WHS celebrates Black History Month

Colin Sumner

On Feb. 6, WHS celebrated Black History Month with the annual Black History Month Assembly hosted by the WHS Diversity Awareness Committee, a group of teachers and administrators who aim to promote diversity. The assembly started with the WHS Choraleers singing one tear-jerking gospel ballad entitled, “Total Praise,” penned by Richard Smallwood in 1990.

Vaughn McKoy’s most recent book

After their performance, Vaughn L. McKoy, an author and businessman, took the mic to speak to WHS students and staff. McKoy currently works for the city of Paterson as their business manager. He is a former Assistant Attorney General and Criminal Justice Division Director in the NJ Attorney General’s Office. McKoy volunteers his time and resources to several regional organizations and most recently worked as the Vice President and Managing Director for PSEG Long Island

McKoy began his remarks by commending the Choraleers on their beautiful hymn and thanked Media Specialist Lesley Cora, who heads the WHS Diversity Awareness Committee, for her help in making the assembly possible. Afterwards, McKoy asked everyone to take a moment of silence for the late Dr. Derrick Nelson. “[Dr. Nelson] was a wonderful individual who I didn’t know, but I’ve obviously read a lot about him and the work he’s done within Westfield and the school district,” McKoy said.

WHS Sophomore Abby Flynn said the moment of silence, “was really great, and a good sign of respect for him because he was a great man.” Like Flynn, many WHS students and staff members appreciated McKoy’s respect for and acknowledgement of Dr. Nelson. 

McKoy tested students’ knowledge on black history within Westfield, asking them to name three famous African Americans who had ties to the town. Several students eagerly raised their hands and answered with names such as Langston Huges or Paul Robeson. Each student who answered correctly received a copy of his autobiography Playing Up: One Man’s Rise From Public Housing to Public Service Through Mentorship. 

McKoy began his formal presentation with a short look at hardships African Americans have endured in the United States. He explained to students that, “the present is rooted in the past and if we don’t understand the past and analyze the present, we cannot go to the future.” McKoy described, to what he acknowledged as a predominantly white student body, the history of historically black colleges and universities, saying that their founders understood, “if we were going to succeed as a country, as a nation, we had to make sure that everybody was able to get educated and raise their families and live their lives.” 

McKoy recited Booker T. and W.E.B., a poem written by Dudley Randall that describes the differences in thinking between the two civil rights leaders. One stanza reads, “I don’t agree, said W.E.B., for what can property avail If dignity and justice fail. Unless you help to make the laws, they’ll steal your house with a trumped-up clause.” McKoy used the game Monopoly to explain the poem and characterize the oppression of African Americans; he told students that  while they tried to advance in the game, which symbolizes their lives, they were prevented from doing so. McKoy noted how disenfranchisement has negatively affected African American opportunities by excluding them from property, loans and other social programs. 

 Afterwards, McKoy discussed African American participation within the American government, mentioning politicians from Mayor Ken Gibson to President Barack Obama. He proceeded to ask his audience, “how did we make the journey from American slave to American citizen to American president?” 

McKoy acknowledged his own struggles while growing up in Paterson, such as becoming a father at age 16.  He decided when he found out that, “instead of going to a school far away, I was going to stay in this state… and I wasn’t going to leave this little baby that I was responsible for bringing into this world.” 

Photo by Wikimedia Commons
Great Falls- Paterson, NJ

His messages were of inspiration and to remain dedicated. He said, “I learned in my life that focus is not the absence of distractions, it is the ability to persevere through distractions.” In addition to focus, McKoy’s pillars that he lives by, include faith, footing and future. He conveyed to students that they must remain grounded and not get ahead of themselves. McKoy then shifted his talk towards how he left corporate America. “ I wanted to do something that would have more of an impact, where I could build a legacy. So I went back to Paterson,” said McKoy. 

It was clear that McKoy truly cares about his hometown and even encouraged students and staff to visit the only urban National Park in the US located in the heart of Paterson: the Great Falls. In July of this year, McKoy and his team will be breaking ground on improving Hinchliffe Stadium, a national historic landmark, after receiving a $75 million tax credit. In addition, McKoy helped organize the collection of over $1.5 million to improve Paterson’s Bauerle Field House.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons
Hinchliffe Stadium- Paterson, NJ

“The same weights that were in that building from when I played is not an understatement. 35 years that facility hadn’t been upgraded, and visiting teams like Westfield don’t even want to go there,” said McKoy. He felt that he, “had to help fix it and help drive the change that’s necessary.”

McKoy ended by thanking the WHS administration: “The fact that the leadership allowed people like me and Dr. Pinkett last year is admirable.” McKoy added that, “[these assemblies] are not happening everywhere … but your faculty, teachers and leaders have vision and understand that we are a multicultural society and we have to be culturally diverse and culturally sensitive.”

In honor of Black History Month, he encouraged everyone to listen to the stories of African Americans. In addition, he asked, “What can you do to make the world a better place?” He ended his assembly with this: “I trust that all of you will find a way to make a contribution to society, your families and your communities that will last well beyond you.” 

McKoy then took several minutes to go and greet the other students in the gymnasium and cafeteria. Principal Mary Asfendis said, “The message of learning from the past to make choices in the future is really important. I loved [McKoy’s] words about diversity and how we all play a role in moving forward.”