Bringing African-American history to life at Lincoln
While the Bethlehem Area School District was closed Jan. 30, Martin Luther King Day, Lincoln ES marked the occasion with a rich and engaging program that celebrated Dr. King and informed attendees about milestones in African American history and culture. Lincoln Principal Bonita Draper explained the goal was “to commemorate Dr. King’s legacy by participating in a day of service and giving back to the community.”
The event, presented by Lincoln students, faculty, staff and community volunteers, was organized by the school’s PTO with assistance from members of Delta Sigma Theta Inc., the African American service sorority, and the Liberty HS Social Justice Club.
The program covered aspects of African American history over a period of centuries, concentrating on the 19th and 20th centuries. The roughly 50 Lincoln student attendees were divided into three groups. Each group went separately from room to room. In each room they heard brief presentations about a specific decade in African American history, which made it come alive.
In some of the rooms, enactors dressed like the people who lived during that period described an aspect of African American life at the time. For example, in one room students got a sense of the horrors of slavery and the overwhelming desire of slaves to escape. They heard from Harriet Tubman, who was terribly treated by her master but managed to escape. Once she was free, she worked to rescue other slaves. She did this by means of the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses which enabled slaves to escape to free states or to Canada. Another slave, Nat Turner, spoke about a rebellion of enslaved and free black people that he led in 1831.
In another room, students learned about the difficulties of life experienced by African Americans including the struggle to attain voting rights. In 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted African American men the right to vote. In subsequent decades their right to vote was suppressed, and it wasn’t until 1965 that their right to vote was guaranteed.
On a different note, in a third room students watched a film about and listened to the music of supremely talented African American musicians, such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday (who won four Grammy Awards), Mahalia Jackson (the Queen of Gospel) and Lena Horne, who performed at the Cotton Club in Harlem and participated in the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, among others. What was striking was the obvious pleasure these musicians experienced entertaining audiences.
History lectures can be dry and impersonal, but at Lincoln the students experienced living history presented by reenactors. This had an effect.
“You mean I couldn’t sit next to my friend?” asked one child after hearing about racial discrimination in schools in the 1950s. “And Mrs. Draper couldn’t be our principal?” The students left thinking about authors and activists who spoke directly to them, and the many contributions of African Americans to American life and culture.