(NNPA)—When I was a student at Druid High School in Tuscaloosa, Ala. during the early 1960s, I always looked forward to Career Day. Our principal, Mr. MacDonald Hughes, had high hopes for students in my all-Black high school and he made sure we had high expectations of ourselves. It was a simple concept: Former students who had made a name for themselves were invited back to their alma mater on Career Day to show students that people from their school and neighborhoods had attained success despite having grown up in America’s version of apartheid. The point was that if these former Druid Dragons could make it, so could the students who followed in their footsteps.
I am being charitable when I say Mr. Hughes “invited” us back to Druid High. Our conversation usually went something like this: “Old big-headed boy”—Mr. Hughes called everyone big-headed, regardless of the size their head—“I want you here on May 10 for Career Day.” Mr. Hughes didn’t ask if I could take the time off from work, he did not offer to pick up my expenses and it never crossed his mind that I could possibly have something else to do on the day he wanted me back in Tuscaloosa. He just told me when to be there and I answered the way I always answered Mr. Hughes: “Yes, sir.” Then, I would tell my editor at Sports Illustrated or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that I had to be in Tuscaloosa that day. And I was.
Because I remembered the impact Career Day had on me as a student, I would gladly pay my way back home, hoping to inspire students in my old high school. I got as much out of those visits as the students. Mr. Hughes is deceased and Druid High School was torn down and replaced with a new building carrying a different name that I will not utter. If they have a Career Day, it is certainly not on the scale of the one organized by Mr. Hughes.
The HistoryMakers has taken on the role of Mr. Hughes in my life. Last year, I participated in their first “Back to School with the HistoryMakers” program, a day when HistoryMakers descended on schools around the nation to inspire and encourage students. More than 170 HistoryMakers spoke at nearly 100 schools in 50 cities. Because I was scheduled to give a speech at Tuskegee University last Sept. 16, I accepted an assignment to participate at Booker T. Washington High School the following day.
At my request, we had a males-only session that morning. It was an hour-long conversation about life, the sacrifices one makes to be excellent and following one’s dreams. We talked about peer pressure, especially the pressure to not live up to one’s academic potential. Several young men stayed after the session to continue talking. Lt. Col. Herbert E. Carter, a retired Tuskegee Airman, spoke to the entire student body in the afternoon.
The Tuskegee News story by Jeff Thompson observed: “On Friday, Sept. 17, Booker T. Washington High School in Tuskegee played host to two prominent men. And though they were separated by a generation, and their speeches were delivered to different crowds at opposite ends of the school day, their messages were virtually the same. No one is responsible for your success or failure in life, no one except you.”
It was that kind of frank talk that HistoryMakers founder Julieanna L. Richardson had in mind when she conceived the program. To understand the importance of the HistoryMakers’ Back to School initiative, it’s important to understand the importance of the core project.
For the past 12 years, the HistoryMakers, a non-profit educational institution, has videotaped 2,000 African-Americans in more than 80 cities; it plans to conduct an additional 3,000 interviews. Its mission is to educate the world about the diversity and legacy of the African-American experience through first person narratives. The collection can be accessed through museums, libraries, schools, the internet and other digital platforms.
Richardson wasn’t content merely collecting the interviews; she wanted students to interact with and learn directly from people profiled by the HistoryMakers. (Schools interested in taking part in the program can visit www.thehistorymakers.com or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. The address of their national headquarters is 1900 South Michigan Avenue Chicago, Ill. Telephone 312/674-1900.)
The second annual Back to School with the HistoryMakers Day will be Friday, Sept. 23. In as much as I expect to be home this time, I have already requested to go to a school in the Washington, D.C. area with a high concentration of poverty. Because we have so many things in common, I and others who grew up like me can reach those students on a level that many educators can’t.
More often than not, we will be saying the same things that teachers have already told the students. For some reason, when they hear it from outsiders, it is more apt to sink in. That may not be logical but it’s the way many students react. I don’t care why a light suddenly goes off in a student’s mind—I just want it to go off as I urge them to take charge of their future.
That was the message Mr. Hughes instilled in us when I was in high school and that’s the message Back to School with the HistoryMakers will be delivering every year.
(George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.)