Seminars in both the Upper and Middle School and a visiting storyteller for the Lower School were among the presentations students learned from during February, Black History Month.
- The Upper School Seminar Day brought together six alumni for a panel discussion February 18 on the Johnson Theater stage. They spoke openly about what they gained during their years of schooling and how they grew by overcoming adversity. Among the challenges they faced growing up were prejudices because of race, religion, sexual orientation, family situation, and economic status. Dr. Jesse Anderson '75, who was the first African American student at Norfolk Academy, talked frankly about his reluctance to come to the school. However, he made many close friends, gaining confidence about his ability to succeed in what had initially felt like a foreign world. “I found that I could navigate in a world that was unknown to me," he said. “Dealing in the white world, I could handle it. And that was what the world would be, living in America."
- Three days earlier, Middle School students filed into Johnson Theater to hear from Chazz Woodson '01, head men's lacrosse coach at Hampton University. He spoke about Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), work ethic, determination, and much more. One of his messages was that he never identified himself solely as an athlete - his attributes in community service and other areas were just as important to him. Joining Coach Woodson on stage was JT Giles-Harris, a lacrosse standout at Duke University who is now an assistant at Hampton. Middle School Director Jeff Boyd guided the discussion, allowing them to answer a wide array of questions. Coach Tom Duquette, who coached Chazz at Academy, introduced his former player, calling him “one of the most dynamic and innovative players ever to play" the game. More important, Woodson has given his time and effort to important projects off the field, many of which provide opportunities for underserved communities.
- On February 2, Lower School students listened and learned as special guest Charlotte Blake Alston took to the Johnson Theater stage. A storyteller who has performed throughout the world, including at the Kennedy Center and Smithsonian, Ms. Alston tells traditional and contemporary stories from African and African American oral and cultural traditions. Speaking to all six grades, she adapted her three presentations to be age appropriate. Among her lessons were a story from Senegal that taught about Wolof, a language in that west African nation, and another from Ethiopia, which is in eastern Africa. She also used catchy rhythms to provide valuable knowledge about both famous and lesser known African Americans such as musician Louis Armstrong, civil rights activists Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Henry - folk hero of an African American ballad that describes how he crushed more rock than a machine - and Bessie Coleman - who in the early 1900s became the first African American woman to hold a pilot’s license.
Over the course of the month, there were a number of other lessons that took place in classrooms and around campus.
- Middle School Biology students learned from Suffolk Commonwealth's Attorney Narendra Pleas, who is the first African American woman to serve in that constitutional office, as they kicked off their forensic science unit.
- In and around the month, Middle School students in the CARE Club are using the Season for Nonviolence - which takes place annually between January 30 (the day in 1948 when Mohandas Gandhi was assassinated) and April 4 (the day in 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated) - to cultivate peace, love, and nonviolence, ideals that Dr. King and Gandhi promoted.
- Mrs. Valerie Thornton's second grade girls led a Lower School Chapel, teaching about perseverance. The class first explained what the word means, then taught about several African Americans who needed to persevere to become successful. These included poet Amanda Gorman, jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, engineer and inventor Lonnie Johnson, and Ruby Bridges, who integrated a school in New Orleans in 1960.
Even with Black History Month passed, the halls of the Lower School remain filled with projects serving as a reminder of the lessons learned. Along the first grade hallway are posters the students designed highlighting the accomplishments of many African Americans, such as Barack Obama, Harriet Tubman, and Jackie Robinson. Older students designed more in-depth posters celebrating specific facts and details from prominent and lesser known figures. Yet another hallway includes poetry inspired by Langston Hughes, an African American poet, playwright, and novelist from the 20th century.
Speakers at the Upper School Seminar urged students to make good use of some of the lessons they heard, advice that serves well across all three divisions. Have difficult conversations, listen, and press when you want to know more, Dr. Anderson said. “Take the challenge and fix it."