Newhouse News Service
February 23, 1992
UNIONTOWN, MD. – Uniontown Elementary’s fourth grade is all white. But today the children are dressed as black people.
There is Thurgood Marshall in a black robe, Louis Armstrong with a horn, Jesse Owens in running shorts, three Martin Luther Kings in their dad’s ties and abolitionist Sojourner Truth in a black velvet jumper – “the plainest thing I have,” explains Tara Nichols, 9.
One by one the children tell their stories.
“I rose from a cotton picker to a world leader,” said Jackie Kram, concluding her role as educator Mary McLeod Bethune. “On May 18, 1955, I died.”
It is Black History Month in white America. And in places like Carroll County, Md., where only 3 percent of the population is black, it can be a hit-or-miss affair – a source of inspiration or cause for despair.
The responsibility rests with individual teachers. They can either bring passion and ingenuity to the task or simply go through the motions in a manner that leaves white students comfortable in their ignorance and the few black students shifting uncomfortably in their seats.
Katie Tomarelli, 10, with her freckles and auburn hair, looks more like Pollyanna than Harriet Tubman in her homespun red-and-white check dress, white shawl and Easter bonnet.
“I think the teacher wants us to know that black people had a lot of struggles to get where they are,” she said. “I never knew they didn’t have a lot of power.”
But just a few miles away at North Carroll Middle School, Tara Moses, 13, worries about how little her eighth-grade classmates – only two of whom are black – know or care about black people, and how freely they express their disdain.
“Lately everything is ‘nigger this’ and ‘nigger that,'” said Moses, who places some blame on all the teachers who never mentioned black history because there were no black people in the class.
Uniontown Elementary predates the Civil War and still looks like an early American idyll. It is surrounded by the crisp, clean beauty of white clapboard houses and gently rolling farmland where cows and horses graze. A rooster crows into noon. A hound dog named Jake lazes out front.
Carroll County is committed to teaching black history. But children here grow up in an almost entirely white environment, one in which the Ku Klux Klan remains a presence.
“My 6-year-old cousin told me that black people are stupid,” said Aubrey Shower, another North Carroll eighth-grader. “I said, ‘Eleanor, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ She said, ‘Yes I do. They’re stupid.’ And I said ‘Do you know any black people?’ She goes, ‘No, and I don’t want to.’ ”
It can be argued, said Russell Adams, a professor of African-American studies at Howard University, that white America needs Black History Month more than black America. But by and large, he said, that’s not the way it works.
Strong black history programs are generally found where the community demands them, said Jill Christianson, an educaton equity specialist with the Maryland Department of Education.
It was Carter G. Woodson, a black historian, who in 1926 launched Negro History Week to offer pride and a past to a people under siege. Fifty years later, as part of the U.S. Bicentennial, the week was stretched the length of February and Black History Month was born.
But Black History Month has not been without controversy. Comedian Richard Pryor once remarked that black people got the month “with all the days missing.” Black scholars have argued that the month is an invitation to tokenism, an excuse to touch lightly on black history every February and ignore it the rest of the year.
Still, most black history students regard it as a useful vehicle for recognizing the enormous contributions of black people to American history, and of continued value until black history is integrated into school curricula.
“As long as America and America’s public schools omit and misrepresent our history, it’s needed,” said Bettye Collier Thomas, executive director of Temple University’s Center for African-American History and Culture in Philadelphia.
But in overwhelmingly white communities, this can become an especially tricky business. No mandate can ensure that a white teacher will present black history to white students in a way that is natural, dignified and effective.
Many black students in mostly white schools have come to dread Black History Month.
“In most classes I was the only black,” said Rochere Whitaker, a sophomore at Western Maryland College in Westminster, who grew up in a Baltimore suburb. “Whenever the subject had to do with black people everybody in class gave me ‘the look’ – every face turned to me like I’m supposed to stand up and give the history of the black people.”
“Every year it was the same thing: Martin Luther King,” said Damon Lewis, another Western Maryland sophomore who went to a mostly white high school. “It was ridiculous because everybody knew from the first grade who Martin Luther King was, and it was all they knew.”
At North Carroll Middle School, Michelle Placek, 13, said all she ever learned about King is that he had once delivered a speech that began, “I have a dream . . . ”
“We all thought of him just as a holiday to get off from school,” she said.
Until this year, and social studies with teacher Dick Osman.
Without naming King or mentioning race, Osman described the travails and provocations of King’s life to the class – the arrests, the threats, the bombings. Only after they talked about what they would have done, with many calling for bloody acts of vengeance, did Osman identify it as King’s life, and describe his heroic response.
Troy Peery, 13, said Osman succeeded in getting some students to really think about King for the first time. “If he had let on beforehand that it was Martin Luther King, some kids would have just automatically turned it off,” he said.