Addressing an audience of students, teachers, parents, and community leaders in celebration of Black History Month at John Witherspoon Middle School on Thursday, February 16, JWMS alumna Dana Hughes, a member of the board of trustees of the Arts Council, urged students to learn more about about the lives of the accomplished black Americans, particularly those rarely mentioned in a culture that is primarily focused on black athletes and entertainers.
Some of the lesser known figures Ms. Hughes cited were Benjamin O. Davis, the U.S. Army's first black general; Garrett A. Morgan, inventor of the automatic traffic signal; and Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the first doctor to perform open-heart surgery.
"This evening has a two-fold purpose," said JWMS Principal Bill Johnson. "It's about history and dedication; about the contribution of African Americans to our nation and about supporting the Princeton Educational Foundation's 'Take A Seat' Drive."
As master of ceremonies, Mr. Johnson introduced James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the Negro National Anthem, which was performed a cappella by Olive Giles of the Guidance Office at Princeton High School. Then a group of sixth graders led by Ajami Gikandi presented a history of Black History Month itself. The students recited a poem by Juanda Gikandi, co-leader of the event. She dedicated her poem to historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who first introduced the concept of a specified period for celebrating black history 90 years ago in 1926. Negro History Week was conceived by Dr. Woodson as a response to the neglect of important African Americans in the history books of his day. Chosen because it marks the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, February officially became Black History Month in 1976, the nation's bicentennial year.
Dr. Woodson's hope that a time would come when African American history would be fully integrated with American history was echoed by Ms. Hughes when she said that "black history is truly American history." Throughout the JWMS celebration of African American culture and heritage, the prevailing term was "American."
Princeton's own history was represented by Albert Hinds, the oldest African American in the community, who was formally honored with a seat in the new Performing Arts Center currently under construction at Princeton High School. After attending Witherspoon School for the Colored and graduating from Princeton High School in 1924, Mr. Hinds went on to Lincoln University.
"Albert Hinds has lived Princeton history," said Mr. Johnson.
Following the reading of a proclamation in his honor by Borough Mayor Mildred T. Trotman and Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand, Mr. Hinds took up the microphone from his center-stage seat: "Princeton High meant a lot to me," he said, adding that he was glad that he went to PHS at a time when disputes between individuals were settled in direct ways so that, in many instances, enemies became friends.
"Even before there was a Princeton University, there was a community of free blacks in Princeton," said Mr. Johnson, after noting that Princeton itself exemplifies the claim that the history of America is indistinguishable from the history of black America. He went on to speak of Betsey Stockton (1798-1865), the former slave who became one of the nation's leading educators. JWMS teacher Constance Killian Escher is currently working on a biography of the educator, who lived in the Princeton household of Robert Stockton, grandson of Richard Stockton, signer of the Declaration of Independence. On gaining her freedom in 1818, she became a Presbyterian missionary to Hawaii and later helped found Princeton's Witherspoon Street Church. She taught for a decade in Princeton's black public school, District School No. 6.
After Mr. Johnson paid tribute to Princeton's most famous son, Paul Robeson, the evening continued with the JWMS Speech Choir presenting the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A poem of thanks was then read by eighth grader Tara Andrews, fully recovered from a coma after being hit by a car as she was leaving dance practice at the school last year.
JWMS Drama/Theater Arts teacher Barry Hillman joined with back-up singers from the JWMS Drama Club to sing his own composition, "You Are the Man," written in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After the JWMS Dance Troupe performed "Our Journey," a video produced by twin sisters Alexandra and Isabel Kasdin, was screened. The film, which won Princeton University's Annual Black History Month Video Competition in 2005, paralleled the Jewish experience and the experience of blacks in America. The Kasdin sisters won the Princeton University competition again this year for their film, titled: "Vote."
The surprise event of the evening was the presentation of a seat in the new auditorium to JWMS Principal Bill Johnson. A former marine who began as a science teacher, the principal will celebrate 30 years at JWMS this July. The seat was presented by Superintendent Judith A. Wilson and President of the "Take A Seat" Campaign, Alison Fox, who is also Chair of the Princeton Educational Foundation (PEF). Ms. Wilson -commended Mr. Johnson for creating a "warm and kind environment for everyone at the school."
"Take A Seat"
The evening was organized by the PEF "Take A Seat" Campaign. "Take A Seat wanted to involve the Middle School community and Mr. Johnson had the wider vision to include the entire community by gathering to celebrate our Black History Month," said Jane Milrod Jemas, a Take A Seat representative at the middle school who described the drive as "a chance to be part of history, and to buy a seat in honor of all the families who have been part of the Princeton Schools."
Students and staff of the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade classes raised the $250 required to purchase a plaque on a seat for each of their grades in the new Performing Arts Center, which will serve as home to all Princeton public schools' performing arts programs.To date, 92 seats in the 770-seat auditorium have been sold, and $40,000 raised. There have also been four high-end pledges from anonymous donors, according to Ms. Fox. Seats are available for: $250 (mezzanine), $500 (orchestra), and $1,000 (front rows). Those interested in sponsoring a seat for their own family or dedicating one in honor of a valued student, friend, or teacher can contact "Take A Seat" at (609) 806-4214, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or view the website: www.pefnj.org.
This story was compiled by the Town Topics staff.
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