The social studies department hangs door and wall decorations depicting various historical figures to celebrate Black History Month. These wall decorations were located on the second floor from the Chelsea Center through the History hallway. Photos by Calum Shank
Black History Month (BHM) is an important way to celebrate achievements of African Americans and recognizing their important roles throughout U.S. history.
According to TIME, BHM began as Black history week in 1926 as part of an initiative by Dr. Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), not becoming the official national observance of BHM over the entirety of February until 1976 under former president Gerald Ford.
The team that coordinates BHM celebrations includes social studies teacher Betty Roberts, assistant principal John E. Thomas, the social studies department, counselor Simone Cunningham, assistant principal Dwight Kirksey, assistant principal Shiree Yeggins, principal Matt Irvin and receptionist Teresa Adams.
Thomas said in an email that his “hope is that our way of celebrating informs, personalizes and inspires all students” and that he took such an active role so as to “…make sure the BHM is highlighted here at WGHS in ways that it didn’t when I was a student here.”
Regarding figures that are important to highlight, Thomas said, “Frederick Douglas, MLK, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Dubois, Nelson Mandela, Ida B. Wells, Thurgood Marshall and many more. I am finding that I am learning about great people every day.”
Thomas, regarding how people can celebrate BHM individually, said, “Learn that Black history is all around us and shouldn’t be regulated to February. We should embrace the history of African Americans, all minorities and women. We have so much that we didn’t learn and need to learn.”
Roberts said, “As a World History teacher for many years I have seen how underrepresented minorities are in curriculum in general. My goal is to make sure that all students see themselves represented in our curriculum in a positive way that encourages them to be proud of their heritage and their contributions to our school community and the world.”
As a way to develop this goal, there have been recent additions to the BHM celebrations.
“Last year we instituted what I hope will become an annual tradition, a door decorating competition that highlights Black History Achievements. It was a huge success. It started with just the social studies classes participating in a door decorating competition. As a team we enjoy competing in a fun way and each teacher facilitated, student driven curriculum to honor Black History Month. Then we enlisted the help of the Central Office to judge our doors. When other staff members, outside of our department heard what we were doing they wanted to be involved as well. Soon there were many teachers participating throughout the building,” Roberts said.
“As with any project of this scale it takes many months of preparation and lots of teamwork to pull off. I began by writing a Parent Club grant and was awarded around $450 to purchase Black History Month posters to place along the long stretch of bulletin boards in our hallway. This took quite a bit of time to put up and organize but I enjoyed doing it,” Roberts said, regarding the behind-the-scenes work it takes to put Black History month celebrations together.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed BHM celebrations as well.
“With COVID restrictions in place this year we were unable to do this fully. Some teachers were able to get door decorations up but not on the school wide scale as last year. This will become a tradition in years to come as Covid restrictions are lifted,” Roberts said.
“…[W]e discussed how to celebrate BHM in a COVID environment and as a group we collectively agreed that the announcements were great to ensure all students had access to our recognition of Black Americans that have made a huge difference in our country. Originally we were going to just do this through the social studies department and it became larger by others in our building wanting to get involved. I fully believe in including everyone and in the power of teamwork. Many throughout the building have been involved this year,” Roberts said.
Roberts lists Jackie Joiner-Kersee and Oprah Winfrey as figures in black history that have been personally influential to her.
The continuing importance of celebrating BHM influenced other celebrations like Asian and Pacific Islanders History Month (month of May) and Women’s History Month (month of March).
Adams, who “has been instrumental in helping us push out our presentations each day in the announcements” according to Roberts, celebrates BHM every year by “consuming more black entertainment,” she said, and encouraging the members of her family to do the same, meaning watching movies or reading books that feature stories of Black history.
“I would love to see black history featured more prominently in history classes on a daily basis. Black history is our history… I read about a school in Utah that opted out of Black History Month this year. Hearing things like this make me very angry,” Adams said.
The involvement of students and the younger generations is extremely important in ensuring the security that African American history will continue to be remembered. This is why students are encouraged to participate in the various ways there are to celebrate BHM.
“If students are involved in specific groups here at the high school, bring an idea to the group and go for it,” Yeggins said in a recent interview.
The art department has organized different projects around the school, including the decorating of classroom doors in honor of influential African Americans in history.
Art teacher Jocelyn Reiss said that a huge part of Black History Month is to educate people on the artistic part of Black history as well as acknowledging important artists who were people of color and therefore did not get the amount of attention that their work deserved.
Some African American artists that Reiss has enjoyed introducing to her students are one of her favorite local artists Cbabi Bayoc and Gordon Parks who would “document the discrepancies of life” as Reiss said.
“I have been really enjoying showing my students different videos that are being played for the announcements. Just giving the kids a taste of notable people from our area and from history,” Reiss said. “At my old school I taught my students all about John Johnson, who was a very influential photographer from the town I taught in. I think it is very important for students to be educated about the history of their area.”
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