Lessons in black history learned outside city schools

July 28, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

TYESHIA WRIGHT, just a few days past her 16th birthday, sat in a classroom of the building that stands at 1641 E. North Ave., one of several on the block used by officials of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum.

Wright was telling a visitor what she had learned about exhibits at the museum. As one of seven students in the first summer program designed to train tour guides, Wright had been assigned to do research on lynching and the Dred Scott decision. Her instructor, retired Baltimore City schoolteacher Reba Bullock, asked her to give the particulars of the Dred Scott decision.

The Southwestern High School junior gave a quick overview of the case. She may be one of the few high school students in Baltimore who, when asked, knows who Roger Taney was. Wright correctly identified him as the chief justice of the United States who wrote the horrendous opinion in Scott vs. Sandford.

"Do you know where Taney came from?" the visitor asked Wright.

"No."

"Maryland. But keep that on the down low."

Wright is enrolled in Southwestern's tourism and hospitality career academy. Joining her as a tour guide trainee this summer are her schoolmates Shenikka Tate, Lashaunda Faison, Devren Foster, Arick Wilson, Latonya McLaurin and Tarsha Smith. All will be Southwestern juniors come September, except for Smith. She applied to and was accepted as a transfer at - ahem! - City College.

The tour guide program is a joint venture of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum and Renaissance Productions and Tours, a private business headed by Thomas Saunders. Saunders' enterprise takes tourists on guided excursions to African-American historical sites in and around Baltimore.

Foster researched the Great Blacks in Wax exhibits on lynching and athletes. Tate chose Islamic traditions (focusing on Bilal and Askia the Great) and Benjamin Banneker. Wilson covered lynching and Banneker, Faison studied the Underground Railroad and the saga of Henry "Box" Brown, the slave who stuffed himself in a wooden box and hitched a ride north and to freedom on a train.

Faison knew the Box Brown story backward and forward, even down to the little detail of how Brown felt when the train ride tilted the box so that he was standing on his head.

"Brown's train ride took him through the President Street Station here in Baltimore," Saunders said. The train that carried abolitionist insurrectionist John Brown's coffin also went through that station. The Southwestern students knew neither of those facts when the six-week program started, Saunders said.

They didn't know of the Middle Passage, African-American poet and writer Langston Hughes or civil rights activist and journalist Ida Wells Barnett either. Saunders, Bullock and others in the program have changed all that. They've given these youngsters what amounts to a crash course in Baltimore's African-American history.

The students have been on tours of famed NAACP member Clarence Mitchell Jr.'s house and the neighborhood where Thurgood Marshall, NAACP lawyer extraordinaire and first black Supreme Court justice, lived. (Mitchell is the man who really got the landmark civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s passed.) They've visited the national headquarters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Orchard Street Church and St. Frances Academy.

On the list of places to visit are the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge, the Sharp Street Church and Archives, Union Baptist Church, the President Street Station and the Civil War Museum.

History isn't the only part of the curriculum. On Tuesday, Bullock covered a unit on work ethics and the importance of good attendance, punctuality and positive attitudes. She had the students role-play various scenarios in which a supervisor confronts an employee with problems in all three areas.

That task complete, Bullock gave the students the basics of writing a resume. Once Bullock gave them the details, she had them whip out their notebooks and write sample resumes.

"These are bright kids, well-groomed and attentive," Saunders said of the group. (They did look quite fetching in their navy blue short-sleeved shirts with "Great Blacks in Wax" etched over the heart and their khaki pants.) Saunders feels their lack of knowledge about general and local black history is a reflection of the curriculum in the city school system, not the students.

"Students from Baltimore County tend to know more than Baltimore City students," Saunders said. "But it's only because they've been exposed to it."

Baltimore County, Saunders said, covers the civil rights movement as part of the curriculum.

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