The long history of pride in Miami Northwestern Senior High starts with the first class to wear gold and blue.
Sixty years later, the Bulls — and that first class of 1956 — are still going strong.
In a procession of blue and gold, fist pumps and an occasional cane thrust skyward in celebration of the Liberty City school’s diamond anniversary, alumni from every decade marched into the gym Monday morning, the first day of school.
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This year’s graduating class — seniors who carved out their own piece of history by helping the inner city school earn its very first A on the state’s report card — cheered the line of alumni as the famed marching band thundered.
“I’m so glad that I wear blue and gold,” the crowd sang.
Both sets of seniors — the students wearing decorated crowns and the septuagenarians wearing T-shirts declaring a Bull Nation — poked their pinkies and pointer fingers in the air to make a bull’s horns. John Cheever, from the class of 1963 and the first black apprentice in the state for air conditioning for the local union, waved his cane and even took a few dance steps to the music.
Elizabeth Davis, a member of the original graduating class of 1956, recited part of the school song: “At Northwestern, wherever you roam, this is home and you will be part of a family.”
Miami Northwestern opened its doors in 1955. It was the first new black high school in Miami-Dade in a generation, opened a year after the Supreme Court handed down its Brown v. Board of Education order to integrate schools across the nation.
Blueprints for the school, fished from a trash bin by a contractor and purchased by Northwestern’s ardent alumni network, show it was called the “Negro Vocational School.”
The gym was still under construction and so was the cafeteria when the first students bounded onto campus.
“But we were glad to be here,” Davis said. “It was a model for Miami-Dade County.”
Students were taught trades such as auto mechanics, dry cleaning and cosmetology while the college-bound learned typing, history and math.
The first graduating class called themselves the invincibles. Their motto: In a chain, all links are necessary.
“We went on to teach and preach, to run businesses,” said Marsha Wright James, class of 1969. “What good can come out of Northwestern? Everything.”
The school’s notable alumni include a congresswoman — Frederica S. Wilson — Barrington Irving, the first black pilot to fly solo around the world and Wilkie D. Ferguson, the first black judge to serve in Miami-Dade Circuit Court and on the Third District Court of Appeal.
Graduates have remained loyal to their school, with active groups representing each class and encouraging future generations to attend. Many of the graduates now have grandchildren at the school, and some returned to teach there.
“What it means to me to be a part of Miami Northwestern, it means pride. It means integrity. It means family. It means something good can come out of Liberty City,” said Rickie Young, a pastor and 1977 graduate.
Alumni not only show up for Northwestern football games and school events — they pay up. Last year, alumni donated more than $60,000 for scholarships, band uniforms and college tours.
“We’re not just passing through,” Young said. “We’re reaching back and looking ahead to the future, to let them know they can succeed.”
Despite the tangible sense of pride, Northwestern’s history includes painful stretches.
Located in one of Miami’s poorest and toughest neighborhoods, the school struggled for years with poor academics. The state threatened to shut it down after it was slapped with two failing grades. Its powerhouse football team, often ranked among the top in the country, was roiled by a sex scandal featuring a star player in 2007.
The athletics department got back on track with all new leadership. Northwestern's academic performance was boosted by offering more advanced placement classes, a partnership with Florida International University and a shift in school culture that focuses on life after graduation — whether that means college, vocational school or the military.
In 2013, the school earned its first A ever. It has since fallen to a B, but the state’s grading formula was changed and got tougher.
On Monday, after the marching band and alumni left the gym, Principal Wallace Aristide paced in front of the class of 2016 in a tan suit with the Bull’s logo sewn into the chest. His voice became hoarse as he showered them with encouragement.
“We got to go ahead in brotherhood and sisterhood to make sure every single student in 2016 gets a high school diploma,” he said to cheers. “And we’re going to support you after that, you understand?”
His focus on student success has earned Aristide the respect of the powerful alumni association and his current students.
“You don’t get a chance to fail here,” Cheever said. “He’s almost like a preacher principal.”
Student Government Association President Sara St. Juste has plans to attend the University of Miami to study businesses. She left Monday’s pep rally feeling confident about choosing Northwestern and more committed to her school for years to come.
“I feel like this school just paved the way,” she said. “God willing, I’ll be here celebrating 120 years of excellence.”
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