“Lead Me, Guide Me”—the sounds and sights of Mayfield’s Black History Month

If you happened to be on the Mayfield Senior School campus this February, you might have experienced something captivating happening every Wednesday during lunch hour. Large speakers would appear on porches and patios, and the usually quiet airways would be filled with rich, moving music. Jazz, gospel and protest music. There were some hip hop and R&B offerings too. Some pieces were haunting, some enthralling, some were so outrageously fun that made people break into spontaneous dance, while others were more contemplative and thought-provoking. There is something irresistible about music—especially powerful music—it can tell an important story that somehow makes everyone who hears it feel included in that story. All of these pieces were important compositions from Black musicians, and this was an embodied way to encounter this year’s theme for Black History Month at Mayfield: “Lead Me, Guide Me: Black History, Music & Liberation.”
These Wednesday morning playlists, and all of the intentional programming for Black History Month, was curated by student organizers from the Student Diversity Council, the Black Student Union, the staff/faculty advisors to these groups, Mayfield’s Department of Justice, Diversity Equity and Inclusion (JDEI), and the JDEI Director Amber Joy Gravely. Although the programming was devised by lots of conversation and collaboration, the idea of the musical theme was largely Ms. Gravely’s brainchild. And when it came to the weekly execution of the playlist project, the students took the lead. On a given Wednesday, the Mayfield community would be treated to the unmistakable talents of Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, Kendrick Lamar and so many more talented artists. Ja’Mya Johnson ‘24 took her role as DJ very seriously, explaining, “I really liked being a part of the Black History music playlist-making because I get to share parts of what I listen to, but with a broader message to everyone, and it feels really nice to hear music in the mornings that are meant to empower.” 

Another place for the Mayfield family to absorb the richness of the Black History Month’s programming was Community every Monday. These student presentations gave an opportunity for Mayfielders to encounter important figures from the Black community, past and present, some whom they may not have already known about. Octavia Carey ’25 explained, “In programming for Black History Month I…conducted research. I also worked on weekly presentations. During the planning process, I learned a lot about Sister Thea Bowman and her contributions.” Sister Thea was born in 1937 and raised in a segregated community in Yazoo City, MI, converting to Catholicism at age nine. She eventually became a member of the order of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. She traveled all over the U.S. to speak to crowds and helped found the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University. She incorporated her Black heritage into her everyday teachings, and she composed some exquisite musical arrangements still used in liturgy. Sr. Thea passed away in 1990 but is a current candidate for sainthood. Many members of the Mayfield community were surprised to be learning about this deeply impressive nun for the very first time. Ms. Gravely had been acquainted with Sr. Thea’s work long before the Community presentations, but Ms. Gravely remarked that it was “the work and legacy of Sr. Thea” that actually inspired her to pursue this musical theme for her first Black History Month on the Mayfield campus!

Although the Black History Month programming could never be reduced to a single day or an isolated event, the all-school assembly was a deeply moving gathering. The opening words of Reverend Nolanda Love helped transform the Sr. Mary Wilfrid Gym into a place of spiritual and musical nourishment. Soloist (and Mayfield Development Coordinator!) Danielle Hill led the crowd with a stirring rendition of, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Mayfield’s vocal ensemble then sang an impressive arrangement of a spiritual song entitled, “Witness.” A guest trio sang, “Amazing Grace” and “God Loves You Best.” And then Kenny Fisher took the stage. Mr. Fisher is known by many as a brilliant mathematics teacher and beloved coach, but he showed his remarkable talents as a performer of unique gravitas as well. Mr. Fisher re-enacted Martin Luther King’s famous speech, “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” to a spellbound audience. 

Advisory took place the day after the presentation, which gave Mayfield students opportunities to discuss their impressions of the month’s programming and the assembly specifically. Some of Mayfields musicians mentioned they enjoyed the ways the music was front and center throughout the month and the assembly. Students in many advisory meetings expressed awe and admiration for Mr. Fisher’s performance. And seniors from Tina Zapata/Kate Morin’s advisory group felt the tone of the event kept the students deeply engaged in the present moment, while also encountering a historical document that felt utterly resonant to the here-and-now as well. ​​One of those seniors said she had “enjoyed” the Black History Month assemblies in the past but added, “this is one I will remember long after I leave Mayfield.”

The events of Black History Month weren’t completely isolated to the student/faculty/staff audiences, nor were they entirely linked to music either. After the JDEI Parent Board meeting on Feb. 16, members of the Mayfield adult population were invited into a conversation with current Mayfield student Marina Symons Galassi ’25 and her grandfather Jim Symons, a progressive Presbyterian pastor, talking about his personal experience marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and participating in social justice movements over the years. Today was a fun and informal "Dessert & Discussion” gathering over lunch, with treats provided by Myke’s Delights. A sizable number of students, faculty/staff and a few parents sat down to enjoy slices of pound cake and servings of peach cobbler, as they reflected on questions of music, empowerment and the ways people find their joy.

Ms. Gravely offered her profound thanks to student organizers Julianna Aparicio ’25, Octavia Carey ’25, Kasani Freeman ’24, Ja’Mya Johnson ’24, Jaz Johnson ’25, Sol Johnson ’25, Mackenzie Younker ’25. And she extended her gratitude to Alexandra Badie ’14, Danielle Hill, Kenny Fisher, Kristina Ortega and Jade Stewart ’09.

All in all, Ms. Gravely was beyond grateful for the incredible group effort that made her first Black History Month at Mayfield an incredible success. "It was so encouraging to see all the time, effort and energy that was put in by the members of the student planning committee, advisors and with the support and engagement of the entire Mayfield Community!" Ms. Gravely and the students were energized by this experience and immediately started brainstorming what kind of speakers might be able to come in February 2024. Make no mistake, next year’s Black History Month programming is already in the works!
Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.