Community school brings lessons on history, character, future

CHAMPAIGN — Young African-Americans are learning about their history, their character development and their future through a new community school.

Education is what Community Saturday School founder Amira M. Davis tells her young charges helped bring Africans out of slavery, and what will empower them in the future.

Pupils learned that white slave owners made it illegal for slaves to learn to read and write, but sometimes through trickery the slaves were able to learn communication skills clandestinely, and communicate with abolitionists and the Underground Railroad.

The school has been held weekly at Booker T. Washington Elementary School since Feb. 1.

Grants enabled the free program to run for 12 Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., but things are going so well that there will be 14 weeks, said Davis, who holds a doctorate in educational policy studies.

The school is partially funded by a grant from the Office of Public Engagement at the University of Illinois, in collaboration with Professor Violet Harris. Unit 4 Schools is also a partner, as are arts and humanities groups.

Besides history and literacy instruction, all designed to emphasize growth in character, about 30 students from ages 5 to 19 learn about photography, fine arts, African drumming and creative writing. Some classes are taught by high school and UI students.

And there's physical education, such brain games as chess and lunch on the schedule as well.

In the library where Davis is teaching a half-dozen younger pupils, a vocabulary list is on a chalkboard: Labor, free papers, reparations, maroons and plantation.

Davis uses Kadir Nelson's book "Heart and Soul" to teach the pupils that whites preferred to believe that Africans "were fine" with being slaves or were "touched in the head."

Slave owners didn't want them to be able to read the Bible or anti-slavery literature, Davis told the pupils.

Frederick Douglass, for whom a nearby complex of buildings is named, learned to read by playing a teasing game, Davis said.

He'd point to a word and ask his friends, "I know this word. But do you know it?"

The class also discussed Solomon Northrup, a free man forced into slavery whose story was recently told in the Oscar-winning movie "Twelve Years A Slave."

"I learned a lot about slavery," said fourth-grader Ashya Wilson, "a lot of things I haven't heard in regular school."

"Slaves were not respected, and we should be respectful," said second-grader Tristan Wynn.

Earlier in the history class, which started with the story of Africa, they learned about 14th-century Mali emperor Mansa Musa I, the richest man in history.

Students need to be proud of their history, Davis said.

She quotes Marianne Williamson: "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us."

Sections (2):News, Local
Topics (2):Education, People

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