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Umoja ceremony unifies Black high school grads from Bloomington-Normal

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Wesley McCloud, a graduating senior at Normal Community West High School, is bestowed green, gold and black honor cords to be worn with his gown at an Umoja ceremony Saturday in Normal.

NORMAL — Young Black scholars from the Twin Cities were celebrated Saturday at an Umoja ceremony held on the Illinois State University campus.

Hosted by the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Nu Psi Lambda Chapter, along with the Beta Iota Zeta Chapter of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, the event served as recognition of graduating high school students and their families, with honors rooted in African traditions.

James Love, president of the Alpha Phi Alpha chapter, told The Pantagraph that the event provides an opportunity to celebrate Black cultural and heritage, and review African American history and predominant Black icons in the United States.

“We want (graduates) to see that and let them know they’re capable of more as they’re transitioning into college,” he said.

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Love explained that they started holding the Umoja ceremony in 2016, and that its name means “unity” in Swahili.

So when celebrating the high school students, he said they want to ensure they bring in the community to provide that unity.

“We loop that into the celebration and we want to make sure unity is very present and they’re not forgetting their heritage,” Love said.

Also in the Saturday event program was the singing of the Black national anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice & Sing,” reciting of the Ancestor’s Prayer and the Ancestral Libations, and presentations of honor cords for graduates to wear with their gowns.


Graduating high school seniors bow their heads in prayer at an Umoja ceremony Saturday in Normal.

The keynote speaker was Vernon Smith Jr., a graduate of Normal Community High School and Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. He works as a reporter for Fox 2 in the St. Louis area.

He addressed graduates about how his parents gave him a document listing six key topics, with many bullets points for each. Smith said one was freedom, and its first point was to be responsible. He said students can stay out as late as they want to now, but they should not make a habit of it every weekend.

The second, he said, was make good decisions and don’t embarrass your parents. And the third, Smith said, was don’t get caught up with crowds that go wild with new freedoms; he later continued that those crowds don’t always make it to graduation. Some don’t make it to sophomore year.

Smith said he doesn’t want to make it seem like you can’t have fun in college, however, “be smart about the decisions you make, and remember, you went there for an education.”

Smith also encouraged graduates to set up their future by networking, and getting involved in organizations. One he joined connected him with the anchor at the news station he now works at.

“Mom and Dad aren’t going to be there to help you find these jobs once your college graduation rolls around,” he said.

Smith also told the graduating students to know their worth as Black students of excellence.

“The reason we have events like these where we can celebrate Black excellence is because ‘they’ count us out. They don't care enough to acknowledge our achievements or talk about the issues you'll face on the college campus,” Smith said.


From left, Alexander Williams Sr. and wife Sharon Williams pose with their graduate-to-be Alexander Williams Jr., a student at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, and his sister Sahara Williams. The family attended a Saturday Umoja ceremony in Normal.

One graduating senior was Alexander Williams Jr., who’s set to earn his diploma from Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy.

Since being away from home, Williams said he was glad to have his friends and family — including his sister Sahara, a sophomore at Normal Community West High School — come together on Saturday.

He plans to study physics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, with plans to transfer into computer science.

Latrice Samuel, a sponsor for the Normal West Black Student Union, said the ceremony was very organized, and it was great to celebrate Black excellence and “our Black children.”

Contact Brendan Denison at (309) 820-3238. Follow Brendan Denison on Twitter: @BrendanDenison


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Breaking News Reporter

Brendan Denison is our breaking news reporter. Denison was a digital content producer for WCIA-TV in Champaign and a reporter for The Commercial-News in Danville. He can be reached at (309) 820-3238 and

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