It’s been decades in the making, but on Monday three of the Central Park Five finally got the opportunity to celebrate their high school graduation and received honorary degrees after they were robbed of their futures when they were wrongly imprisoned and later wrongly convicted for the 1989 rape of a woman who was jogging in Central Park in New York City.
According to the New York Times, nearly 60 teenagers accepted diplomas from the Bronx Preparatory High School earlier this week, with all the usual pomp and circumstance that comes with a high school graduation. Among them were Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana Jr., all in their 40s, but equally excited to accept their honorary diplomas and be capped and gowned, enjoying a celebration that was unfairly taken away from them decades before.
“Even though we were not able to go back and right the wrong of not getting our high school diplomas outside, here we are being honored in such a way in front of our family and friends,” Salaam said from the stage, according to the Times. “This is a blessing.”
The Central Park Five have been a household name for years, and their case continues to be used as a key example of how the criminal-justice system treats and criminalizes people of color.
Their story later became a documentary called The Central Park Five, and it was that film that Marielle Colucci, a government teacher at Bronx Perp, used to teach her students about the justice system. This year, students asked if they could meet the men, and Richardson obliged, speaking to the class.
“The most important thing for me as a teacher is that they leave here knowing their rights and what they actually mean, and there is no one better to speak to that than these guys,” Colucci told the Times about her students, who are all members of minority groups. “Because they could find themselves in that same situation right now when they walk out across the street.”
From there, conversations about giving the men a high school graduation celebration started, with Cassius Gil, the school’s assistant principal, broaching the subject with the school’s executive director, Emmanuel George, after Richardson visited.
The three men actually already had diplomas—each of them received a GED and an associate degree while in prison—but the celebration of it all, that happy moment to enjoy their success, was never a part of their experience..
“It’s kind of emotional,” Santana said at the ceremony. “When we went to prison, this was taken away from us. ... It was something we never got to experience. You felt like you were being robbed, and we’ve finally found redemption.”
The other two men, Antron McCray and Kharey Wise, were not at Monday’s celebration, but Gil said that they will still receive their honorary diplomas by mail.
“In light of what is going on in our nation today in our cities, in our prisons, on our roadways, in our courts and in our highest offices of administration, the Bronx Prep graduation Class of 2017 want to promise you some important things,” Gil said at the ceremony. “We promise not to take one moment of our free lives for granted. We will educate ourselves so that we stand for something larger rather than to fall for sensationalism, lies and injustice. We will stay woke.”
Read more at the New York Times.