WAYNESBORO, Va. (AP) - A group of second-graders sat beaming with curiosity as Arthur Thomas talked about Harriet Tubman. He explained the Underground Railroad, and the William Perry Elementary School students seemed to grasp the concept. The word “railroad” alone seemed to rivet them.
“Harriet Tubman became a conductor on the Underground Railroad,” he said. “That means somebody who assists slaves to escape.”
Talking about African American contributions to knowledge, for Thomas, seemed to become a portal into celebrating knowledge in its broadest sense. He moved from classroom to classroom at William Perry, talking to students and slipping with ease between discussions of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Banneker, an African American scientist from the 18th century.
That’s the sort of wide-sweeping goal that Cassandra Cason-Copeland said she wants to pursue for Black History Month. A William Perry Elementary School parent, Cason-Copeland has coordinated a series of events at the school to celebrate the month.
“My passion came through wanting to (give) the children information on history, because, as Mr. Thomas said, it’s not just Black history; it’s really American history,” said Cason-Copeland, a parent and member of the school’s parent teacher organization. “And I think if the children take that approach to learning it, it sinks in and becomes part of the curriculum.”
Thomas’s work history spans acres of territory. He owned and operated a taxi cab in the Washington area, worked for decades as an historical tour guide and served for four years in the U.S. Navy with an honorable discharge.
“I learned my knowledge from being a trash man,” he told students. “While they were picking up the trash and throwing it away, I read all the literature, and my mind expanded.”
Thomas, a 79-year-old Churchville resident, displayed some of that wide-ranging knowledge. As he was talking to fourth-graders, the topic of astronauts arose, and a student asked if Einstein had sent astronauts into space.
Rather than just saying no, Thomas quickly shifted to a brief discussion of the equation E=MC squared, for Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence, then he noted the famous scientist’s quest to develop a unified theory of the universe.
“Einstein hoped to solve the dimensions of the whole universe,” he said. “He hoped to do that.”
It was a hunger for learning that Thomas conveyed to the students, weaving his talk of African American contributors into the broad tapestry of American history - and science. He talked to the students, for instance, about the work of George Washington Carver.
“He took the peanut, the pecan, and the sweet potato, and he developed over 300 products,” Thomas said.
He moved from joking with students, to delving deeply into information, to asking them questions.