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The class of 2020 marks Roosevelt’s last graduation

Virtual ceremony closes final chapter of historic school

By Erick Johnson

There was Sir Edward Elgar’s classic music, Pomp and Circumstance, but there were no cap and gown-cloaked graduates walking down the aisle, nor handshakes or caps tossed into the air. But as with so many previous graduation ceremonies during Roosevelt College and Career Academy’s rich history, there was spirit.

It was the last graduation ceremony of Gary’s storied, 97-year-old school, built for Blacks during the Jim Crow era. Decades of achievements and national awards had come down to a virtual ceremony that celebrated the beginning of a bright future for 34 graduates and the end of an era of a historic Black school that beamed with unbridled pride and spirit.

Graduates of the Class of 2020 survived the coronavirus pandemic, a flawed takeover, and a historical building that will stay closed forever. They learned what no textbook can teach them about: The Black Struggle.

Their four years of pain ended with a virtual ceremony whose many technical glitches lacked the pageantry and aura of Roosevelt’s past commencement ceremonies, but they rose above that too. They not only hold diplomas, but the great distinction of being Roosevelt’s last graduation class.

During the virtual commencement, the graduates’ names were called individually. A photo of each graduate in his/her cap and gown was shown next to his/her Roosevelt diploma. As each name was called, cheers could be heard from parents and fellow students on Zoom.

“Despite the chaos that surrounds us, I couldn’t be prouder of everyone here with us on this beautiful occasion,” said Chloe Coleman, the class valedictorian.

Aniya Thompson was the class salutatorian.

The one-hour ceremony included comments from Roosevelt alumni who graduated from the school in various years.

One came from Henry A. Links, 99, who graduated from Roosevelt in in 1939. From his wheelchair in a nursing home, Links told the graduates, “Dream big and never stop following your dream. God bless all of you on your journey.”

Three Roosevelt graduates from the Class of 1984 held a banner while standing in the parking lot of the school.

One prominent Roosevelt alumna who spoke was former Gary Mayor Karen Freeman Wilson, who graduated from the school in 1978. In a golden Roosevelt Panther T-Shirt, she said, “Because your determination to make it through this year, you have everything you need to succeed in life and I’m so excited about your futures. I can’t wait to see the things that you do.”

Later that day a Roosevelt commencement “Drive Thru” celebration was held at Gary’s Lake Etta County Park.

Founded in 1923, Roosevelt was built for Blacks when they were not allowed to attend schools with white students. Few schools, including Froebel High School in Gary, admitted Black students, who were treated like second-class citizens and barred from participating in extracurricular activities.

Roosevelt was created after 600 white students led a four-day strike to protest the transfer of 18 Black students to the all-white Emerson High School. To settle the strike, the School Board approved $600,000 to build Roosevelt after much heated debate.

While many students excelled academically, Roosevelt athletes won two city football championships in 1947 and 1948 and five National Negro Basketball championships in the 1930s. Named after Theodore Roosevelt, the nation’s 26th president, the school was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015.

Earlier this year, the Indiana State Board voted unanimously to close Roosevelt’s historic building for good after it was temporarily shuttered in 2019 when pipes burst during frigid temperatures. Over 400 Roosevelt students attended class at the Gary Area Career Center. In the fall, some will attend other schools in Gary to finish their high school education while Roosevelt fades into history.

Ironically, Roosevelt survived longer than Gary’s other historic high schools. Froebel closed in 1977, Emerson in 1981 and Horace Mann in 2004.

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