- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

One by one the students took the stage, each taking historical facts and spinning them into personal mini-dramas. The experience was as rewarding for the audience as it was for the students who received hundreds of dollars in U.S. Savings Bonds. The occasion was “Voices from the Pearl,” an oratorical contest stemming from one of Washington’s little-known secrets — the attemptof76 slaves and a free man to escape onApril15, 1848, along the waters of the Potomac only to be captured, and tortured or sold back into slavery.

The uplifting story reflects the high regard for freedom and liberty, despite its disturbing depiction of that peculiar American institution called slavery. But I digress. This column is not about the economical why-for or unjust what-not of slavery. This column is about pre-Plessy vs. Ferguson America and post-Brown vs. Board of Education America. It is about the need, indeed the call, to lift every voice — young, old and in-between — to tell and retell American history in the hopes that current and future generations will have a promising future to look forward to.

The young “Voices” that spoke on Wednesday delivered their personalized mini-dramas inside the home of Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became one of America’s foremost orators and statesmen. You could imagine Douglass and Spottswood Bolling Jr. smiling down upon seventh-graders KenYonnia Jackson and D’Shaun Thornton (and the other children) as they commanded attention on the stage. See, Spottswood was about their age when his parents tried in 1950 to integrate John Philip Sousa Junior High School, a then-new school in Southeast Washington. His case against the D.C. school board was incorporated into the Brown case.

The constitutional authority that upheld — indeed, prescribed — separate schools based solely on race was established in 1896 by Plessy vs. Ferguson, and all because a man of mixed race wanted to sit in a “white” rail car.

We’ve come a long, long, long way since the schooner Pearl left the docks of what now is the Southwest Waterfront, since the Plessy manifesto and since the blessed Brown decision. If it weren’t for Brown, who knows? KenYonnia and D’Shaun, and their English teacher, Evelyn Davis, mightn’t be from Sousa.

It surely wasn’t supposed to be that way. And there are voices far older than the Sousa students’ to learn from. Many of those voices, those older voices, are being archived by the HistoryMakers, a Chicago-based nonprofit that has taken on the task to reach far beyondthe work of:FDR’sWorks Progress Administration, which catalogued 2,300-plus slave narratives; New York’s Schomburg Center, whose collections and insights of black America are unrivaled; and Washington’s Holocaust Museum, whose artifacts and story-telling are gut-wrenchingly real. What the HistoryMakers has undertaken is the ambitious task of creating a 5,000-strong oral history of America as told by black jurists and politicians, educators and entertainers, historians and artists and others. Its digital/video library and database include the voices of well-knowns and not-so-well-knowns. (See for yourself at www.thehistorymakers.com.)

Weaving an ultra-rich tapestry that is America into videos that can be used to teach history to the KeYonnias and D’Shauns of today and tomorrow is a brilliant concept and long-overdue effort. To use them as educational tools, as the Chicago public schools do, is the genius of the undertaking.

One HistoryMaker, Southeastern University President Charlene Drew Jarvis, recently told me that organizations such as HistoryMakers are indispensable because they help make the “whole cloth” that is America. I also asked Mrs. Jarvis — a native Washingtonian whose personal history includes desegregating Washington’s Theodore Roosevelt High — why 54 years after Spottwood’s tribulations and 50 years after Brown — D.C. Public Schools are failing terribly to educate potential HistoryMakers of the future. Her response was quick and unmeasured: “The tyranny of low expectations.”

If this is to become a republic of united Americans, not merely one of united states, then we must teach the hard lessons learned from Pearl and Plessy and Brown over and over and over again in our schools, houses of worship and at home. We all must raise the expectations across the board, so that future HistoryMakers learn the difference between a handout and a hand up, and that while the ideal of justice is colorblind, the past and present voices of freedom are personal — very personal.

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