Dayshawn Harris asked to come in late for his summer job so he could march in what was billed as “a citywide graduation parade” Friday in Camden.
“Because I didn’t have a graduation or a prom,” said Harris, newly-graduated from Camden’s Pride Academy, “and I just wanted to show off.”
Harris was one of about 20 seniors from around the city who walked from Woodrow Wilson High to Farnham Park in the parade, sponsored by several grassroots Camden organizations, including Camden We Choose.
Organizers had hoped for a bigger turnout; some said they were stymied by the Camden City School District’s refusal to promote the event because of fears of spreading the coronavirus. Camden School Board member Elton Custis said the District “could have been more supportive by telling people to wear their face masks and stay six feet apart but still help to celebrate this in some capacity.” Activist Carmen Lozada called Superintendent Katrina McCombs’ unwillingness to announce the parade during last week’s virtual graduation “a slap in the face.”
Before the procession left Wilson, organizer Ronsha Dickerson told the students, “Do not let the numbers reflect the love we have for you!”
Although the parade was geared toward the six public high schools in Camden, with banners imprinted with headshots of seniors from each, Camden Academy Charter graduating senior Geniah Miller attended anyway.
“I’m going to keep wearing this cap as long as I live!” she said.
Participating seniors in today’s parade were greeted at Farnham Park with confetti, a lunch of french fries and chicken tenders, hugs and congratulations.
Motivational speaker Ahava Divine reminded the graduates of their achievement during a pandemic. “With some people not having a computer, some people not having the internet, and some people not having parents who can read… we are proud of you!”
Ronsha Dickerson said she was excited and joyful, no matter how many students attended the parade. “Everyone who’s supposed to be here will be here,” she said.
The parade was one of several efforts to make up to the graduates some of what they’d lost when school stopped in mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Earlier this week, at Woodrow Wilson High, yearbook teacher Seth Ahiekpor had set up a photo shoot with backdrop and props for any interested graduates. Only a handful of this year’s 166 grads showed, but the ones who did brought as many as seven family members with them to pose for pictures. Other Camden high schools have scheduled similar celebratory hours in the weeks to come.
Some of the same activists involved in today’s parade held a demonstration in Camden earlier this week to mark the “Mass Mobilization on Reopening of Public Schools in Fall 2020.” Speakers, including Stephanie Wilson, Executive Director of NJ’s Amistad Commission, which seeks to infuse African American history into social studies curriculums, spoke of the education inequities in Camden that were brought into sharp relief by the pandemic.
“I live four minutes from here,” said Wilson, who resides in Merchantville, “and when schools closed, my kid picked up his schoolwork with a laptop he’d gotten at Haddon Heights High School the first day of class!” Many laptops were not distributed to Camden children until late April.
“We need to address the issue of equity,” said Wilson, “especially in the middle of a global pandemic that has sent all our children home.”