OPRF junior Saniya Shotwell talks about the mural she worked on on Thursday, Feb. 24, in the hallway at Oak Park and River Forest High School. | Alex Rogals

Last month, a student group at Oak Park and River Forest High School held a weeklong event shedding light on Black History Month. Students from the Black Leaders Union (BLU) launched their own spirit week, welcoming all to participate in a themed event. BLU’s spirit week, which was held during the third week of February, began by asking faculty, staff and students to wear shirts featuring their favorite Black icons. Other days prompted the OPRF student body to rep jerseys of their favorite Black athletes or gear from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Zachary Ellis, an OPRF junior and BLU president, said his group’s spirit week was just one of the many events held in February that share the history of Black people in the U.S. Other staff pitched in by inviting students to watch movies in the library such as “42,” which told the story of Jackie Robinson, the first Black baseball player to play in the Major Leagues or helping curate the display of “unsung heroes” near the student welcoming center, Ellis, 16, said.  

Ellis and Ashley Brown, who serves as BLU’s secretary, shared with the Journal that they wanted to create a monthlong experience for their peers. In years past, Ellis said BLU hosted an event for Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, “and that’s it. We don’t really do anything.” This year, he said, was different.

In the weeks leading up to spirit week, Ellis said he took time out of his lunch period to paint and hang signs, letting everyone know what’s to come. Once spirit week kicked off, Ellis and Brown said they enjoyed watching their peers join in.

“We wanted something everybody in the school could participate in, not just the Black kids,” said Brown, 16 and a sophomore at OPRF. “It’s a great opportunity for people of all races to participate in it.”

The organization also sought to incorporate Random Acts of Kindness Day, which is held annually Feb. 17 and fell right in the middle of BLU’s spirit week. That day, Brown said, was one of her favorites, as an example of promoting unity and togetherness.

BLU passed out hundreds of ‘kindness’ bracelets to students, each one inscribed with messages that read: “You can do anything” or “You rock.”

Reflecting on Black History Month, Ellis and Brown opened up about being members of BLU and their organization’s importance.

“It’s definitely a great privilege to be able to be in a group with people who understand you,” Brown said. “Nobody likes to talk about it, but Oak Park is still a very white community. Being in this group is amazing. You get to meet amazing people, and you get to experience things that they experience and talk about it without backlash.”

“It’s a community,” Ellis said, echoing Brown. “… It’s really nice when we get a chance to experience and talk about things that Black people deal with and just collaborate as a club.”

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