Jesse Jackson’s granddaughter Skye fights racism at her Virginia boarding school: ‘It was just normal for students to be in blackface’

Stacy Jackman
·6 mins read

Skye Jackson, granddaughter of civil rights leader and two-time U.S. presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, is a rising senior at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va. Taking after her grandfather, the 17-year-old is active at her school, serving as co-president of the Black Student Association and president of a diversity club called Spectrum. She describes friendships with her peers and certain teachers as “beautiful connections,” calling the school an academic “rock” for her.

But Skye also tells Yahoo Life that scratching the surface of the elite boarding school exposes an atmosphere of deep racism.

That’s why she and her best friend, Amy John-Terry, created and now manage submissions for Black at EHS (@blackatehs). The Instagram page is a public space for Black students, alumni and teachers to share their experiences — all with the goal of improving EHS, which celebrated 50 years of integration in 2018. The page, since its launch in June, has already received over 100 posts.

“Our school was founded in 1839. ... Our school has deep roots in slavery, Jim Crow … the KKK, a lot of different Southern Confederate roots,” Skye tells Yahoo Life. “Many times, it was just normal for students to be in blackface … at school events, and no teachers, no administrations, no faculty, no staff … would say something. And if there were those couple of faculty and staff members who would say something, nothing was done about it.”

Skye also says that as a mixed-race young woman, she has experienced her fair share of microaggressions. “Some of the challenges that I have specifically faced are about my hair — just assumptions made about me based on my culture, based on being mixed race ... and that needs to change,” Skye says.

Amy John-Terry, left, and Skye Jackson, co-creators of Black at EHS. (Photo courtesy of Skye Jackson)
Amy John-Terry, left, and Skye Jackson, co-creators of Black at EHS. (Photo courtesy of Skye Jackson)

“We've received immense support from alumni and a few ... teachers and faculty members — which has been also really amazing — and current students as well,” Skye says, noting that some of her white peers might be a bit hesitant to go public.

She said that while some of her white friends are vocal supporters, others “will kind of talk to me privately and say, ‘Yeah, that's horrible. ... Great job. Keep doing what you're doing.’ But if they don't say it publicly, how do other people know that they're allies too?”

In addition to the support come private acts of racist bullying. “The first two to three days, we received about 15 racist and fake submissions to demean the page. And that was extremely upsetting because ... the things that we're talking about on the page are not personal to anyone; it's really just so that the administration can change,” she says.

Head of School at Episcopal High School Charley Stillwell said in a statement to Yahoo Life that he is “grieved” by what he heard through Black at EHS as well as in a series of listening forums conducted this summer with alumni and current students and their families.

“The strength of our community is important to us, and it is clear that Episcopal has fallen short of our ideals and our mission far too often,” Stillwell said. “At times, racism expressed through both words and actions has been hurtful to our Black students. We regret deeply that we did not do more to recognize and stand up to such racism and prejudice, and we are committed to becoming a community that is free of racism.”

Episcopal’s Director of Communications, Drew Lindsay, also shared this link, which offers a detailed list of actions the administration is taking to better support students this fall and in the years to come.

Despite negative posts and actions by some of her peers, Skye says she is determined to keep the page up and running.

“These submissions have kind of answered questions that I've had, [like], Why is the culture so off here? Why are things the way that they are? So posting these submissions has been really kind of hard, because I feel like I'm holding people's stories and holding what people never got to say.”

She joins creators of many other “Black at” accounts, including those about some of the country’s most prestigious private high schools — including the boarding school Andover (@blackatandover) and the Chapin School, a day school in NYC (@blackatchapin).

“I have made so many new friends from other ‘Black at’ accounts,” Skye says. “Even if I don't know their names or even if they choose to remain anonymous, it's so nice to get a community of people who can help me and can support me whenever I need support — and also who I can support if I have any advice ... because the work that we're doing is honestly really emotionally taxing sometimes.”

Skye believes that simply ignoring racism on campus creates alienation and a divide among students, and it won’t make the problem go away. She cites a lack of color among the school’s educators as a major problem.

“Unfortunately there aren't a lot of Black teachers, which is something that definitely needs to change. And that's a theme that I've seen across a lot of the other ‘Black at’ pages, too. [Also] that the curriculum needs to change to tell accurate history.”

She is hopeful that going forward the school will take a different approach to how they handle racism at all levels.

Skye says that she is up for the challenge of holding administrators accountable, citing her grandfather as a constant source of inspiration.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson with granddaughter Skye. (Photo courtesy of Skye Jackson)
The Rev. Jesse Jackson with granddaughter Skye. (Photo courtesy of Skye Jackson)

“He's just taught me how to have a vision, how to actually go for it,” Skye says. “And just to not be afraid. And that's been really kind of just amazing to have a role model who I can use and just say, ‘OK, someone in my family has done it before, I can do it too.’”

Join Skye, Amy, other students, the National Black Student Alliance and Black leaders, including Michael Eric Dyson and Eddie Glaude, in a virtual discussion about how to foster and promote safe and productive school environments for Black students. The town hall event takes place Monday, Aug. 10 from 6 to 8 p.m. ET. Visit nationalbsa.org for more info and to RSVP. Registration is free. You can also check out the National Black Student Alliance on Instagram at @nationalbsa.

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