Black History Month celebrated districtwide

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Black History Month celebrated districtwide
Black History Month Projects on display at Centennial ElementaryElementary, middle, and high school students throughout the district celebrated Black History Month this year with special projects, videos, research, presentations, and assemblies.

Olympia High School students were treated to a special visit from local philanthropist and author Merritt Long. Long and his wife started the Learning Seed Foundation, which provides college scholarships mostly to students of color in Thurston and Pierce County. He also authored the book “My View from the Back of the Bus.” Long grew up in the South and later moved to the Pacific Northwest, where he worked for the State of Washington and eventually served on former Gov. Gary Locke’s Cabinet. His daughter is a graduate of Capital High School.

Long fielded questions from students and told stories about growing up in a time when racism was rampant. He recalled sitting on the back of buses, where a sign labeled “Colored” marked the border between white and black passengers. Black passengers exited from a door at the back of the bus. He also recalled when there were white schools and black schools. Even to a child, it was obvious that the white schools received a disproportionately large share of funding.

“Hard School (Long’s elementary school) was so old, it could be called dilapidated. A wooden structure in dire need of repairs and a fresh coat of paint, the floors were often dusty because the immediate area outside the school was all dirt,” Long said in his memoir. “Our textbooks were used, having been discarded by the white schools in the area. Often they were torn, with pages missing.”

He added during his visit with students, “There was no grass, there were no sliding boards, there was nothing to do other than just run around in circles chasing each other. We tended to get used football gear, used books, it was really keeping in with what was happening at the time which was like, ‘we’ll just do enough to get by.’”

Students throughout Olympia High School watched a video of the interview with Long during their homeroom classes.

At Centennial Elementary School, fifth graders completed a project on “Hidden Heroes.” They researched people that weren't as well known as Martin Luther King, Jr. They also talked about Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin. After students researched figures that were better known, they moved on to figures that were lesser known, but shared a common theme or achievement. Biographies of the “Hidden Heroes” are on display in the hallways of the school for everyone to learn from.

“We started this project to bring awareness to the fact that black figures in history haven’t been given their due credit for the amazing accomplishments that they achieved,” said one of the teachers who led the unit. “This project was part of a bigger civil rights unit where we talked about the accomplishments and legacy of some lesser-known African Americans in history and in our present.”

The project was well-received by student participants. “Hidden Heroes were people who changed lives even by the slightest but many people didn’t know about them or never heard about them -- making them hidden,” said one student. “You could give Shirley Chisholm, the person I researched, the title as a Hidden Hero because back in her day no one thought of her as a world changer until now.”

Other students provided similar feedback. “Everyone makes a difference some way or another even if they are not known,” one participant said. “This assignment was important because black lives matter,” said another.

At Lincoln Elementary School, one student completed self-inquiry research and advocacy around Black Lives Matter. She researched the history of BLM and what it means for her and others. She advocated for all people to understand what Black Lives Matter means and to stand against injustices of race. She presented her findings at a school assembly, along with a call to action.

“The mission is to get rid of white supremacy and build power to intervene in violence inflicted on black communities,” said fifth grader Shelby Sever. “In September 2016, at a high school soccer game in Rochester, New York, 18 soccer players took a knee during the National Anthem. These players were protesting racial injustice and police brutality. Their efforts started a districtwide movement that evolved into a full-day event that works to educate community members of the much-needed work towards equality. This story is a valuable example of collective action within a school district.”

Sever encouraged students to complete their own research on the Black Lives Matter movement. She also encouraged donating to refugee camps in Africa.

At Thurgood Marshall Middle School, all students discussed Black Lives Matter at School Week February 1-5 and Black History Month during advisory periods. Eighth graders at TMMS also began a study of the book “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You.”

This year was the second year at TMMS where a group of students created and produced a video series called the Cornwall Connection. The project began last year with the idea of an eighth grade student who felt that the school should do more to celebrate Black History Month. School leaders listened, and the Cornwall Connection was born. The first year, a small group of students talked about a different prominent figure from black history every day of February.

This year, the group of students who help produce the Cornwall Connection has grown. The students write scripts and tell their personal stories on video for the whole school to see. Four episodes in February focused on different Black History Month themes: Black Lives Matter at School Week, Black Hair Love, the Read Woke Movement, and a feature on Thurgood Marshall along with student reflections on Black History Month. Upcoming topics include Women’s History Month, Asian American History Month and LGBTQ+ issues. Organizers of the Cornwall Connection are working on plans to connect the project with similar groups at other middle schools across the district.

View the most recent Cornwall Connection episodes in Mustang News