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Dilworth '87 Launches Black History Month

From a Prep News story by Riley McEnery '18 and Sam Ortman '18 (February 2, 2018)

The entire St. Louis U. High community gathered in the Si Commons on February 1st for an assembly focusing on Black History Month and its application to the school and St. Louis community. The assembly featured keynote speaker Dr. Rollo Dilworth ’87.

The idea for an assembly for Black History Month sparked from conversations among students on the yearly Philia retreat. English teacher and Director of Equity and Inclusion Frank Kovarik converted these discussions to action by beginning planning for the assembly after the retreat this year.

The focus on SLUH’s connection to Black History stemmed from Kovarik’s work on a book celebrating SLUH’s bicentennial that includes research on Black History in SLUH.

A SLUH jazz combo band played and a slideshow of influential black people was displayed as students and faculty filtered into the Commons for the assembly. SLUH principal Fr. Ian Gibbons, S.J., began the assembly with a prayer.

Students involved with ACES and STARS, including junior Austin Sexton-Warner, sophomore Peter Curdt, sophomore Kameron Moses, and sophomore Noah Hayes, then spoke.

“They were chosen based on their participation in ACES and STARS, and their eagerness to talk about these issues and to be a part of SLUH’s efforts at equity and inclusion,” said Kovarik.

Sexton-Warner introduced the topic of black history, and Curdt reflected on the history of African Americans affiliated with SLUH, including a discussion of people enslaved by the Jesuits that founded the school. Moses spoke about activists, protests, and sit-ins that have occurred in our city’s history, as well as SLUH alum Henry Hampton’s prize-winning documentary work about such events. Noah Hayes discussed the history of black faculty and staff at SLUH, including former custodian Dee Byrd, former theology teacher Danielle Harrison, the first female black teacher at the school, and history teacher and basketball coach Erwin Claggett, the first black coach at SLUH. Each student offered questions for reflection during and after their brief readings.

Chorus director Addie Akin then introduced a piece composed by Dilworth that the SLUH varsity chorus performed. Dilworth himself conducted the performance of the piece.

“I was really excited,” said Akin. “Excited for myself to get to meet (Dilworth) is an exciting thing and for the boys to get to sing with somebody that is as prominent as he is is just a real feather in their cap. He usually conducts all-state choirs and big prestigious ensembles and he got to work with the SLUH boys.”     

Dilworth was then introduced by band director Jeff Pottinger.

Kovarik decided to reach out to Dilworth after conversing with Akin and Pottinger about setting up music for the assembly.

“Whenever you talk about music and SLUH, Rollo Dilworth’s name comes up,” said Kovarik. “So we thought it would be kind of cool for him to come, maybe share some of his experiences, show us some of his music, and we just lucked out and he was very open to it.”

Dilworth was at SLUH for his class reunion when Kovarik decided to reach out to him, and he accepted the invitation.

In his speech, Dilworth reflected for 20 minutes or so on his experiences being one of 14 black students at SLUH in his years at the school. He focused on the meaning of being a Man for Others, the common Jesuit ideal, as it applies to racial reconciliation and social justice. He proposed an original approach to these issues in his OP-OP philosophy, in which we turn obstacles and problems to opportunities and possibilities.

Dilworth’s talk hit home with a majority of the community members, as he was applauded with a standing ovation after he finished.

“As soon as he finished I stood up and started clapping,” said Curdt. “He just commanded attention, and I really liked his OP-OP philosophy.”

Curdt was not the only one in the audience that enjoyed Dilworth’s speech and the entire presentation in general.

“I think it was a valuable and very fruitful experience,” said freshman Zak Stevenson. “If I could pull anything from the experience, it’s that we the people should embrace everyone all the time, not just during this month dedicated to the lives of African Americans because others who aren’t black have contributed to where I am today.”

“I thought it was an incredible idea. I think the team that made it happen were smart to provide history and context to the problems we discussed,” said senior Matt Rauschenbach.

Dilworth’s speech highlighted the importance of Black History Month to Kovarik and Curdt.

“I think that Black History is our history. It’s an important part of who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going,” said Kovarik. “I think too often we don’t look at that part of our history, and that holds us back from understanding where we’ve been and where we’re going.”

