Black history comes to life Negro League player, Tuskegee Airman tell their stories at school

February 25, 1997|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Black History Month came alive for students at Columbia's Swansfield Elementary School yesterday with an interactive look black accomplishments -- from inventions and military feats to music and baseball.

A retired Negro League baseball player described the days of segregated sports. A former Tuskegee Airman recounted dogfights against the Germans. A storyteller delighted youngsters with a tale about a 5-year-old Tanzanian girl. And parents gave pupils a tour of African and African-American history through displays in the hallways of the school on Cedar Lane.

"We're giving [the children] another opportunity to learn more about American history, because that's all black history is -- just another part of American history that often gets left out," said Denise London, one of two parents who organized many of the day's activities.

"We're just filling in the gaps. The school does a good job, but it's particularly important because this school has such a large number of black students," London said.

About 39 percent of Swansfield's 660 students are black, more than twice the countywide elementary average.

Black History Month activities are scheduled at every Howard school this month. But few schools devote an entire day to learning about black history -- as Swansfield did yesterday with students moving through a variety of activities.

Hubert Simmons, who pitched and played outfield with the Baltimore Elite Giants in the Negro League in the early 1950s, told groups of students about the inequities of playing baseball in a segregated league -- saying his $200-a-month salary forced him to work other jobs.

He also recalled his meetings with famous players of the day -- Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Josh Gibson.

"I met Satchel Paige in a ballgame. He was pitching and I was trying to hit," Simmons said in response to one question. "Satchel Paige was very good, and I found out the hard way. I struck out."

Education is key to success

But like many of the day's speakers, Simmons gave the students a lesson in the importance of continuing with their education, telling them how he was able to become a fifth-grade teacher after his baseball career ended because he had graduated from college.

"No matter how good you are in sports please get an education first," said Simmons, 72, of Ellicott City. "It's easier to be a doctor than to be a professional baseball or basketball player."

Harry Sheppard, a former Tuskegee Airman, told students about the famous all-black 99th and 302nd Pursuit Squadrons, which had unparalleled combat records in more than 1,500 missions over Europe and North Africa during World War II. "I was scared every single morning," Sheppard told students.

For the kindergartners and first- and second-graders, Natalie Woodson, chairwoman of the county NAACP chapter's education committee, told a story called "Bimwili and the Zimwi." Dressed in an mauve African buba dress, Woodson tapped a Nigerian drum to emphasize portions of the story.

Most students figured out the story's lesson pretty quickly -- "Don't talk to strangers."

"It's fun for me and fun for the kids," said Woodson, who encouraged students to learn more at Columbia's African Art Museum of Maryland. She also described her experiences with giraffes and zebras during a recent trip to Africa.

"I try to tell stories about people and children, so the students will see the common feelings and experiences of everyone in the community," Woodson said.

"I liked the story a lot," said second-grader Angele Seriki, 7. "I've learned a lot today -- the Negro baseball league, the cowboys, the inventions."

After listening to speakers, the students went on guided tours of history through Swansfield's hallways. Parents and a local historian told them of African-American food, famous black inventors and scientists, African kings, Kwanzaa and the blues.

'Multicultural learning'

Many of the hallway displays will remain up throughout the week, because Swansfield didn't limit events celebrating Black History Month to yesterday.

For example, February's morning announcements have included a daily "Black Fact," and students' black history projects and other art already were posted on many of the school's bulletin boards.

"The Howard County curriculum is infused with multicultural learning," said Swansfield principal Karen Ganjon. "This was a special celebration of learning, a day in which parents, students, teachers and guests learned from each other.

"We're always striving for authentic learning, in which students learn from original sources, and this was authentic. It's something the students will never forget."

Pub Date: 2/25/97

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