This article was written by Ry Edwards
In a world of polarization, some people define their identity by bonding with people who share similar qualities and characteristics, while others define themselves by causes or ideals they fight for or against. In 1926, the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) promoted the first ever Negro History Week, encouraging communities to organize local celebrations. By 1970, American colleges began to extend the celebrations to the entire month of February, and in 1976, President Gerald Ford officially endorsed “Black History Month” across the nation.
While many people may see Black History Month as a positive aspect of American culture, it should come as no surprise that some Americans hold a strong opposing view. In a 2005 interview, prolific screen actor Morgan Freeman told Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes that he thinks confining all the accomplishments of black Americans to a single 28-day period called, “Black History Month” is “ridiculous.”
Loring Community School, however, gave the community of students and their parents a less polarizing view. Sheila Webb, the school’s social worker, (whom the students call “Miss Sheila”) championed a program bold enough to be titled, “Celebration of Black Women and Black Girls.” While the program strategically happened within February, she made sure to emphasize that the celebration should not stay contained within that single month.
“We are not here, today,” said Miss Sheila in her opening address, “celebrating black women and black girls because it is Black History Month.” School staff, parents, and the entire student body seemed to lean into that moment wondering if they heard her correctly. Her next sentence reassured the audience, “We are here to recognize that we have amazing black women and black girls in our community that deserve to be celebrated all year long!”
While the gymnasium applauded, Miss Sheila invited the executive producer of KMOJ radio, Dr. Lissa Jones-Lofgren, up to the microphone to provide a keynote address. Instead of focusing on stories of African Americans already made popular by the media (like the 2017 film Hidden Figures, or the recent biopics on James Baldwin or Toni Morrison), Dr. Lissa Jones focused on surprising Minnesotans with more relatable facts, such as familiar inventions like the stoplight, the Automatic Teller Machine (ATM), and the snowmobile were invented by African Americans.
All the girls who self-identified as black claimed their identity by parading together into the assembly wearing matching black t-shirts. Dr. Jones-Lofgren’s message didn’t require these girls to become inventors to gain relevance in the world. Instead she invited the girls into their heritage, claiming them as part of a people. “We are a people for much more than the beauty of our skin. We are a people for the beauty of our souls that can be seen in the way we move to a beat, the way we speak and how we celebrate.”
Following Dr. Lissa’s speech, the Patrick Henry High Elite Step Team came up to the stage and fittingly demonstrated some of the qualities she spoke of. Bringing a fierce attitude to their quick, rhythmic movements, they shouted a message (no microphone required!) of what it means to be part of an elite team; encouraging students to push themselves to become the best.
After seeing the inspiring high schoolers, select elementary students came forward from the group of girls in black t-shirts. They approached the microphone to engage their peers with powerful quotes from generations of great women, including Oprah Winfrey, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.
After hearing from the staff, students and volunteers from all generations, Miss Sheila called another group of students to the stage to finish the program. These students, dubbed the “Black History Month Choir,” had prepared a special song first sung in 1900 at a segregated school to celebrate President Lincoln’s birthday. Soon the choir filled the gym with music leading all attendees in singing this song that Booker T. Washington and the NAACP endorsed as the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing.
Before dismissing the assembly, Loring Principal Ryan Gibbs came to the stage to give specials thanks and honor to Sheila Webb and a host of other teachers who supported this project.
Every person, regardless of their differences, looks for someplace to belong. Every single person seeks to define an identity that allows them to feel honored and appreciated for who they are. This passion project of Ms. Sheila Webb was made greater and greater by the individual efforts of each person who dedicated their time to making this event a reality. The people who made this happen pulled from a rich history to pave the way for the next generation who will—no doubt—go on to inspire future generations.