By Devese “Dee” Ursery
In a school where the racial disparity between white and black is overwhelmingly evident it can be hard for under-represented students to be prideful of their culture when it is ignored or invisible.
The Black Student Union at Collinsville High School is an organization that is made of members interested in, or already sharing, a love for Black culture. Through their efforts of lending a helping hand whenever needed or maintaining visibility throughout the school and community, the BSU is changing the narrative.
The leaders of the BSU this week expressed what Back Pride means to them. Their responses – hard work, perseverance and being unapologetically Black. Also empowerment by knowledge of self, living free of fear and confusion and finally celebrating your Blackness in the face of discontent.
Joanna Kelly, counselor and advisor of the BSU, said the club’s inception was three years ago and it was started by her daughter, Tyler Hill. She graduated in 2020 and the Tyler Hill Leadership Scholarship was created in her honor.
Kelly said it started when Hill, who was in the band for CHS at the time, was visiting another high school during Black History Month. The school she was visiting was substantially decorated to honor the event and Hill was upset that Collinsville didn’t show that same enthusiasm to represent Black culture.
The Black student population at Collinsville High School is barely in the double digits, topping out at 13%, while whites make up 59% and Latin students make up about 27%. Other ethnicities make up less than 1% of the student population.
So Hill took it to the principal who told her “to do something about it.” Hill proceeded to write a letter to the superintendent of Collinsville Community Unit District 10 and the rest is history.
“We give out $500 to a member of the BSU who is in their senior year and shows great leadership,” Kelly said. “It was her leadership that got the group started.”
Taylor Foote, president of BSU and senior at CHS said it’s hard to feel comfortable when you’re in a class setting and you don ‘t see anyone that looks like you.
“I’m in an Honors English class and I’m the only African-American in there,” Foote said. “I feel like that is a problem when it comes to the racial harmony at Collinsville.”
Foote said that African-American students at CHS are just as capable as anyone else of being successful in those classes.
The goal of the club is to celebrate black culture, educate students on Black History, promote academic excellence and pride. BSU teaches its members leadership skills through interactive projects and activities inside and outside of school.
“Having a group all to yourself to where you can come and feel very natural and very free,” Foote said. “That feeling that you can be yourself here and you don’t have to feel like you’re being cut off or excluded.”
Ray Briggs, another honor student and vice-president of BSU added the same sentiment, saying that it’s the same minority students in his class every year.
“Having been in honors class since I moved to Collinsvile, it’s been the same cycle of people.” Briggs said. “Being that there are so few of us at this school who are in honors or AP classes, it’s more than likely that we all will end up in the same classes every year.”
February, Black History Month is the club’s biggest month where they go all out planning events throughout the month promoting not only Black history, but also inclusiveness and peace.
Some of the events for this year’s Black History Month will be the Door Decorating Competition, where classrooms decorate their doors in honor of the occasion. They will feature a soul food menu during the month and more. There will be a movie night and the Divine Nine Day, which refers to the nine Black Greek Letter Organizations, will be on campus recruiting and sharing knowledge.
According to Kelly they are starting a Gentlemen’s Club at the school to teach young men responsibility and other life lessons. Some East St. Louis police officers have agreed to come out and speak to kids about gun safety and how to deal with police as an African-American.
“Everybody doesn’t have that person to give them that talk, but it’s a talk that’s needed in America, unfortunately,” Kelly said.
Kelly said the club is received well throughout CHS and the community now, but that wasn’t the case. In the beginning there were issues with getting started, but he wouldn’t elaborate.
“We are so prominent and do so much in the community,” Kelly said. “I feel that we are received well because we are represented well and we do things for other people.”
Kelly stated that the key to ensure racial equity is communication and has to be something that is thought about and intentionally done. In order for it to be that way, people of color have to be in the room, she concluded.
“I feel like we have to work together with making sure minorities are included in the conversations that go on in this school,” Kelly said. “In order for that to happen we need to be in the room.”
The club hopes and plans to heal the racial divide within the school and in the community through love and inclusiveness, Alexander explains. He said, to ensure that intent, several clubs got together and formed one big super club, so no matter what club is doing something we’re all supporting each other.
BSU also does a lot in the community like putting on toy drives, collecting coats and hats for the kids, as well as adding to the Blessing box.
James Alexander, a BSU advisor, said that most of the kids know about colleges, but not too much about Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“We take a lot of pride in making sure that the students know about these black colleges and universities,” he said.
Another big event for the club is the Juneteenth festival. Alexander said that this Juneteenth celebration will be bigger than any other. He also plans on bringing out 10,000 balloons for a big water balloon fight.
“We’re gonna treat this just as if it was as big as the Fourth of July,” Alexander said. “It’s our holiday and we’re gonna celebrate.”
Kelly said that the American Legion in Collinsville let them utilize their building and parking lot last year. This year the BSU has locked down two locations, the American Legion again and the Old Herald Brewery.
“We plan on not only doing a Juneteenth Festival, but also a night time concert with dancers, poets and stuff like that,” Kelly said. “Our goal is to work with the city of Collinsville to one day get Main Street.”