Saturday, September 27, 2008

The African American History Project

The first day back to school as an eighth grader, Cochise Moore, now towering over me, came up. "So what is the video project going to be this year? I got a team together. I got Marcus, my friend Mike is moving from Cal Young MS, and Trayvon. And I got a seventh grader Cory." I did have a ready answer. My friend Bahati Ansari had once expressed a wish that the four survivng pioneer African American women of Lane County could be honored: Mrs. Washington, Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Mims and Mrs. Reynolds. When these ladies moved to Eugene, public facilities were closed to African Americans. That's why Mrs. Washington and Mrs. Mims had boarding houses by the railroad. The history of acceptable racist boarding policy remained into recent times. Marion Anderson and young Sammy Davis, Jr. both were not allowed to stay in hotels in town.

I suggested the topic. He grabbed it. I asked if he wanted to do another film or if he wanted to capture everything as an ethnographic film, no editing, for others to use for research. He assembled his team and they chose to do the ethnographic film, raw footage, no directing, just listening and learning.

Teaching interviewing skill was my job but I told them, this isn't about going in for the story and then leaving, but this type of interviewing was about building a relationship. I passed on what I learned as a folklore student, explaining that questions shouldn't drive the process. This would be like a conversation, questions here and there, but allowing the interviewed person to go where ever they may go and share stories which were not planned by the interviewer, surprises and treasures.

Just as Cochise had assembled his team, I began to assemble adults to mentor the project. Of course, Schiff and my husband would be their technology mentors. I also asked Mr. Roosevelt White and counselor Callen Coleman to be the mentors. As African American men, I felt that these two men would give so much to the young men of the project. Mr. White was a good father, a coach and had a lot to share with young middle school aged men. Callen was young, still in college, and closer to their age, hip, and loved young people. I would deal with the logistics and with discipline when necessary as the classroom teacher.

My husband Will did a workshop with the young men about using the camera in an interview situation where the camera would not be in the way. He taught them how to mike up each person so the audio would be clear. He taught them about lighting, and about framing so the ladies would look their best.

Then came the "manners workshop" by one of the nieces of Mrs. Johnson, Pauline Davidson. Ms. Davidson taught the young men how to present themselves to the ladies, how to act, how to listen and how to dress. Their pants could not sag, their shirts were to be tucked in, and finally they all had to wear ties. The five young men were politely quiet, but I could see by their faces that they were not happy.

The next day I silently congratulated myself for having the wisdom to recruit Mr. White and Callan. The young men were no longer quiet. They were moving and talking and waving their arms. "We're not going to wear ties."

"Yes, you are," Mr. White said. The argument raged on.
"Why do we have to wear ties? We wear nice clothes. What's wrong with this?"
There is no doubt that Cochise and the others were dressed stylishly.
Mr. White stayed on course. "Ms. Davidson had said ties."
Finally Mr. White asked, "What is wrong with wearing a tie?"
Cochise stood up taller and countered, "Well I'll tell you, I'm not going to look like Humpty Dumpty."
Mr. White stood even taller and said, "Are you saying I look like Humpty Dumpty?" and it went like that for awhile.

Callen, Schiff and Mr. White whipped out ties, and everyone went to work learning the Windsor knot and the double Windsor knot.

The day of the first interview, questions in hand, equipment packed, pants up, shirts tucked, and ties tied, they were ready. How proud they looked! They "walked and rolled" down the hallways. The team created quite a stir in the eighth grade hall. Young eighth grade women trailed with them complimenting them. Before leaving the building they stopped by the front office to check in with principal Doctor Bolden. He rewarded them with some candy. From that day, each time they put on a tie, either he or the vice principal, Paul Jorgensen, gave them a sweet reward.

Mr. White's responsibility was to accompany the young men to all the interviews. At the end of their interview, they returned, all wearing Burger King crowns and big smiles. They could not wait to tell me all the details, what Mrs. Reynolds said, who did what -- held the camera, asked the questions worked with the lights, and she had invited them to church!

Each interview was like that. Mrs. Johnson made them zucchini bread and next time was going to teach them how to make gumbo! "And you should have heard Mrs. Johnson swear! " they laughed in surprise in remembering. "When this racist woman was calling her out, Mrs. Johnson let her have it!"

Mrs. Mims had her son Willy with her and Willy told the young men that he would take them around and give them a tour of the historic part of Eugene. Cochise came in to see me on his own after the Mrs. Mim's visit and plopped down onto a desk. His face was peaceful, soft. He said, "Ms. Kawai Joo, Mrs. Mims is so beautiful with her silver hair." How many teens would see that in a ninety year old elder and express it, "She is so beautiful." It touched my heart.

