When a group of five black and Hispanic teenagers were wrongfully convicted of rape almost 28 years ago, they missed out on the milestones that mark young adulthood. One of those occasions was their high school graduation ― which the Bronx Preparatory High School recently gave them a chance to experience.
In 1989, the young men were notoriously dubbed the Central Park Five after the assault and rape of a white female jogger in Central Park. When another man, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime in 2002, the men were released from prison.
The New York Times reported that on Monday, three of the men ― Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson and Yusef Salaam ― were finally given the opportunity to receive their diplomas at a high school graduation ceremony where they stood among 60 Bronx Prep students.
Although the men, who are now in their 40s, received their GEDs and associate degrees while in prison, they still expressed gratitude for the opportunity when they spoke at the ceremony.
“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 during his keynote address onstage. “This is a blessing.”
“It’s kind of emotional,” Santana said. “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 ceremony invitation came after government teacher Marielle Colucci created a lesson around the “Central Park Five” documentary to teach her students at Bronx Prep about America’s criminal justice system.
After Colucci’s students watched the film, they asked to meet the men whose harrowing stories they’d just learned about. Richardson made a visit to the class, but an assistant principal wanted to do something more, which led to the graduation idea.
Antron McCray and Kharey Wise, the other two men of the Central Park Five, didn’t attend Monday’s graduation but still received their honorary diplomas in the mail.
The Central Park Five came up during the 2016 presidential campaign when then-Republican nominee Donald Trump sent a statement to CNN reminding the network that the men admitted they were guilty, ignoring the otherwise accepted reality that their confessions were a result of police coercion.
Trump has been hung up on the group for decades ― the same year that the Central Park Five were accused of raping the jogger, Trump bought $85,000 worth of ads antagonizing the group and pushing for their execution in four of New York City’s most widely read newspapers.
Salaam, who is now a motivational speaker, spoke with Democracy Now about Trump in 2016.
“I really didn’t know anything about Donald Trump until he took out those ads and called for our execution,” he said. “Every time I think about that, I think had this been the 1950s, we would have been modern-day Emmett Tills. They would’ve had our names, our phone numbers and addresses in the papers.”
“And so what would have happened, somebody from the darkest places of society would have come to our homes, kicked in our doors and drug us from our homes and hung us from the trees in Central Park,” Salaam continued. “That would have been the kind of mob justice they were seeking.”
In that same interview, Salaam said that he doesn’t anticipate an apology from Trump and that he shouldn’t even be running for president. He also wrote an essay that October titled “I’m One of The Central Park Five. Donald Trump Won’t Leave Me Alone.”