African-American History is America’s history

February marks Black History Month across the United States, and while African-American history is very much a part of the grassroots of American culture, this month allows participants to reflect and highlight prominent individuals and organizations which helped to abolish slavery and provide equal rights to persons of color.

Norfolk Collegiate upper school celebrated Black History Month with guest speaker Dr. Kay Wright Lewis, assistant professor of history at Norfolk State University. Lewis spoke with upper school students during an afternoon assembly on Tuesday, Feb. 16, in the Hackney Theater.

Lewis received her Ph.D. from Rutgers University in 2011, and her research continues to focus on slavery and abolition, African-American intellectuals and cultural history, Atlantic history and the history of violence.

“To understand cultural history is to know history at-large,” said Lewis. “African-American history is not as separate from American history as people make it seem.”

Several upper school students had the opportunity to have lunch and speak with Dr. Lewis before her presentation.

“The upper school Student Government Association officers identified a black history assembly as a priority. I was able to connect with Dr. Lewis through Dr. Newby-Alexander, another Norfolk State professor who Collegiate had on campus two years ago,” said Margaret Dalrymple, upper school English teacher.

“While speaking with Dr. Lewis, one thing I took away is education breaks racial pattern,” said Taylor Dews ’18. “People may not know they are racist because it is engrained into them as a child from their parents or those alike.”

Lewis began her presentation with an opening quote from Harriet Tubman, an African-American abolitionist and humanitarian who is famous for her role in the Underground Railroad, which led hundreds of slaves to freedom. The quote read, “I freed a thousand slaves, and I could have feed a thousand more, if only they knew they were slaves.”

Lewis combated that quote by not agreeing that Tubman said it word for word.

Taylor believes this opening quote changed her perception. “Her interpretation of the quote was much different than mine,” she said. “I thought along the lines of master-to-slave, but she went along the lines of a slave who didn’t know that he or she was a slave and could be freed.”

Lewis did not agree with the notion that enslaved people did not know they slaves because so many African-Americans took or asserted their freedom and fled from the south to the north. She noted that blacks relocated to states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York for the betterment of their livelihood.

“Black people were strong,” said Lewis. “They were smart and waited for the right time to escape. “The enslaved were politically savvy and waited for the right opportunities to leave.”

Lewis referenced persons such as Henry “Box” Brown who escaped to freedom by mailing himself in a wooden crate in 1849 from Virginia to abolitionist in Pennsylvania.

She also highlighted those who contributed to African-American history within Hampton Roads, such as Mary S. Peake, who established a school for the children of former slaves in Hampton near Fort Monroe in 1861.

During the Civil War many blacks joined the Union Army. “They were willing to work and contribute to the war any way they could,” said Lewis.

Studies show more than 179,000 African-American men, including northern freed and runaway slaves from the south, served in more than 60 units and also served in support positions in the Navy.

She moved on the highlight Susie King Taylor who was the first African-American to teach openly in a school for former slaves in Savannah.

“In the south, slaves weren’t allowed to read,” said Lewis, who then posed the question of “why” to the upper school assembly. A student echoed from the audience “because reading is liberating.”

Lewis agreed, “Absolutely. Knowledge is powerful. Also, not all people agreed with the idea of slavery, and they wrote about it and if blacks knew how to read, they would then know how to free themselves. Blacks understood the importance of education and that it was the key to success, because anytime someone tries to keep you from knowing something, it must be important.”

Education was the primary focus of African-Americans after the Civil War.

“As Dr. Lewis explained to the students and faculty, black history is everyone’s history,” said Dalrymple. “It’s incredibly important to build in academic time to understand and acknowledge the many accomplishments of African-Americans in our history. Dr. Lewis was inspirational in her assembly remarks that every progressive movement starts with the bold, intentional actions of a few individuals.”

Lewis encouraged students to reach for the stars by concluding her presentation with another quote from Tubman — “every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”     

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