During this period of time, as the young men got used to wearing ties, and enjoyed the positive attention it gave them, I received a call from a white parent. She had concerns about the project and scheduled a meeting with me. She sat down and wanted to know why these Black students were leaving school in ties. I explained the African American History Project to her. No one could deny the academic relevance and civic importance. She tried to explain what her concern was, but couldn't find words, and finally said, "I don't know why I don't like what's going on, but I just don't."

I answered, "I think I know what it might be." She was ready to listen so I said, "When you and I went to school there was nothing like this. There were certain students who were considered leaders the moment they walked through the front door of the school, and everyone else was not. When we see five young African American men wearing ties and doing this important thing, we can't put our finger on it but it seems somehow it's not comfortable or familiar, maybe taking away from someone else -- but it's not. It's still making people feel uncomfortable though because it's new."

To her credit she said, "That's it."

I assured her that at Jefferson there are many ways to lead and if a student has an idea, we will make sure to help make that idea happen. She asked why the team was made up of only only Black students. I explained that beyond the fact that the five people who wanted to do this and came up with it happened to be a team of five African American young men, "these ladies, they love all the kids. If a white student or any other student were in the group, they would feel sorry and would not tell the stories which are part of a harsh history. They don't want to hurt any child's feelings. But they would tell Black youth because it is to make them stronger." I also assured her that if her sons wanted to do a video history project I would be more than happy to organize a team of mentors and do the same for them. I actually had an elder in mind, a person who definitely deserved to have her story told. Ida Moffet was Ukranian and told such good stories about the hardship during her childhood. She and her family would pick up the small amount of grain from the empty wheat fields and boil a soup. That's all they had to eat. She told stories of moving to America and being shunned on the playground as an immigrant. She told about her tradition of painting the eggs at Easter, the beautiful Ukranian egg designs and learned that when she brought them to school, her classmates admired them. She made friends through trading her eggs at lunchtime. Her Ukranian eggs are famous and some are in the Smithsonian. In the end, her sons did not feel they needed to take on a film project but I appreciated the mother's openness to the idea.

We cannot avoid doing important things as Cochise and his team envisioned with the argument it has not been done before, or because it is personally uncomfortable that the whole team is African American. We must be able to explain the common sense of it. The team makeup was not racial snobbery. We must learn to see the diversity and individuality in all groups in the same way we experience without question or concern groups made up of only Euro American students.. The project came from the head and heart of African American students and had not occurred to anyone else. It is what it really is.

Mrs. Washington was very ill. She was in a care home. The young men went there to visit her and for the first time, came back subdued and angry. Mike Klindt was the most upset. "Mrs. Washington needed some water and they all ignored her. I had to go out and remind them several times, and they still didn't come." We all talked, Trayvon, Marcus, Cory, Cochise and Mike. We talked about what we can do to help get more respect for Mrs. Washington. I suggested that we start calling some community people, adults, and ask them to start visiting. Visitors get the caregivers' attention. They realize she is a treasure to some people.

Mrs. Washington had told the history project that she didn't want to be interviewed while she was in a nursing home and so the film they rolled is blank although we can hear her voice. At the end of the interview, Mrs. Washington prayed aloud for them. That touched their hearts. They were saddened that she was not able to go home and vowed to keep visiting and get others to visit.

Cory spoke up then that Mrs. Washington went to his church, St Marks AME, the first Black church in Eugene. He talked about how much Mrs. Washington loved church and sat in the front. Cory said, "I can talk to the church. Maybe the church van can pick Mrs. Washington up and take her there." Excellent idea!!! The young men arranged for that to happen and Mrs. Washington went to her beloved church accompanied by the young men of the African American History Project.

The young men visited her many times so it would be known at the care facility that she was a precious elder. The good news is, unlikely as it had seemed, Mrs. Washington became well enough to go home.

When the videos had been shot, the next thing we began to plan was the reception. We made copies of all the footage for all the libraries -- city library, University library, community college and school library -- as well as for all the families. City dignitaries and media also came. The school board, the superintendent of schools, ministers all came. Representatives from each institution were invited as well as several leaders of the African American community and the generations of the five families to honor these five elders. The library was decorated with flowers and packed with guests. The five young men in their suits made sure that the women pioneers were comfortable and seated in the place of honor, all across the front. I still remember Marcus bringing together Mrs. Washington and Mrs. Mims. Both were in wheel chairs and both blind. He stood between them holding one of their hands, and brought their hands together, bending down and saying, "Here you are, Mother Washington and Mother Mims," and the two elderly leaned over and held on. Marcus looked so happy and turned to me and explained, "This is the first time they've been together in years." Clearly, the young men had built relationships; what they cared about went way beyond getting the information. They cared about the elders. They knew what caused them pain, and without being told, they knew how to make them happy.

