Students at Paul Robeson High School in Chicago met and spoke with community stakeholders Friday as part of the 6th annual “Back-to-School with The HistoryMakers” program, which simultaneously took place at more than 200 urban schools nationally.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined Julieanna Richardson, founder and executive director of The HistoryMakers, a Chicago nonprofit that sponsored the annual event, at Robeson where students packed the school’s library to listen to words of encouragement, and to honor two Chicago-natives: Thomas Burrell, founder of Burrell Communications Group, a Chicago advertising agency, and Cheryl Burton, a news anchor, ABC7 Chicago.
Richarson told students about her humble beginning in Chicago and how at age nine she was the only black in her class.
“I want you to know that education is not only important but a recipe for success,” she said. You [Robeson students] have a rich history but you are not being taught your true history.”
She added that many students at Robeson do not know who Paul Robeson is or why a school is named after him.
“No one should graduate from a school named after a black, historical person and not know anything about them,” said Richardson.
Duncan reminded students especially seniors that the federal government awards $150 billion a year in financial aid to needy students.
“Every one has a part to play when it comes to pursuing higher education. I make sure the government does its part by providing financial assistance. It is now up to you to do your part and stay in school, go to class, and do your best until you graduate,” Duncan said. Whatever your dream is, you should pursue it and take it to the next level academically. And don’t ever underestimate your value in life.”
Burrell, 76, is an alumnus of Parker High School, which was renamed Paul Robeson; and Burton, 54, graduated from Lindblom Math & Science Academy. Both schools are located in the Englewood neighborhood on the city’s South Side.
“I remember a old high school teacher suggesting to me that I should pursue a career as an advertising copy writer. At the time I did not know what that was and neither did my friends. But I took the time to learn about it and made it my career,” said Burrell.”So my message to young people is to do what you say you are going to do and do it with dignity, pride and knowledge.”
For Burton, an award-winning broadcast journalist, her first career choice was to become a doctor.
“I did not get a degree in Journalism because I wanted to be a doctor and went as far as to get accepted into medical school after I graduated from college [University of Illinois-Urbana],” explained Burton.”But with five siblings my parents did not have the money to send me to med school so I took a different route.”
Afterwards, students were able to ask Burton and Burrell questions about their careers and personal lives.
“You have got to be the driver of your life,” Burrell said in response to a question about what motivates him in life.
Burton encouraged students to travel as much as they could and reminded them to always think global.
“This world exist outside Chicago. Go out there and explore what life has to offer you. Look at what you are good at doing and what brings you joy,” Burton said. “You should do what makes you happy.”
Robeson students also received news that The HistoryMakers was donating its Digital Archive to CPS.
Forrest Claypool, CEO of Chicago Public Schools and Janice Jackson, chief education officer for CPS along with Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), whose ward includes Robeson, also attended.
With over 2,700 hours of black history now digitally at students’ fingertips, Richardson said students should take full advantage of the opportunity.
“This is our gift to Robeson and all CPS students,” she said. “What you do with the knowledge you will get from the archives is up to you.”