The night before her graduation, DayOnna Carson couldn’t sleep. She’d been working on her valedictory address for a month — writing, reading it aloud to her mom, rewriting — and she was proud of her final draft. But at her high school in Chattanooga, Tenn., where kids sometimes fly Trump flags from their pickup trucks, she knew there would be students and parents in the audience who didn’t like what she had to say.
Central High School held its graduation on Saturday, just over a month after George Floyd was killed in police custody. Carson, who is black, was determined to use her platform to call out the racism she sees in her own community. She had originally “watered down” the message in previous drafts, she said, leaving out Floyd’s name to tread lightly around white conservatives who might not want to hear about racial justice. But as protests erupted across the country, she said, she changed her mind. She would not “dance around the topic,” she decided: She had to be explicit.
“So much of what happens to people in this school, in this country — we keep it hush-hush,” said Carson. “I thought I would be doing a disservice if I didn't talk about this turning point in history.”
Carson never thought she’d be valedictorian. She never thought she’d go to college. No one in her family ever had. Raised by a single mom, her family never had much money, and she didn’t want to put them in debt. She still couldn’t quite believe she’d be attending Harvard University on a full scholarship in the fall.
A few days before the ceremony, Carson messaged a group of her classmates, telling them she planned to finish her speech by chanting “no justice, no peace.”
“I was wondering if you could tell people to chant,” she asked her friends.
Carson was feeling confident as she neared the end of her speech on graduation day. Looking out into the crowd, she saw her family — her mom, dad, aunt, uncle and cousins — smiling up at her.
“We need to hold each other accountable for standing up against racism and discrimination of any kind. … We must not let the progress of our ancestors have been in vain,” she said, looking out at the audience.
She took a breath.
“No — ”
The mic cut out.
“ — justice, no peace.”
No one could hear her finish the chant, but some of Carson’s classmates yelled back anyway: “No peace.” Carson turned and walked off the stage. Immediately, there was booing from the audience and shouts of support for Carson.
When she got back to her seat, Carson turned to her friend, making sure she hadn’t imagined what had just happened.
“I didn’t want to upset anyone, but what I’m saying is basic human rights,” Carson said, thinking back on the moment. “It shouldn’t upset anyone.”
Central High School maintains that staff did not cut off Carson on purpose. “We apologize to DayOnna and her family that the last words of her speech were not able to be heard by those in attendance or by family and friends viewing on the live stream, this was by no means intentional,” principal Phil Iannaronne wrote in a news release addressing “graduation speech audio concerns.”
The microphone was muted so it could be thoroughly cleaned between speakers, a spokesperson for Hamilton County Schools told the Tennessean. But the microphone was not turned off after the other student speakers. In video footage, the microphone clearly picks up the sound of the disinfecting cloth after every speaker besides Carson. (Central High School did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Lily.)
A recording of the live ceremony, filmed by an external contractor, cut out at exactly the same time as the audio. The audio was handled separately, multiple people said, by school administrators.
A separate video, filmed by Carson’s cousin, shows the full footage.
“If it was a mistake, then how on earth did the live stream have that same mistake at the same time?” said Lauren Lindsey, Carson’s former teacher, who was watching the live stream. Lindsey has known Carson for years: She taught Carson’s gifted class in eighth grade. When Carson told Lindsey that she planned to get a job after high school, Lindsey told Carson that she would be going to college — “even if Ms. Lindsey has to drive you there myself.”
Lindsey feels certain that the school intentionally cut Carson’s microphone.
“I think the county needs to investigate exactly what happened that day,” she says.
Even before graduation, Carson suspected that some faculty and administrators did not want her to deliver her speech as she’d written it. When she recited the speech at a Zoom rehearsal before graduation, she said, a teacher warned her that there would be “conservatives” in the audience. While he personally supported her message “100 percent,” she remembers him saying, many students and parents might take issue with the speech.