Each of the young men stood behind an elder, doubling up for one of the elders, I think Mrs. Washington. Each introduced an elder. They talked about what they learned. They shared a favorite anecdote. Of course, Mrs. Johnson's baking came up. They talked about what each elder meant to them. They talked about the graciousness of each of the families. The women sat with dignity, enjoying the compliments but a little shy with the attention, each one wearing a corsage presented and pinned on by the young men. The love and honor these young men felt for the Mother Reynolds, Mother Johnson, Mother Washington and Mother Mims permeated the room.

That year, the African American History Project received an award at the state capitol presented by the Oregon Historical Society and at the county commissioner's meeting a civic award by the County Commissioners. They were on the front page of the paper several times.
Beyond the awards and recognition, the greatest gift, I believe, is that these four women and their families, followed by the community they influenced were the teachers. And the lesson was how to be as a human being, and good leader. Cochise Moore, Cory Mainor, Trayvon Cooks, Marcus Nettles and Michael Klindt were their treasured students, and each of these young men, in their own way, blazed an adult path which made the elders and the whole community so proud and lifted them up as the young men lifted themselves up.

Years later, after I had left Jefferson to move to another school, one of the young students of the history project, Cory Mainor, returned as a teaching assistant at Jefferson. In the staff room, he and Zakee Ansari who was a playground supervisor and as a young sixth grader at Jefferson, inspired the Racism Free Zone brainstormed an idea together. They wanted to name the halls after each one of the pioneer women with their photo and story up on the wall.

As happened with the history project, Cory and Zakee’s idea to name the halls was controversial. Again, there was the same argument -- “There should be other people from other backgrounds whose names are in the halls too.”

Again I had to say, “but the vision came to honor the women of the African American history project and it’s a good thing. There are lots of things to name in the school. Name the library, the home ec room the names of people whom you would have nominated had this been your idea. But the vision to name the halls for these pioneers who carved the way for so many others makes sense and is a good idea. I support it. My two cents.”

Much to Jefferson's credit, the idea became real. A reception was held when the pictures went up in the halls and the families of the four women attended. Mrs. Reynolds was the only pioneer woman living, and she came. Cory reported to me that one of Mrs. Reynold’s daughters and her husband were in the halls by her mother’s picture. The daughter had tears in her eyes. She said, “I went to this school. It was hard. We never felt like we belonged. And now, here I am, and a hall is named after my mother.” Healing.

If this idea had been stopped because somehow in the collective experience, it had never happened before so it didn’t seem right, (why, we can’t explain), that shift would not have happened in the halls of Jefferson. The healing was for Jefferson, Eugene and my neighborhood just as much as it was for Mrs. Reynold’s daughter.

Jefferson Middle School exists no more. It is now a K - 8 neighborhood school, the Arts and Technology Academy. With strong, positive leadership it is still a Racism Free Zone. In my recent visit there, I was pleased to walk into the Mrs. Reynolds Hall. The pictures should never come down because it is a true statement in this neighborhood school, how far down justice road they have traveled. The work is not finished, but it cannot and should not be ignored that in the lifetime of students who felt excluded, they and their family legacy are held up in honor.
I am proud of ATA for owning the neighborhood schools long proud history and maintaining a strong leadership presence.

Where are they now?

Cory Mainor went on to get his MEd and teaching certificate from the University of Oregon. Cory taught at North Eugene High School and now teachers at Virginia Beach, MD. His school was recently visited by Barak Obama because of its fine reputation.

Michael Klindt is presently taking the steps toward earning his MEd and teaching certificate. He and his wife Jordan are parents to three children. Michael is a spoken word artist and teacher, a hip hop performer with CD and DVD out. He is on staff with Jubilee Church working with youth and he and Jordan are teachers for Lane Community College's Rites of Passage.

Trayvon Cooks is an officer with the navy and resides in Portland, Oregon.

Cochise Moore is a graduate with a double major from the University of Washington. He is employed by the UW psychology department to work on retention of students of color and he teaches at an African American men’s academy. Currently, he is making a video on a leadership project with African American youth expressing themselves in poetry and music. Check it out on YouTube: seattlehiphopsummit.org and check out the organization's website by looking and clicking on it at the blottom of the blog, the Favorite Link portion. He and Fumiko are married and living in Seattle. Cochise also takes care of his elderly father.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks Misa. I am working and learning how to blog.

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  2. When you get on you will have many stories to share, Bahati! You're in my blog about David too. Check it out! Misa

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"from Outside the Belly" was also known as "TBAsian" from 2008-2010. Thank you for reading.

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Eugene, Oregon
I am a citizen of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. I am a Nikkei descendant sansei (third generation);retired teacher, involved in the Winnemem tribal responsibility to Water, Salmon, and our belief that the Sacred is our Teacher. Working locally for human rights and supporting youth leadership.