MERIDEN — Local schools are making learning Black history fundamental, while some students are looking for their schools to teach more.
As of 2019, 14 percent of Meriden’s school population identified as Black, according to school records. Following the height of the Black Lives Matter movement last year, students are beginning to understand the significance of learning Black history.
“Black History Month means celebrating how important Black people are,” eighth-grader Aniyah Slater said. “Celebrating the rights they helped make.”
Slater is currently learning about famous Black people in history in her science class at Lincoln Middle School.
Her brother, Deondre Slater, a freshman at Platt High School, reflected on the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, led by Martin Luther King Jr.
“It all started on a bus,” he said. “A Black woman couldn’t sit there (in her seat) because of the color of her skin.”
Rosa Parks, a Black woman, refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, leading to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Black Americans refused to ride city buses to protest segregated seating.
The protest lasted for over a year and is known as one of the first large-scale demonstrations against segregation.
While they have learned about important figures like King and Parks, the siblings agreed that they would like to learn more about Black history at their respective schools.
Alanzo Sargeant, 11, said Black History Month gives him the opportunity to learn more about Black people and his ancestors.
Sargeant, a sixth-grader at Edison Middle School, said he has learned more details about what happened with Parks, famous Black athletes and Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to travel into outer space.
While he has learned about important historical figures, he said he is looking for more answers.
“In school, I wish I was learning about what happened,” Sargeant said about slavery and segregation. “How did it happen? Where did it happen? Who did it happen to? What were the cause and effect of what happened?”
Wilcox implements curriculum
Beginning in fall 2022, Connecticut will require all high schools to offer Black and Latino studies as a year-long elective course. While the class is required to be offered, students aren’t required to take the class.
Wilcox Technical High School Principal Stacy Butkus is making efforts to educate all students about the link between Black history and technical innovations.
“Every morning during the announcements, there is a summary about successful historical African Americans from each technical shop,” said Chelynn Flood, a ninth-grader. “We learn about what they went through and how they helped change our world.”
One announcement was about Adrienne Bennet, the first Black female master plumber in the United States and now the CEO of her own contracting company.
The idea is to give students of color a glimpse into what they can achieve in the fields they are looking to pursue.
Charles Williams, an English teacher at Wilcox, said Black history is incorporated into his teaching year round.
His freshman students are currently learning about mythology. While teaching the subject he says it is important to teach what is “left out.” He teaches that Greek gods and goddesses are portrayed as white but actually were of African descent.
“They like it a lot, because no one has told them,” Williams said. “It’s a matter of offering it to these kids. When they’re in class and I tell them some of these things, they are totally amazed.”
In Harmony Scaglione’s English class at Wilcox, she has given her students the opportunity to learn about historical and current Black writers.
Her students are currently researching writers from slave narratives, like Harriet Jacobs, to the Harlem Renaissance to current writers like Amanda Gorman. By the end of the project, each student will present information on the writer they chose and explain their choice.
“I’ve been introduced to a lot of new and outstanding writers in the past few years, and I realized a lot of them don’t make it to the classroom,” Scaglione said. “This project is aimed to introduce the kids to the whole of the African American canon.”
She said the students are very receptive and are also willing to talk about current events. She said while the students oftentimes see the world through social media, she uses her classroom as a time to make sense of the news.
“I want them to know none of this is new. Black Lives Matter didn’t come out of nowhere,” Scaglione said. “It comes out of a long history of injustice.”
While teachers like Scaglione and Williams have made current events and Black history a priority, when it comes to bringing up current events on her own, Chelynn Flood said she prefers not to.
“I support Black Lives Matter, of course,” Flood said. “But, I have different opinions and beliefs from everybody, so I don’t want to spark up any arguments or tension.”
Hezekiah Rawlings, a sophomore at Wilcox, also said he doesn’t normally bring up current events and that it isn’t a topic his classes normally get into.
On his own time, he learns about Black history but, like the younger students, he said he would like for his teachers to bring it up more in class.
“During Black History Month, sometimes I watch documentaries about what happened in the past,” Rawlings said. “I learned that some things have changed but some things haven’t. There are people trying to make big changes still to this day.”
Big Brothers, Big Sisters
Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters is a volunteer mentoring network matching children ages six to 18 with adults in their community across 132 cities. Joe Padilla, a Big Brother from Bristol, mentors Mark Bishop a 15-year-old from Meriden.
“Me and my bro, we talk about a lot different things,” Padilla said. “He’s really into sports and through that, things come up about things that are happening to athletes.”
Padilla said the pair don’t necessarily talk about Black History Month specifically, but they have a relationship that allows Bishop to ask or talk about anything he wants.
For Black History Month, Big Brothers Big Sisters is putting a spotlight on, and thanking, African American and West Indian mentors for volunteering. This month the organization is also looking to recruit more Black mentors, especially men.
Brian Kelly, marketing director for the organization, said that matches heavily depend on what parents want for their kids. Some parents prefer for the mentor to look like their child while others want their child to experience new cultures.
There’s always a difficulty recruiting male mentors, and then it drops down to a difficulty getting men of color,” Kelly said. “It’s hard to convince men to commit but once they do, it’s great.”