They wore kente cloth and carnations on their Ivy League suits, a subtle indicator that two worlds had been meshed to create a new breed of black scholar.
Ten black male seniors graduated last month from the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Northwest Washington -- the largest such group in Sidwell's 108-year history. But it wasn't just the numbers that filled parents with pride as the young men received their diplomas.
This was part of a social experiment, more than a decade in the making, to see whether black boys could absorb one of the best high school educations that America has to offer, while at the same time resist attempts to sanitize their cultural identity.
"Sidwell wanted to control and suppress tendencies in our boys that the school viewed as too aggressive," said Robert J. Cummings, former chairman of the African Studies Program at Howard University and chairman of Sidwell's Parents of Black Students organization. "We had to step in and say, 'We want them to remain assertive because that's what they need to survive, so don't be afraid.' "
This was part of a classic dilemma for the black middle class, extending far beyond the bounds of elite schoolyards. Learning to play field hockey and cricket was fine, but some black parents worried that their sons also would start to talk, dance and play basketball like white people.
"We loved the concept of the independent school, especially Sidwell's emphasis on humanism," said Jean Bailey, mother of graduate Adewale Olatunji Oyemade. "The question was: Would our boys lose their sense of manhood in an environment where there is so much pressure to make whites feel comfortable?"
The American landscape is littered with examples of black middle-class trade-offs that parents like Bailey find unacceptable. How to achieve economic success, especially in corporate America, and not lose the uniqueness of being a black man remains one of the greatest mental health challenges facing black males today.
"We made it by sticking together," said Mikhel Eyota Hawkins, 17, president of the Black Student Union. "We didn't isolate from whites, but we became aware early on that academic expectations for us were lower than for others, and that some teachers were intimidated by our presence. We had to rely on each other for strength."
In the aftermath of the Rodney G. King verdict, few of their white classmates could understand their rage. These were some of the most intelligent white students in the country, their parents among the most powerful in the world.
"Even among people we consider sensitive, we had a lot of difficulty getting them to understand our feelings," said Samori Odadele Cummings, a Sidwell graduate. "That let us know that making it through high school was only the beginning of our struggle."
These young men were exceptional -- although not as much of an exception as one might think. While much more attention is given to black male failures, the facts are that high school graduation rates among blacks have doubled in the last two decades, and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are now more blacks in private schools and in college than ever before.
The black Sidwellians are welcome additions to this encouraging picture.
"They were superior scholars and athletes," said Earl G. Harrison Jr., the Sidwell headmaster. "They showed tremendous poise and vitality."
"They added mightily to our school," said Lila A. Gordon, the upper school principal.
The graduates are Husani Bastien, Samori Cummings, Ezra Benjamin Edelman, Mikhel Hawkins, Everson Randolph Hull Jr., Olubayo Darryl 'Nladi Johnson, John Malcolm Logan, Donovan Ian Moo, Adewale Oyemade and Joseph Adoph Quash Jr.
There also were three black female graduates: Morenike Saskia Kassim, Robyn Kathleen Park and Rashida Jamilla Wilson.
All of the students performed exceptionally well on their SATs; several received full scholarships to historically black colleges. Most of them plan to study either medicine or engineering. Each has vowed to return to service in the black community.
"The purpose of trying to bring ethnic diversity to Sidwell was not just to expose blacks to a better education," said Melbourne Cummings, Samori's mother. "It was just as important to let whites know that human beings have intrinsic value regardless of race."