Student-Inspired Website Makes History Accessible
School Without Walls student Kristin Ellis remembers being in class, looking through a hefty history book and seeing a paltry six pages in the entire tome detailing African-American history.
She, like other student colleagues, wondered how a people with such a rich and vibrant history could be overlooked and ignored. But rather than sit and mope, a cadre of students from Ballou Senior High School and School Without Walls decided to do something to change the status quo and paradigm.
Under the tutelage of their professor Bernard Demczuk, the students developed a project called The Spirit of Black DC. This is a one-stop, student-driven research and interactive media website designed to put a mélange of the city's history at people's fingertips.
On April 17, well over 100 guests packed into The African American Civil War Museum in Northwest to mark the launch of the repository of the city's black history.
"I think the very strong turnout is indicative of the importance of preserving, protecting, defending and celebrating D.C.'s rich, diverse and extensive black history," said Demczuk, a scholar of African-American history who teaches at School Without Walls and Ballou. "This shows that black history isn't just for black people, it's for everybody."
"It really reflects the soul of our city. One of the things I'm always impressed with is that all Washingtonians are impressed when they see, hear, feel and experience black history."
Demczuk, who also teaches at George Washington University, said he wants those who might otherwise be unaware of different elements of black history to gain a greater appreciation for a history that is too often hidden or ignored.
"The energy in this room was terrific. There was good food and good music and now we'll do the good hard work," he said.
Demczuk said the best part of the project is that the students are paid $15 an hour to research and write 34 projects. They are mentored by Ph.D.s who help them research and publish each project. The projects are categorized according to topic, so for example, there is the Charles Hamilton Hilton Project that will highlight prominent African-American lawyers; the Josh Gibson Project to identify, analyze and research the exploits of black athletes; and the Asa Philip Randolph Project which will delve into unions and the considerable impact they have had on improving the lives of low-income and middle-class Americans, black and otherwise.
"I'm raising money to pay our students to uncover and report the amazing history we have here in this city," said Demczuk. "It's a great learning experience for the young people. That's what I like about this."
Demczuk raised more than $10,000 in an impromptu fundraiser toward the end of the event.
One student was effusive in her praise of the website.
"I'm enjoying it and I'm truly glad for the launch," Angelique Gaston said. "This will help young people enjoy history in a fun and creative way. I don't know how it started, but Dr. Demczuk pitched the idea. 'I said use YouTube, record and put it on the web where you can get fans.'"
"The opportunities are definitely limitless," said Angelique, 16, a junior at School Without Walls in Northwest. "I want to [have] this all over D.C. Why not go international? We have a vast African-American history. We can help other states and countries connect pieces of history. We can capture grandma's stories, we can capture everything."
Co-Mistress of Ceremonies Deira Bynum-Reid echoed Angelique's sentiments.
"I can say that most of us weren't taught black history," said the School Without Walls senior and Spirit boardmember. "Before this year, I was aware of black history, now I'm immersed in it. This website is extremely important for what they don't teach."
Throughout the evening, guests were treated to soothing jazz, good food and later, a PowerPoint presentation that explained in detail the various elements of the website and a long-term plan to develop its content.
"African-American history is not taught in D.C. schools despite the richest, most diverse, most extensive history in the United States. This website is the most democratic way to share this vital information," Demczuk said. "Angelique Gaston was instrumental in this. She said 'put it on YouTube.' I said, 'I don't know anything about YouTube,' and she said 'we'll figure it out.'"
"We're honoring our ancestors and a history that is just so rich. A little light must shine."
Several speakers referred to Demczuk as "the unofficial mayor of D.C.," and that was borne out by some of the guests who were present for the launch: Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.); attorney Donald Temple; School Board members D. Kamila Anderson, Trayon White, Patrick Mara and attorney Jim Mauro.
"I think this is phenomenal, terrific," said Mauro, the general counsel for the Union of Electrical Workers. "I have two 20-year-old sons who should have been here tonight, and my wife is a volunteer teacher at Jefferson Senior High School," he said.
"I'm going to get them involved. History is alive and means more than just getting a job. It helps to tell us where we are from. This is one of those things that will enrich the city."
Norton, 74, applauded the students' creativity, passion and efforts to "preserve and celebrate the District's historical legacy."
"What Bernie, School Without Walls and Ballou Senior High School have done, there's nothing like this in the United States," she said. "This is the oldest black city in the U.S. This is a city where some have lost their history but blacks were here from the beginning ... they are refusing to let black history slip silently away into the night."
Norton, a third-generation Washingtonian, had a message for those blacks who lament the changing demographics that have seen the percentage of blacks in Washington slip to 50.1 percent from a high of 72 percent.
"When I was a kid, we had 800,000 residents," Norton said. "[The city] never had character because white people could move up. People moved up, moved on and were homogenized into the Great American pudding. As a result, African Americans have given character to this city."
"We listened to Duke [Ellington], danced to Marvin Gaye. White people's history was not preserved – it's not that they didn't have it – they lost it. This is a great African-American city. It was that even when African Americans were [enslaved and segregated]. African Americans gave this city its lasting character."