racism and anti-Semitism has marked Glenelg and was cited multiple times at the Black Lives Matter rally in Cooksville.
Darden-Johnson, who lives in the same neighborhood she did when she attended Glenelg in the 1980s, said the Black Student Union, as a whole, is better received now than it was when she was a member.
“When they talked about slavery in history class everyone looks at the Black person; it feels uncomfortable.”— Bunmi Stewart-Moore, 1989 graduate of Glenelg High School
Like Wildy and Ukondwa, Stewart-Moore remembers that feeling of having a safe space for Black students.
“There were other students who were Black that I would have never met [if not for the club],” Stewart-Moore said. “It felt good to have a safe place where we could discuss issues that are important to us.”
In the classroom, however, the same safe space was not always there.
“We knew in history [class] we weren’t going to learn the truth about our people and our history,” Stewart-Moore said. “When they talked about slavery in history class everyone looks at the Black person; it feels uncomfortable.”
Today, Ukondwa and Wildy described nearly the exact experience in their history classes when slavery came up.
“Since I’ve been in school, there’s never really more than one or two Black people in my classes,” said Wildy, who is Black. “I’ve gotten so used to it, because I’ve lived here my whole life.”
Ukondwa said he’s noticed progress against explicit racism over his four years, but microaggressions are still prevalent. He also said he noticed a difference since the nationwide protests for Black lives began in May.
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Wildy took note, as the national dialogue grew, of when teachers stopped regular instruction to have a class discussion. It was a step in the right direction, Wildy said.
“I’m very curious to see how people are going to start acting [when school begins in the fall],” Wildy said.
As a teacher and Black Student Union adviser, Johnson said he expects to see these issues discussed more openly. He wants to hit the ground running, whether classes are in person or online.
“The more kids have an opportunity to find out about each other, where they intermingle, there’s less fear and ignorance and they have more in common than they might realize,” Johnson said.
Wildy is hopeful the national reckoning will trickle into the halls of Glenelg, creating more white allies to call out microaggressions and overt racism.
“I hope that when people of color or Black people or any non-white person speaks out about their experiences at Glenelg, that it’s not invalidated, that they’re heard,” Ukondwa said. “We are able to listen to each other and understand that our experiences are our own experiences.”