A first hand lesson in black history
By Caitlin Davis, Senior Staff Writer
Feb 18, 2013, 14:56
photo by Caitlin Davis Panelist’s from left Herbert Coulton, Dr. Lauranett Lorraine Lee and Dr, Lucious Edwards, Jr. talk about black history at VSU on Saturday.
CHESTERFIELD— As the three panelists sat on stage at Virginia State University on Saturday and discussed the civil rights movement and its effect on history, it became clear the message was directed to Brandon Flowers, 17, a student at Monacan High School, who was in the audience that afternoon.
“Our history is something that we need to take upon ourselves. We should not wait for the public school system to do it and this is an area I feel very strongly about that has been lacking for some time,” said Dr. Lauranett Lorraine Lee. Lee, a panelist, is a founding curator of African-American history at the Virginia Historical Society. She has also written “Making the American Dream Work: A Cultural History of African Americans in Hopewell, Virginia,” which was published in 2008.
Flowers, sitting in the audience, listened to the panel reflect on their own experiences of the civil rights movement. He said the afternoon was a lesson in history.
“It taught me a lot about black history and different things that I haven’t known before,” Flowers said. “About the different times when they experienced from when they were growing up.”
The panel discussion that afternoon, titled “Civil Rights and Leadership,” was one of two that day; the other panel focused on an earlier time in history, “The Emancipation Proclamation - What it Meant.” The collaboration of panelists was a first for Chesterfield County. Chris Ruth, chair of the the Chesterfield County Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Committee, said the idea behind the panel was to have something “special that is more educational.”
“We’re really thrilled for the first year to have this type of response, that evolution of how people perceive history,” Ruth said.
That perception of history was made clear by the panelists. Lee spoke on a time in her life when segregation was a battle she fought everyday. She recalled a time when the school buses would not stop to pick her up for school because of the color of her skin, but she said when the doors finally opened, that was when “hell really started.”
Lee said one day in particular, during her fourth grade school year, the bus driver would not move until she sat down. As she looked down the bus, not a single child began to move to make room for her. Then she said two girls, whom she has never forgotten, Tonya and Wanda, moved so she could take a seat.
“Why is it that this place is like this,” Lee started to ask herself at that young age.
Panelist Dr. Lucious Edwards Jr., university archivist and adjunct professor of history at VSU, said the lesson in history needs to be examined in the classrooms so students like Flowers are getting a comprehensive look at all the facts.
“We need to take a look at who is approving and writing history books and these things need to be rethought because they’re just out of line and out of shape,” Edwards said.
Herbert Coulton, who was hired by Martin Luther King Jr. at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference where he worked until 1978, continued to carry the message of teaching black history outside of the classroom. He said many school systems have taught the message that civil rights occurred all at one time. Coulton said this creates many missed stories and lessons.
“There were all kinds of things that we have knowledge of but we don’t teach it in the secondary school system, and there are people who are afraid, I’ve heard people say, to create tension,” Coulton said, citing a possible reason that the lessons are not taught to students.
Lee said the responsibility for teaching civil rights and black history lies within families, and through those stories, history lessons can be born.
“I think it’s vitally important that we teach our young people as much as we can beginning with family history. And through family history, we can learn about Virginia history and American history,” Lee said.
Edwards, echoing Lee, said families need to take an active role in engaging with their children the lesson they are learning in school and creating that dialogue.
“One thing everybody used to start doing was asking questions,” Edwards said. “If you have a child in school, ask that question. Our kids go to school thinking the school is giving them the best. We need to ask the question, ‘What did you talk about today?’”
Flowers heard the message from the panelists on Saturday and is already planning on asking more questions to his grandparents and his aunt to get more answers about his history.
“Most kids don’t know about the history, the real history from their experience,” Flowers said, noting most history is from just the teacher’s perspective.
The message did not just fall on the ears of the children but on the adults as well. Shawnda Gregory, of Chesterfield, said the panel discussion was “very interesting” and said the lessons of black history are not just in the walls of the schools.
“The kids still need to know their history,” Gregory said. “Let them teach it in the school system all over Virginia. Children need to know their history. What they discussed today, kids don’t always know that.”
Ruth said the panel represented the larger picture the sesquicentennial committee was trying to portray.
“The whole idea about this sesquicentennial is to make it inclusive, to tell everyone’s story. I think we’ve hit a home run. We’re trying to get people out to have them learn more, be inspired more and hopefully then to take that to the next level next year and in the future. It’s more of a grassroots effort that people can do in their communities, in their schools, in their churches, particularly to get African Americans more engaged about their history.”