Monday, February 12, 2001

Black history comes alive

Schoolchildren 'should know the history of this city'

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        From the former home of a famous abolitionist author to a camp where children reenact a trip along the Underground Railroad, the Tristate glitters with gems of black history.

        Educators who want to make black history come alive say those gems — twinkling in churches, restored houses and museums in Greater Cincinnati — introduce black history beyond the pages of textbooks.

[photo] Camp Campbell Gard staffers Scott Kiser (left) and Dick Christian (center) reenact a slave auction, part of the YMCA camp's program for Black History Month.
(Jeff Swinger photos)
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        “They will remember these lessons a lot longer than anything they learn in a classroom,” said Mark Koerner, principal of C.O. Harrison Elementary School in Delhi Township.

        Seven fifth-grade classes from C.O. Harrison will visit the YMCA's Camp Campbell Gard in Hamilton this month for a lesson in black history. Staff members in period dress will simulate part of the passage along the Underground Railroad.

        The Underground Railroad is a symbolic term to describe the route enslaved African-Americans traveled to reach freedom. Ohio stops include the John Rankin and John Parker houses in Ripley, according to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center's Web site.

        Mark Walden, a fifth-grade teacher from C.O. Harrison, said the experience helps students better understand black history in the Tristate.

        “Obviously it'll make it a lot more real because they will be the ones hiding and they will be the ones making the journey,” he said.

Reenacting our history
[photo] A young “slave” in shackles at Camp Campbell Gard helps students follow the story of the Underground Railroad.
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        On a recent Monday, fifth-graders from Grant Elementary in Hamilton spent the night at the camp. They learned about the Underground Railroad by following the camps' trails at night, acting as slaves escaping to Canada and freedom in 1851.

        At one point, several students were arrested, taken to a mock jail and forced to escape. A mistake during the trip caused one student to be “shot dead.”

        Teacher Tina Chapman, hair dripping from the rain after her group completed the two-hour journey through winding dark trails and across muddy fields, said the experience can't be matched in a book.

        “In a classroom, they won't remember it. They won't feel it,” she said. “With this, they will.”

        That's the same explanation George Wilson, a teacher at Lighthouse Community School in Madisonville, gives for taking students to the Harriet Beecher Stowe house in Walnut Hills.

        The white hilltop house is a monument to the anti-slavery movement.

        Schoolchildren gather throughout the year to listen to museum Director Emma Cox tell of the revolutionary abolitionists who tread the wooden floors nearly 170 years ago.

   • Harriet Beecher Stowe House, 2950 Gilbert Ave., Walnut Hills. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. Information: 632-5120.
   • Camp Campbell Gard “Living History,” 4803 Augspurger Road, Hamilton. Information: (877) 224-9622.
   • African American Museum, William L. Mallory Sr. Gallery, bottom floor of Cincinnati Museum Center, 1301 Western Ave. in the West End. Hours: 1-5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Information: 345-3744.
        “This is a historical place for the city,” Ms. Cox said. “Kids should know the history of this city. That's how history is kept alive.”

        The house, she said, was built in 1830 for Dr. Lyman Beecher, future president of Lane Theological Seminary. The abolitionist accepted that position and moved here from Connecticut.

        He brought with him his daughter, Harriet, who after marrying and moving to Maine wrote the classic anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.
       But it was in the hilltop house on Gilbert Avenue, a common meeting place for abolitionists, where Mrs. Stowe became familiar with horrible tales of slavery.

        Being in the restored house, which is just a few miles from their school, makes the abolitionist movement tangible, Mr. Wilson said.

        “When kids are still having discussions in the van on the way home, you know you've done a good job,” he said.

Connecting to the past
        Cincinnati's rich black history helps students connect to the past, said Joyce Coleman, president of the Northern Kentucky African American Heritage Task Force in Covington.

        “There are so many black people who lived here, thrived here and came across the river as slaves,” she said.

        People like John Parker. The slave bought his freedom and came to Ripley in the mid-1800s. He started a foundry, became a successful businessman and assisted escaping slaves.
       But teachers and black history experts want students to know there's more to Cincinnati's black history than slavery.

        That's why the tiny Arts Consortium's African American Museum at Cincinnati Museum Center hosts more than 100 student groups a year, said curator Toilynn O'Neal.

        The museum addresses slavery but carries the African American experience through civil rights to the present.

        A permanent exhibit, “Bein' Round Natti Town: the First 150 years,” tells of great migration of African-Americans to Ohio, their struggles and achievements between 1800 and 1950.

Sites overlooked
        Beyond the popular stops and stories are many overlooked sites.

        “There are a lot of areas (and people) of significance beyond the Underground Railroad,” said Mary Northington, a charter member of the Northern Kentucky African American Heritage Task Force.

        People such as the Rev. Jacob Price. The Jacob Price Homes, a federally financed housing project in Covington completed in 1939, are a monument to him.

        The Rev. Mr. Price was one of 76 free African-Americans living here before the Civil War. After emancipation, he established the First Colored Baptist Church and the first Covington school for black children.

        Other historical sites have been bull-dozed, said Carl Westmoreland, senior researcher for the Freedom Center.

        Sites like the Frederick Douglass Elementary School, a historically black school in Walnut Hills, demolished in 1981. The school site dated back to 1860, when black children had been educated in a home on that spot.

- Black history comes alive
Freedom Center develops lessons for students, teachers

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