La Plata High School ‘champions of civil rights’ celebrate graduation over 5 decades later

"Got it!" shouted a La Plata High School Class of 1969 grad, as he clutched his original high school diploma for the first time, at a Charles County, Md. graduation ceremony that was 52 years in the making.

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On Thursday, nearly two dozen former La Plata High School students were honored with a graduation ceremony that recognized their activism, protesting racial injustice at their high school in 1969. Then teenagers, the grads had been punished for protesting by not being allowed to receive their diploma at graduation with their peers. Now "senior citizens," the La Plata High School grads proudly walked across the stage to experience the celebrated rite of passage, the right way.

"Class of 1969, you are champions of Civil Rights," said current Charles County School Board Chairperson, Latina Wilson on Thursday.

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Dale Contee is on one of the La Plata High School Class of 1969 grads who received her original diploma on Thursday. In a previous interview, she recalled when she learned she would not get to experience graduation the same way as her friends. "It made you angry. Disgusted. Like why? Why can’t we have our diplomas publicly? ‘No we’re going to mail them to you,’ And of course that hurt."

Contee is now retired and serves as an Associate Pastor at Lighthouse Baptist Church in Waldorf, Maryland. 

"We don’t hold this current administration responsible for that because they weren’t even around when some of this happened, but they do represent the Board of Education," said Contee, who calls this the "Golden Anniversary of 50 years" since the Charles County NAACP started this effort about two years ago.

Along with the seven original 1969 diplomas given, another 15 graduates were given a certificate for their activism. State Senator Arthur Ellis also presented the nearly two dozen grads with a certificate from the Maryland General Assembly. 

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"It’s better than I even anticipated and I’m so grateful that we brought some closure to this incident. So I’m just grateful. I’m happy today," Contee told FOX 5 after. 

In 1969, FOX 5 was told a number of Black LPHS students were frustrated that the members of the school’s "Majorettes" were only picked by one person who did not allow any Black students to join after three slots on the six-member group had opened-up.  

A previous article incorrectly identified the "Majorettes" as cheerleading team but Wilhelmina Travis set the record straight, telling FOX 5 she was La Plata High School’s first and only Black "Majorette" back when students began protesting in 1969. Travis says the "Majorettes" were the baton twirlers who proceeded the marching band.

Travis received a certificate for her activism on Thursday. 

"It was really, really wonderfully," said Travis, who placed her two hands over her heart, "and I feel proud."

Travis explained that three positions were opening-up on the Majorettes – her position and that of two White teammates – all three were seniors getting ready to graduate. Travis said she then chose around five students and began teaching them so they could try-out, recalling the number of try-outs being around half-and-half. 

"After the five or so girls tried out and they came back and said who the winners and there were no Black girls and I was like, ‘Oh this is not so good here because I knew the girls were good," said Travis, who described feeling "terrible."

"And in disbelief," added Travis, "I couldn’t believe it. If they were bad, I’d say, ‘Okay, ya’ll didn’t do as good as I thought you would,’ or, ‘ya’ll weren’t good.’ But they were not bad. They were excellent and not one was picked." 

For Travis, this was the "straw that broke the camel’s back."

The students said they voiced their frustration to school leaders, but when that fell on deaf ears, they organized a sit-in at the school’s cafeteria. Old news reports say there was also a walk-out.

This also came at a time where there was still racial tension at the school. Contee said this was a few years after integration and recalled the pain of being told by her chemistry teacher, she would never earn higher than a "C."

"[It was] pretty disturbing because I worked hard. And so I just kind of shutdown," Contee told FOX 5.

"I couldn’t understand what was wrong with people wanting to talk with other people. So move onto high school, we were fully integrated and people still stayed separate for some reason," said Jimmy Mayola, who is one of the seven graduates to also receive his original diploma on Thursday. FOX 5 is told Mayola is the only White student to be punished at graduation for protesting how the school allowed for its selection of "Majorettes."

"Believe it or not, I was pretty nervous. I was thinking about it’s a long time coming. We have righted a wrong today," said Mayola after the ceremony, "stand up for what’s right. Stand up for what you know is right."

Mayola recalled Black students made up around 40% of the La Plata High School student body population. 

"The protesters, who were allegedly marching in support of a considered legitimate demand of the black students of La Plata high, then once again went off the parade route," one of those old articles read.

As punishment for the peaceful sit-in at the school’s cafeteria and other actions organized, current school leaders confirm the 1969 school administrators decided not to allow the Black students who protested, and Mayola, to receive their high school diploma at graduation with the rest of their peers.  

Charles County School Officials tell FOX 5 the diplomas were sent out after. However Contee said her mother would not allow her to receive it. Many other students protested the same way, which meant those diplomas were sent back to the school system.

"These wonderful students, integrated class, having their rite of passage somewhat disrupted and then being able to come back in the year 2021 and saying okay, let’s give it the dignity and respect. So it’s meaningful," said current Charles County School Board Chairperson Latina L. Wilson last week.

The current school board confirmed those actions half a century ago did actually change how both the Majorettes and Warriorettes were selected, which included 20 spots on the two squads. The school board said no Black students had been selected for either of those 20 positions. 

"I came up in the 60s, so I went through it all where we had to go around the back to get into where we had to go. So these things are emotional to me," said Ernest Winters, who received a certificate of activism. Winters told FOX 5 he was thinking about his father as he walked on stage Thursday. His father did attend his original graduation and was also there when Winters did not receive that diploma in-person.

"Working along with each other and not making enemies, but coming together. We can bring the change that we want to bring," said Dezmond Rosier, the CCNAACP Youth Council President who also advocated for this year’s recognition.

"Use this as a golden opportunity to make a wrong a right. And we can move forward. We can forget about all of this. And this would never have to happen again. I never ever want the citizens of Charles County to have to go through, students in particular, the things that we went through," said Contee in a previous interview.