02/27/06 — Stories of everyday heroes part of Black History Month

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Stories of everyday heroes part of Black History Month

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on February 27, 2006 1:52 PM

My parents were former slaves and I was the youngest of 17 children. In 1904, I founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls, a college name that later changed to include my name. This college was unique at the time because it was built with a hospital. I spent my life advocating for the educational opportunities for blacks and I served as the vice president of the NAACP.

Who am I?

Students at Carver Elementary in Mount Olive pondered that same question recently as part of a program at their school designed to increase awareness of black Americans' contributions.

As part of the Black History Month celebration at the school, a student joins the principal during announcements and gives a short biography on an important black figure. The only catch is -- the puzzle does not include the name. For the rest of the day, students use research tools to see if they can figure out the answer.

Children like fourth-grader DaShawn Kornegay, 9, already knew the answer.

"It's Mary McLeod Bethune," DaShawn said. "At the age of 5, she worked in a cotton field."

Ivy Brown, a kindergarten teacher at Carver, said she and other teachers have used literature to educate the students on black history. During a workshop last year, "Reading Coretta's Books," Ms. Brown said she learned how, since 1969, an organization founded by the late Coretta Scott King gives an award every year to the author and illustrator of an inspirational African-American children's book.

Ms. Brown said she decided to use some of the award winners and other books to develop the children's comprehension and understanding of the importance of Black History Month and its connection with U.S. history.

Reading about those who have paved the way is not just important for education, she added. It just might inspire the children to carry on the work of the men and women who have come before them.

"To be able to carry the torch, it starts with the basics. Once the children learn reading and comprehension, they can write their ideas down," Ms. Brown said.

Throughout the month, each grade level worked with two or three specific books and used those as inspirations to create a mural on that grade's hallway, Ms. Brown said.

"We hope all of this helps with their self-esteem. All kids -- it doesn't matter what kind of background they have -- if you have a dream, you can succeed," she said.

And making sure that children know about the heroes and heroines as well as the pioneers who have come before them is critical, said the Rev. William Barber, North Carolina president of the NAACP.

"If they are going to teach about Martin Luther King, they should also teach the children that the first man to die and shed blood for America in the Revolutionary War was a black man," Barber said. "The schools should still highlight people like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but black history doesn't begin with slavery or in 1690. It begins with the first chapter of the Bible."

At Carver, each grade level focused on different aspects of black history. For example, Ms. Brown said, the third-graders will use an Internet program that gives them the opportunity to join Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad.

Ms. Brown said the children pretend they are slaves. The computer program asks them if they would join Mrs. Tubman. Questions continue along the way, with the students' responses determining the outcome of the journey, she added.

Music also was a focus for Carver students. While the kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade students learned the history and rhythm of black spirituals, Ms. Brown said the third- through fifth-grade students learned about jazz. The fifth-graders composed their own jazz or blues song.

Many historical black figures accomplished great things, but Barber said the stairway that got them there is many times more important than the end result. Mrs. Tubman, for example, did not let eight- or nine-hour bouts with epilepsy keep her from rescuing slaves, he said.

Courage and determination despite often incredible odds and the power of ordinary people to change the world are among the lessons Ms. Brown and others hope to leave with the children long after February ends.

"People always say to kids that they need role models and not just sports athletes or musicians. There are historians, scientists and many others they can look up to. The comb, the washing machine and the stop light were all invented by black inventors. If they could do that with the limited things they had, children should believe that their contributions could be astronomical," Ms. Brown said.