“I think what Black History Month is about is commemorating black excellence in the face of oppression, and you think about how intertwined that is with our school’s history and our city’s history,” said Curdt. “It’s definitely information that us as citizens of St. Louis and SLUH students need to come to terms with.”

Other members of SLUH’s community also thought that Dilworth’s speech stressed why Black History Month is significant to those of us who are not African American.

“I thought the speech in general was really good and did an excellent job of making it clear that Black History Month isn’t just history for a specific group of people—it’s all of our history, just from a perspective we don’t usually see it,” said senior Liam Heffernan.

However, many people still recognized SLUH’s rough history with racial injustice and how much room they have left to grow.

“I think we need to be honest and speak openly and freely about not just what makes us comfortable, but also what makes us uncomfortable about race relations and cultural dynamics in general. I think that students can become agents of social justice and social change and identify those aspects in their own lives or the lives of the people around them in which there is still seems to be racial insensitivity happening out of perhaps ignorance or perhaps even hate that seem to have to have racial overtones. Those are things that students can do right here to make the most safe and most welcoming environment possible,” said Dilworth. “I think faculty and staff should perhaps think about efforts to recruit more students of color and more faculty of color so that students of color can have more role models to look up to and that they understand that there are people of color that can teach who would probably love to be at an institution like this.”

After the speech, Kovarik thanked Dilworth and other members of the community, such as math teacher Dan Schuler, Gibbons, and Claggett. Kovarik also introduced several other initiatives in place for the remainder of Black History Month.

The first is an email initiative called Voices at SLUH where an email featuring a testimony from a student about Black History will be sent out every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The reflections from students are essays for a number of different SLUH English classes.

“I think they’re really compelling personal testimonies that are eye-opening and help us to see how issues of race affect everybody,” said Kovarik.

The SLUH Film club will be showing Get Out, an academy award nominated social satire film with elements of horror and comedy, on Feb. 8.

The assembly was closed by Claggett with a poem, “I, Too” by Langston Hughes, and a prayer. Before students emptied the Commons, however, Dilworth returned to the stage to lead SLUH in a community sing of “This Little Light of Mine.”

“A lot of the music that I write speaks to issues of unity, speaks to issues of social justice, speaks to issues of hope, of perseverance. Those messages are important to me,” said Dilworth. “My hope through music is to spread those ideas and to help people to understand not only more about the world around them, but maybe understand more about themselves and the power that music can have to bring people from all different backgrounds together. Music is a very unifying force in the universe and I believe that that’s part of my mission, to bring that music to the masses.”


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Rising Above
  • Features

For more than 50 years, Upward Bound has helped thousands of young men prepare for the rigors of high school. Today it continues to adapt, grow and flourish, illuminating the school's Jesuit mission of working for the Common Good.

SLUH Launches INSIGNIS Podcast
  • Features

SLUH's new INSIGNIS podcast features lively interviews with members of our school community engaged in a variety of roles and fascinating projects "down the hall, across the Metro area and around the world" in support of our mission. 

Bull in the Ring
  • Features

Joe Castellano's new book reveals the tragedy, triumph and resilient spirit that defined SLUH's remarkable, even unlikely 1970 football championship season.

Fall Sports Update

The cross country, football, soccer and swimming & diving programs featured stellar performances, new records and exciting competition.

#2centuries2words | Marty Hagan

Several Class of '64 RifleBills recently met for a mini reunion, after which they assembled a video that is nothing short of compelling and heart warming.

Impressions & Alumni Events
  • Alumni

Check out upcoming events, including our alumni art exhibit that is open now and culminates with a reception on November 30.

Parents Go Back to School

A group of parents recently formed the AMDG Ignatian Spirituality Group to deepen their faith in the Ignatian tradition and to form friendships with others.

From the Principal: Working for the Common Good

Dear SLUH Community,

Like any organization, SLUH strives to remain focused on mission. Incorporating our Ignatian tradition, we find that being reflective and deliberate in our decision-making process helps us to hold course...

Media Gallery: Alumni Reunions
  • Alumni

Alumni classes ending in 2 or 7 celebrated reunions this fall, with the Classes of 2002, 2007 and 2012 celebrating over Thanksgiving weekend.