Competition spotlights black history


March 08, 2002|By Betsy Diehl | Betsy Diehl,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

IT WAS 8:25 a.m. Feb. 28, but when Professor Charles M. Christian asked an auditorium full of schoolchildren what time it was, the reply was a booming, "It's Black Saga time!"

For 15 Black Saga contestants at Patuxent Valley Middle School, that meant time to sort out and recall hundreds of names, places and events from more than 500 years of African-American history.

Did you know that Massachusetts was the first British colony in North America to recognize slavery as a legal institution in 1641? Or that the banjo came to America via enslaved Africans?

If those facts are news to you, you're not alone. That is precisely why the Black Saga competition exists - to raise awareness of black history as an important part of American history, said Judie Cephas, Patuxent Valley Gifted and Talented Program teacher.

"The goal is for all students to learn African-American history, regardless of their ethnicity," said Cephas, the event's coordinator.

The academic contest pitted teams of seventh- and eighth-graders against each other for the chance to be one of three teams to represent the school at a statewide competition this month at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Patuxent Valley has a reputation to maintain. The school has won the state championship two years in a row.

Christian, a professor of social and population geography at the College Park campus, was moderator for last week's Patuxent Valley competition. He started Black Saga 10 years ago as an outreach activity at a school in Beltsville, where he was asked to mentor 29 middle school-age boys.

"They were loud, noisy kids," Christian said. "I said, `What am I going to do with them?'"

What he did was create an academic contest for the boys, based on facts he had gathered for a book about African-American history that he was writing at the time, Black Saga: The African American Experience.

"The teachers were so excited. They said, `You've got to can this. You've got to do something with this,'" Christian said.

Forty-three schools across the state now participate.

Christian said the forum addresses history that is often overlooked. "In our textbooks, many have allocated African-American history to the sidebars and shaded notes," he said. "I am hoping to integrate the African-American history into American history. We're hoping that some day people will see African-American history as American history."

A program strength is promoting cooperation. Teammates spend months together studying from information packets, and family members get involved.

"I have a greater appreciation of African-American history. I can see how African-American history is interwoven with American history," said Connie Master, whose daughter, Samantha, was on the state champion team last year.

Samantha is heading for a repeat performance. She and teammates Kyle Zack and Alanna Olive-Smith placed first for the school. Also qualifying for the state competition were Eric Piccirelli, Arlin Willett, Nureya Anthony, Latoia Williams, Elana Williams and Felicia Justice.

Other contestants were Zinnia Lu, Sabrina Seibert, Joshua Austin, Erica Esposito, Roxanne Bublitz and Aaron Slaughter.

"We said we're going to win, no matter how tough it is," Samantha said.

The state championship begins at 8:30 a.m. March 23 in the Stamp Student Union Building. Parking and admission are free.

Information: www.blacksaga

More Black Saga winners

Seven teams at Bollman Bridge Elementary competed in the school's Black Saga competition.

Members of the top three teams, who will compete in the state championships March 23, are Matt Kennedy, Kyle Stanton, Caitlin Leary, Laila Anthony, Fatmata Timbo, Leah Fuchs, Timi Adediron, Brittany Hazzard and Mika Lam.

Other participants included: Yeni Perez, Brigid Atwater, Heather Cochran, Brian Ott, Tara Bresette, Ryan Martin, Sharnise Hendrick, J. Guzzone, Nate Davis, Michael Haugh, Taylor Anderson and Amanda Dye.

Parting words

Joy Grimes, instructional assistant at Bollman Bridge Elementary School, acknowledges that as the mother of three young daughters in the early 1980s, she was not an avid reader. She was thankful that someone filled the gap.

"Mrs. Matthews, a retired schoolteacher, was Mother Goose at the library here in town," Grimes said. Carroll Baldwin Hall was the library, and Matthews read to children once a week.

"She made stories fun," Grimes said. "It was her mannerisms and her way with her voice. I enjoyed her story times, too."

Grimes is not sure what Matthews' first name was.

"Everybody knew her as Mother Goose," she said, adding that when Matthews drove through town, peering over the steering wheel of her green sedan, Grimes' three daughters would cry, "There goes Mother Goose."

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