Youngsters probe black history

The Heritage of Excellence series gives pupils an opportunity to take an intense look at the past

Education Beat


On a beautiful autumn Saturday, 10 middle school pupils were indoors, shuffling through papers as they sat around a conference table. And they seemed thrilled.

The pupils were taking part in the Heritage of Excellence series offered by the Howard County Center for African American Culture in Columbia. The course provides an intense look at African-American history through classroom learning and field trips.

"I think it's important to learn what happened to us before we had all these civil rights," said Michael Mobery, 12, an eighth-grader at Bonnie Branch. He said he had learned some of the history in school, but "they just go into more detail" in the Heritage series. And, he said, "It's really fun."

Until Nov. 20

The eight-week program is held from 10 a.m. to noon on consecutive Saturdays. The current program, which began Sept. 24, will end Nov. 20 with a closing ceremony and reception.

The program has been offered since 1995, said Marilyn Miles, the program coordinator. At first, one session was offered each year, but starting in 2002, sessions were offered in the fall and spring, she said. The Heritage series is open to all middle school pupils in Howard County -- and occasionally pupils from surrounding counties. The eight-week session costs $30.

Each series is different, and many students return for more than one. "What we find is that if a child comes for one session, it's very rare that they don't come back," Miles said. "If we can get them for that one session, they're hooked."

Dominique Hoskin, 12, a seventh-grader at Ellicott Mills Middle School, likes the program so much she has attended eight sessions over four years, she said.

"I think it's important to know your history," she said. "Especially your bad history, to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Arielle Evans, 12, an eighth-grader at Wilde Lake Middle School, has been attending for three years. "I learn about my roots and stuff," she said.

She said black history in school focuses only on a few iconic leaders, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. "It goes way beyond what we're learning in school," she said.

The pupils also go on field trips, to places significant in African-American history, such as the Great Blacks in Wax Museum or the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, both in Baltimore.

The fall program this year is focused on African-American history from civil rights to the present. The program is taught by Crystal Maddox and Myrtice Hoskin, who invite speakers such as Natalie Woodson, chairwoman of the education committee of the Howard County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Brenda Harris, a lawyer who spoke about civil rights-era legislation.

The 1960s

On a recent Saturday, Woodson, sitting at the head of the table, spoke to the pupils about the civil rights movement of the 1960s and what it means to them. The session took place in the center's library, which also houses books and memorabilia, including Michael Jackson figurines and books about The Cosby Show.

"When you hate, you cause your whole character to change," Woodson said at one point.

Linking the civil rights movement with the pupils' experiences, Woodson spoke of a program called SPIRIT, or Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together. SPIRIT was created by the U.S. Department of Justice about 15 years ago to address issues of racial conflict in schools through problem-solving and mediation, she said. "That affects you particularly," she said to the young people at the table.

As the session drew to a close, one of the students raised his hand. "I just want to say thanks for telling us all this," said Christopher Maddox, 11, a seventh-grader at Bonnie Branch Middle School.

"You're just a great group," Woodson replied. "You know I enjoy coming here every year."

The pupils joined her in singing "We Shall Overcome" before they gathered up their papers and left.

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