A 20th century renaissance

WILLIAMS – The commemoration of Black History Month by English-American Literature students at Northeast Hamilton proved to be groundbreaking in many ways.

When teacher Sherry Leksell introduced the idea of putting together a project to mark the achievements of African-Americans during the month of February, the 11th grade students were given several options.

First, they were given the freedom to choose their own topic. Secondly, they were given the task of setting project criteria and developing a grading structure.

“This was a first time project and these kids were guinea pigs,” said Leksell, who noted that due to several snow days, the project spilled over into March.

“For the most part, I gave little guidance. The students just took ownership. It was phenomenal.”

After two weeks of classroom studies on African-American literature, art and culture, Leksell turned the students loose.

Another unique aspect of this project was the subject. “We don’t frequently teach cross-cultural subjects,” said Leksell, who believed the possibilities were limitless.

The students decided to concentrate on the Harlem Renaissance, which occurred in the New York City neighborhood from 1890 to 1932.

During those years, an estimated two million African-Americans migrated to the North from the South where Jim Crow laws still restricted their freedom.

Many migrated to New York City. Even though racism still existed there, there was more freedom in the predominately Black neighborhood of Harlem than many had experienced before, one student reported.

For instance, while African Americans were the headliners at the legendary Cotton Club, they were not allowed to sit in the audience, said Tyler Smith.

The students determined what subjects they would cover and broke into four focus groups. Three of the groups researched the development of art, music and literature while the fourth group served as a curator to tie all the disciplines together.

“During a recent Professional Development day in Webster City, they said we should tear down the classroom walls,” said Leksell. So another barrier was broken when the students assembled their projects for display at the Williams City Library.

On March 12, the juniors assembled a self-guided tour at the Williams Library where it will remain on display through March 26. The finished product includes posters, interactive displays and a Power Point presentation created by Gunther Range.

“It is a beautiful exhibit,” said Williams Head Librarian Diane Sinclair.

The Harlam Renaissance exhibit is a groundbreaking event for the Williams Library, also, said Sinclair. The library has hosted art and costume displays before, but it has never hosted an historical exhibit. And it has never featured a project developed by high school students.

“This is the very first time that this has been done at the library,” said Sinclair, who added public response has been positive. “We are very proud to have the exhibit here.”

The music portion of the exhibit highlights the innovative leaders in Harlem Renaissance music such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. Also featured are Willie “The Lion” Smith and Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton. These musicians were the forerunners of today’s jazz and rap music, explained the music team.

The students created an interactive playlist to accompany the exhibit which included a CD of classic jazz standards and innovative scat tunes, said Leksell.

For the art portion of the exhibit, the students ordered posters featuring reproductions of the bold artwork of William H. Johnson, Lois Mailous Jones and Aaron Douglas, who is believed to be the Father of Black American Art.

In literature, the works of renowned authors W.E.B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as poet Langston Hughes, are represented.

Tying it all together is a timeline which winds around the exhibit and shows the concentration of the extraordinary talent drawn to Harlem during the era. It was from this group of intellectuals and talent that the modern Civil Rights movement was born, explained one student.

In addition to the unique subject matter, the students were challenged by setting their own goals and developing the criteria on which they would grade themselves, said Leksell.

“It was like letting your children cook,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to leave the kitchen.”

The students stepped up to the challenge and were sometimes tougher on grading themselves, said Leksell. The students learned of the struggles of African-Americans during the Harlem Renaissance but they learned that they could also rise to a challenge.

“It was a positive thing to try out new ways of learning,” said student Tristan Knudson.