Friday, February 6, 2004

Projects boost black history

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

To make black history come alive, Greater Cincinnati teachers are bringing in singers, doing art projects from a slave's perspective and writing letters to historical icons .

It's an effort to go beyond the textbooks - particularly during Black History Month, which began this week.

"What tends to happen is history is written by the victors," said Mario Basora, a social studies teacher at Princeton High School. "History books have been written by those who have won the wars - European males."

That history tends to leave out contributions by women and minorities, he said.

So more teachers are working to make sure more black history is covered:

• Yavneh Day School in Kenwood is bringing a singer Tuesday to explore the influence blacks have had on music through jazz, gospel and rap.

• Mason Intermediate students researched heroic black Americans and other well-known figures and presented them during an historical show Thursday to help students understand how contributions by black Americans affected U.S. history.

• Fifth-graders at R.C. Hinsdale Elementary School in Kenton County Schools are doing a print-making activity by creating relief prints that explore history from a slave's point of view. The exercise ends with an exercise on "rising above the experience."

• Second-graders at Cincinnati Country Day School plan to write letters to the Ruby Bridges Foundation in Winnetka, Ill. Bridges was one of the first black students to desegregate an elementary school in the South.

• Chase School in Northside will hold a schoolwide Black History Program at the end of the month, where black history will be taught through art, music, poetry and dance.

• St. Ursula Academy in East Walnut Hills plans to hold a soul food lunch to explore the history of traditional dishes and emphasize how sharing a meal with family is an important part of black heritage.

Basora, who teaches a black cultures class at Princeton, said today's history textbooks cover the settlement of the American frontier with tales about Daniel Boone and others, but they leave out the contributions of groups such as the Buffalo soldiers.

The Buffalo soldiers, many of whom served in black units in the Civil War, were black U.S. army regiments that patrolled the West, mapped parts of the Southwest and repaired frontier outposts after the war.

Research required

Diana Francis, media specialist at Fairfield West Elementary and Fairfield Kindergarten Center, said she used the Internet and books to research African folk tales and the history of oral tradition in Africa.

During Black History Month, Francis dresses up in traditional African garb and tells students a story of Anansi, the wise and mischievous spider, who is featured in traditional West African tales.

"Then I explain that when some of the African people were captured and brought to other countries as slaves, they couldn't bring any personal belongings with them," she said. "All they could take were the traditions and the stories they had learned from their ancestors."

She said the story session helps students better understand the African tradition of storytelling and how important the oral tradition has been to preserving black history.

In his lesson about the Buffalo Soldiers, Basora used journal articles, researched the topic on the Internet, and played Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldier" for his class.

"If the books don't contain the information, I go out and get the information," he said.

Toilynn O'Neal, diversity coordinator at St. Ursula, said textbooks tend to leave out real-life experiences of black people. That's, in part, why she coordinated the soul-food lunch with the St. Ursula Academy Parents of African American Daughters.

"This is an opportunity for kids to meet the parents of African-American classmates that they would not have a chance to meet," she said.

The gathering also teaches children about the history of foods such as yams and leafy greens that were cultivated by Africans brought to America as indentured servants or slaves, O'Neal said.

Slaves toiled long hours in the field, but the evening meal was a time for families to assemble. Their meals often were made up of scraps.

"Even though it was not the best quality (food), people put a lot of soul or a lot of love in it," she said.

"We're using that origin - that the food is prepared out of love."

The event helps teach students about the African-American lifestyle and the importance of family and sharing a meal, she said.

Part of U.S. history

While many teachers make a special effort to teach black history in February, they say they try not to marginalize the subject from American and world history.

Laurie Butts, a language arts and social studies teacher at Mason Intermediate, arranged an historical presentation with her fifth-grade class. The students researched historical icons, including famous and heroic black figures through six time periods. The students then dressed in period clothes and presented what they knew about the figures.

Butts said she wanted to teach students about well-known moments in history, while incorporating important contributions of African-Americans that happened during the same time frame.

For example, students presented biographical information about inventor Granville Woods, a Columbus native, during the same time period as Thomas Edison.

"The people with the most resources and the most power were the people who were able to be heard and write history," Butts said.

"Many people were ignored who made big contributions. Textbooks are only the beginning - only one resource you use. They are a springboard to begin to learn more about the things mentioned there."

Despite the blitz of teachings about black history during the month of February, some students say they aren't learning enough about it in school.

"Even though Martin Luther King (Jr.) Day is a legal holiday, most kids at my school do not even know who he was," said Jena Tisdale, an eighth-grader at New Richmond Middle School in Clermont County. "The only time we have even discussed any black history is when we go over the Civil War period in our textbooks.

"I would like to learn more about black history."

Black history facts

• Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), known as the "Father of Black History," was born in Virginia to former slaves. He researched and published black history throughout his life and established Negro History Week in 1926.

• Lewis Latimer (1848-1928) was a black inventor who worked on improving Thomas Edison's incandescent light bulb to make it last longer.

• John Mercer Langston (1829-97) enrolled at Oberlin College when he was 14 and earned bachelor's and master's degrees there. He was denied admission to law school but studied under an attorney and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1854. When elected town clerk in Brownhelm Township, Ohio, in 1855, he became the first African-American elected to public office in the United States. He later helped establish and served as dean of Howard University's law school.

• Mae C. Jemison (1956-), who traveled on the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992, was the first black woman in space.

• Ruby Bridges Hall (1954- ) became one of the first black children to desegregate an elementary school when - as a 6-year-old in 1960 - she walked into all-white William Frantz Elementary in New Orleans after a federal court ordered the school system to desegregate.

• York was a slave of William Clark and member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. He hunted, scouted and traded, and is credited with saving Clark in a flash flood on the Missouri River, yet received no pay or land when the expedition was over.

• Frederick McKinley Jones (1892-1961) was a black Cincinnatian who invented the first automatic refrigeration system used in food transport trucks in the 1930s. He was awarded more than 40 patents.

• Jennie Porter (1876-1938) served as the first black principal of a Cincinnati school. Against the opposition of Cincinnati branch of the NAACP, she supported separate black schools where students would learn vocational and cultural skills. The Board of Education supported her efforts and opened Stowe School, which was dedicated in 1923.

• Granville T. Woods (1856-1910), born in Columbus, was an inventor who established a shop in Cincinnati. He patented a system for overhead electric conducting lines for railroads and received a patent for an improved steam boiler furnace.


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