MLK Jr. Chapel Examines Lovett's Complex History, Promising Future

Katie Maier

“Diversity means not surrounding yourself with people just like yourself...because whether in academia, culture, or biology, organisms are strengthened through diversity.”

“I think a lot of people forget our history because we focus on only part of it,” says junior Sloane Vassar, a member of the Black Affinity group. 

In the past, the Upper School’s annual Martin Luther King Junior chapel has included various speakers and messages. However, this year, on January 14, the service focused on the difficult parts of Lovett’s history more directly than ever before.

Members of the Black Affinity group led a program that addressed the rejection of MLK III’s application to Lovett in the 1960s. They read aloud letters from Lovett parents from that time period both supporting and denouncing his rejection, and they invited two speakers to give a message to the Upper School. 

One of the speakers, Franklin Thomas, shared the story of his time as a Lovett student. Mr. Thomas was the first black man to graduate from Lovett back in 1980. He was admitted into the school at the same time as his younger brother and a couple of other students, but he was the only black student in his class throughout his time at the school. His family experienced racial discrimination and often struggled to pay the expensive tuition. 

“I’m not a hero, I’m a vessel,” Mr. Thomas said in his speech. In his eyes, the true hero was his mother whose many sacrifices allowed him to get his education from Lovett. 

Nonetheless, Lovett students recognize that Mr. Thomas’s educational journey paved the way for future students. Hoping to shine light upon our school’s history, the Black Affinity group invited him to speak at the suggestion of one of their sponsors, Dr. Henderson, who knew that Mr. Thomas would be returning to Lovett this year for his fortieth reunion. They arranged his visit so that he could not only speak at chapel but also have more in-depth discussion with high school students and faculty during a lunch meeting. 

Senior Cory Riley, a leader of the Black Affinity group, was glad to see how much the students respected Mr. Thomas and appreciated his message. “I didn’t think he’d be received so well,” Cory said as he reflected upon Mr. Thomas’s speech during chapel. 

Reverend Allen, the Upper School chaplain, also saw how receptive the students were to the program. He took a step back in the organizing of this chapel to allow Cory and the Black Affinity group to decide what message they wanted to share with their peers. 

“There is so much learning to be done and pain in the past,” Reverend Allen says. “You have to recognize that people’s experiences are different, and we all have to keep growing and learning.”  

In remembering the past, we can grow as a school and as a community. This chapel was a symbolic representation of the journey Lovett has undergone over the past several decades. 

“I think that everyone is so accepting of one another now,” Cory says. “We’re all close no matter what race or ethnicity or gender you are.”

Still, Cory believes that there is more change that still needs to be made at our school. For example, he hopes that Lovett will continue to hire more teachers of color for students like him to look up to. 

Just like Cory, Lovett is looking to the future to find more ways to be inclusive and diverse. Dr. Carla Neil-Haley, who was the second speaker of the MLK Jr. chapel, is a member of the Board of Trustees and mother to two Lovett alumni and a current Upper School senior. Although she did not attend Lovett, she had a similar experience to Mr. Thomas in that she attended a mostly white private school. Now, as a member of the Lovett community and a woman of color, she helps our school make decisions to lead us on the best path to our future. 

As Mr. Thomas put it in an interview I had with him after the chapel service, “Diversity means not surrounding yourself with people just like yourself...because whether in academia, culture, or biology, organisms are strengthened through diversity.”

The goal of this MLK Jr. Chapel was not just to address the past. It was about recognizing what we were, what we are, and what we can be as long as we value diversity and allow it to strengthen our Lovett community.

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