“I was like, ‘Don’t you think I’ve thought about that?’ I have thought about that so much. But this is something that is very important to me.”
Central is known as one of the more diverse high schools in the Chattanooga area, Carson said: Approximately half of the students are students of color, she said, and many are black. But it wasn’t too long ago that the school had a very different racial breakdown, said Lindsey, who is white and attended Central as a student, before eventually teaching there for eight years.
After litigation from the NAACP, the school districts for the city of Chattanooga and its surrounding county merged in the late 1990s. The kids in the city were mostly black, and the kids in the county were mostly white, said Lindsey, who was a senior at Central when the school districts came together. Many of the black students arrived wearing apparel from their previous school, she said.
“You can imagine how that turned out,” said Lindsey. “I remember one day I was told not to go to school because there were going to be race riots.” (The riots never materialized.)
The school is still extremely racially divided, Lindsey said, even if people don’t want to recognize it. Teaching Brown v. Board of Education, the major Supreme Court case on school desegregation, she said, she would always ask her classes at Central whether segregation still applies to them today. When a student would inevitably say “no,” she’d ask about the “black tables” and “white tables” in the cafeteria.
Carson will never forget the homecoming football game in 2018 when a group of approximately 10, mostly black, students wore black T-shirts to support Black Lives Matter. Sitting at the front of the bleachers, they were cheering for the homecoming king and queen, who were both black. “They weren’t rowdy,” said Carson. But an administrator told them to leave. Carson wasn’t sitting with the group at the front, but she worried she might be kicked out anyway, she said, because she had a black jacket tied around her waist.
(Caleb Franklin, a former student who was at the game that day, confirmed Carson’s account. Central High School did not respond to a request for comment on this incident.)
It’s hard to understand why the administration cracked down on a group of black students for supporting Black Lives Matter, Carson said, especially because there are white students who often publicly demonstrate their support for President Trump at school. The day after Trump was elected, Carson said, a large group of mostly white students gathered in the school courtyard, chanting “Trump train.” Then there was the picture that circulated on Snapchat during a national debate over the Confederate flag, she said: A few people wearing masks — who Carson assumed to be students — posed with four flags in the school parking lot: the Confederate flag, the American flag, the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag and a Trump flag.
Since graduation, Carson has had to deal with a throng of critical comments on social media, some from alumni and others connected to the school. One woman on Facebook accused her of trying to start a riot. The Tennessee for Trump Fan Club commented, “You can move along now you have had your 15 minutes of local fame!”
Carson hasn’t heard much criticism from her classmates, but she has heard from their parents. Responding to a local news story about the incident on Facebook, one mother wrote, “and just like that, everyone’s graduation is overshadowed. Wow. ”
While Carson generally hasn’t been responding to critical comments, she did choose to respond to this one.
“I’m sure you’d be celebrating if one of your students or family members was accepted to Harvard,” she wrote. “If they worked hard enough, they could’ve possibly earned the number one spot in the school so that they wouldn’t be ‘overshadowed.’”
In her four years at Central, Carson can’t remember any other student being accepted to an Ivy League school. In the cumulative 12 years she spent there as a student and a teacher, neither can Lindsey.
Still, when Carson was accepted to Harvard, Central didn’t make an announcement until more than six weeks after Carson’s acceptance, after Lindsey had publicly called for them to celebrate Carson on Twitter.
“Why were the people at Central not singing her praises?” Lindsey asked. “You see so many news releases, ‘This student got a perfect score on the ACT.’ But there is no fanfare for someone who is a first-generation college student, who got a full ride to Harvard?”
This also struck Carson as a little strange. Her school didn’t seem to appreciate her, she said. She’s not sure why.
Carson hopes that people at Central heard her message at graduation, she says — especially this: “We’re the ones future generations will be reading about in their textbooks.”
It’s her favorite line, she said, “because we’re the ones who are the future, for real.”
“Our kids will know what side of history we were on, during this time. They’re going to ask.”