Why Vermont celebrates Black History Month with pride.

I was born in Washington DC, and grew up in the area.  It was only until I moved to New Hampshire that I noticed something was missing that I was used to, diversity.  We are a very “white” state.  Vermont, where I work, is even more “white”.  Both states are sadly lacking in Native American populations because of the propensity of Pilgrims to bring in diseases that didn’t agree with the locals.

Also, many early fights with the “Indians” weren’t with local natives, long since died out, but with Canadian Catholic Native populations.  These battles were much feared as hostages ended up being converted to Catholicism!  A wonderful book about this time is The Unredeemed Captive.

I have found both Vermont and New Hampshire to be very tolerant states.  Vermont passed the first “Civil Union” law, and New Hampshire allows gay marriage.  Even better, attempts to repeal the law in NH have failed.

Even so, while the school where I taught have many same sex couples with children enrolled, the children were for the most part as pale as their parents.  The school had just one black child, a young boy that had been adopted by his 2 moms.  There were also a few Asian students that had also been adopted.

I was surprised when I found the entire school took all of February to celebrate Black History Month.  Every classroom studies the Civil Rights movement, children wrote songs and skits and performed for the parents, and in the 7th and 8th grades the children take a trip to important historic Civil Rights sites in the South. It was only after I also began to learn about Black History that I finally understood why studying Black History is important for any school in any state.
The older children on their extended field trip to the South were put up at churches that took an active part in the Civil Rights struggle in the 1950’s and 60’s, and continued to fight for Civil Rights today.

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Vermont and New Hampshire hands on the Civil Rights Memorial

Among one of the more memorable sites for my daughters was the Southern Poverty Law Center.  My daughter still speaks of visiting the main Headquarters, and how she never imagined how many “hate groups” are out there. Her sheltered life in rural New Hampshire and Vermont had not prepared her for the reality of the extent of prejudice and hatred in the world even today.
She also was moved by the Civil Rights memorial.  The Edmund Pettus bridge, Montgomery and Selma sites, and also visiting the Gee’s Bend Quilters were highlights of the trip. The teachers and students had studied the Civil Rights movement before their trip South. The music lessons had included historic slave songs and Civil Rights songs. The class would be visiting areas that perhaps were not in the “best neighborhoods” and would sing the songs they had learned. The reaction from the local people, and tour guides, was very positive. My daughter remembers being asked “Wait, where did you learn those songs? Where are you from?” The teachers said this positive response was one reason they felt it was “safe” for the children to be in these still struggling neighborhoods, and that is was important for children from a more privileged background to see the connections between racism, education and poverty.

Each child at the school had to pick a Civil Rights leader to study.  They had to give a “speech” as the person they had studied during the trip at a site important to that person.  My younger daughter chose a New Hampshire hero, from a town very close to where she lives, Jonathan Daniels.  Keene, New Hampshire is as “white” as the rest of New Hampshire.  It’s a sleepy college town, the hometown of a young seminary student Jonathan Daniels.  He answered Rev. Martin Luther King’s call for young students to come and help with voter registration in the South.

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Keene New Hampshire’s finest.

Daniels was studying to become a priest in the Episcopal Church.  He lived with a African American family in Selma, who were shocked that a white man would eat off the same plates as they did, to say nothing of using the same bathroom. He was jailed in Selma.  He was murdered for trying to purchase a soda with other Civil Rights workers.  Their murderer was found not guilty by an all white jury of his friends. The murderer, Thomas Coleman, claimed he shot in self defense despite the fact that Daniels was not armed.  Daniels is reported to have pushed others out of the way of Coleman, before being mortally wounded.

Civil Rights leaders escorted Daniels body back home to Keene NH. His funeral saw faces of all colors.The city has remained proud of Daniels, naming an elementary school after him.

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Keene was honored by the presence of Civil Rights leaders that escorted Daniels home.

My daughter though was surprised to find many people in the South knew the name Jonathan Daniels.  She saw many murals, with Daniels face included among the martyrs.  When she mentioned she lived near Keene NH, many people knew it was the hometown of Daniels.  He became much more than just someone that had a school named after him.  She spoke, in Daniels voice, in Selma.  It meant so much for her, to know not only where Daniels grew up, but also the area where he died, and what he died for.

I learned why it is important for children in New Hampshire and Vermont to study Black History Month.  The Civil Rights movement reminds the children in Vermont and New Hampshire that not long ago, people like themselves risked their lives, and some died, to have justice and equality for all.  It’s not about color, it’s about how America is about equality for all, but when there is not that equality it is up to all of us to sacrifice to make that promise of equality a reality.

The children travel to the South not to see “people of color”, but to see how we are all one country and how the fight for equality and fairness has not stopped yet.  There is still prejudice in our country, against women, Hispanics, Blacks, gays, Muslims and the disabled.  One of the lessons of Black History Month is how we  can work together as a nation against those that practice prejudice.  While the children studied black scientists, writers, musicians and educators, they also studied a movement that continues today.  The Civil Rights movement and leaders had a plan, that required great sacrifice, but that was peaceful in the face of violence, and that is a lesson we all need to study and learn from.

I jokingly put up the video of the “Rosa Parks Rap”, just one of the songs and skits the children performed.  While lacking in rapping skills, and dancing skills, the song is sung with the same enthusiasm the children had for Black History Month.



Categories: History, Travel

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7 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Yankee Skeptic and commented:
    A shared post, about why everyone should celebrate Black History month.

  2. Inspiring story. I believe and agree it is not enough for school-age children to read about Black History Month. The reports, songs and immersion into locations/culture and exposure to living history will stay with them and impact not only their education but their thoughts and behaviors as they mature into adults.

  3. Vermont is indeed reasonably tolerant of diversity. But I’m old enough to remember the infamous “Irasburg Incident” and that did not put the state in a very good light. (There is even an historical marker in Irasburg summarizing this event.)

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