PLEASANTVILLE — Students at South Main Street School called on the community Wednesday to “rise up” and be proud of who they are as part of the school’s annual Black History Month celebration.

The sixth Rise Up March was themed “Be” and encouraged the students that they can be anything they want to be.

“I know I can, be what I want to be. If I work hard at it, I’ll be where I want to be,” the students chanted inside the auditorium as they waited for the march to begin Wednesday morning.

March organizer Sharon Cross said the event was started in 2013 in response to gang violence in Pleasantville.

“The children were going through various changes and the principal was new. They would tell her about how they were feeling about what was happening in Pleasantville,” Cross said. “They didn’t feel there would be a future there for them.”

Principal Felicia Hyman-Medley’s response was “let’s rise up,” Cross said. She said the inaugural march inspired youth that had quit school to return and triggered a six-month lull in shootings.

“So we continued the program,” Cross said.

On Wednesday morning, more than 1,100 students, parents, faculty and community members marched through the neighborhood around the South Main Street School. Accompanied by fire trucks, police and the high school band, the students chanted “rise up,” and other positive mantras. Neighbors came out onto their porches to wave to students or record a snippet of the march.

Carmen Acosta, who lives next door to the school on Main Street, said the music drew her out into her yard.

“I love it,” Acosta said as she recorded the students on her cellphone. “Seeing all the support is really important for the kids.”

Once back at the school, the remainder of the program included several student performances.

Cross said the march has become the highlighted event of the school’s Black History Month celebration.

“They see themselves all month. It just reaffirms who they are for our students who are African-American,” she said.

Board of Education President Carla Thomas said the event was a great way to get the community together.

“They chant for peace in our community,” she said. “It’s good for the children to be a part of an event like this.”

Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner was participating for the first time and was impressed with the concept.

“It has to start with the children,” Tyner said. “If we teach them healthy lifestyles at an early age, hopefully it will carry on into adulthood.”

He said it was critical for the community to come together to drive out those who want to do harm.

While last year’s march specifically focused on the boys in the school, this year’s march celebrated the girls.

“This year, we’re allowing our young queens to be honored,” said Hyman-Medley. “They can be anything they want to be.”

She said the march shows the community that the children are watching and reminds them to be good role models.

As the event opened, former Pleasantville teacher Melanie Harrington, 60, of Egg Harbor Township, was crowned queen by Willie Ceasar, 61, also of Egg Harbor Township.

Ceasar, who has participated every year, said the event shows a generation of children who they are and where they came from.

“This year’s theme really mandates exactly what we’re trying to exemplify to our youth,” he said. “You can be whatever you want to be … don’t let anyone deny you of that.”

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I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.