Spirit of Black DC Launches

Barrington M. Salmon | 5/11/2012, 2:44 p.m.

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 melange 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.'"