- Associated Press - Saturday, February 15, 2014

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.

On Feb. 7, Thomas talked about well-known figures such as Tubman, but his speech also explored his own life.

“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.

Students became excited as Thomas talked, partly because he punctuated the discussion with chants such as “Arthur! Arthur!” and “Read! Read! Read!”

He moved from joking with students, to delving deeply into information, to asking them questions.

And he told stories.

“They love a story,” Thomas said between talks. “And they love stories that cause their minds to travel upward. They like to dream.”

That soaring spirit seemed to seep into the psyches of the children he spoke to. After Thomas talked to a class of third-graders, a few of the students came out of classroom to talk about what they’d heard.

“He was very confident in what he said,” said Amonee Blair, 8, with a confidence of her own. “He made me feel good that I wasn’t a slave now.”

Maverick Shiflett, 9, liked hearing the discussion of the Underground Railroad.

“I liked when he mentioned the Underground Railroad,” he said. “It wasn’t a railroad - you could walk on the ground. And isn’t it (a place) for African Americans to meet?”

Amonee answered Maverick with an explanation.

Harriet Tubman - that’s how she freed the slaves,” Amonee said.

The children said they’d studied many of the figures Thomas mentioned, but Chris Grigsby, 9, noted that Thomas’s talk also let students “meet all the new people we didn’t know about.”

Cason-Copeland has coordinated a series of events at the school commemorating Black History Month. Those include a Feb. 7 school-wide assembly and a Black History Inventors Museum to be set up from Feb. 24 to Feb. 28 in the school guidance room.

It’s a museum, she said, that would give students a chance to see African American contributions to the creation of the most frequently seen everyday objects - from hairbrushes to cell phones.

Cason-Copeland moved to Waynesboro a few years ago, and she’s been motivated to get involved in raising awareness of contributions African Americans have made to the country.

“That was one of the things, that I won’t say I thought was missing, but I thought could be improved upon, and I thought the only way to do that was to get involved and participate,” she said.

Steven Eckstrom, assistant principal of William Perry Elementary, said the events planned for Black History Month are the first he recalls at the school - and he credited Cason-Copeland for spearheading the plan and tapping Thomas as a speaker.

“I think it’s very engaging for the students to be able to experience an African American man who put himself in such a better place,” Eckstrom said of Thomas. “He’s not just coming and speaking history, he’s coming to speak life.”

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Information from: The News Leader, http://www.newsleader.com

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