Black History Month: Honoring the Past, Observing History Being Made

As we celebrate key moments from the past throughout Black History Month, it’s important to recognize that we’re also living history right now. 

There have been several recent events that will likely be remembered and studied by future generations. That includes the powerful poetry that African-American Amanda Gorman, 22, passionately spoke during the Presidential Inauguration on January 20 – a day that featured the first female Black Vice President, Kamala Harris, being sworn into office.

Chrysantha Norwood, a sixth-grade teacher at Distinctive College Prep-Harper Woods in Michigan, shared her Zoom screen with her remote-learning students during certain moments of the inauguration to ensure that they absorbed the history unfolding before their eyes. 

“When Amanda Gorman began speaking, I literally told my students, ‘Stop and pay attention,’” Norwood said. “I wanted them to see her and realize that you can do anything. This was someone who had a speech impediment, never gave up on herself, and now her voice was being heard by millions of people.”

Strong messages were also heard across the nation last summer when young Black Americans joined together and demonstrated in an uprising against racism and police brutality. In a discussion with Summit Learning in July, author Nic Stone sensed that the youthful leadership on display would lead to significant – and history-making – change for the Black community.

“All great historical movements for change were led by young people,” said Stone, whose book Dear Martin is part of Summit Learning’s base curriculum for 9th-grade English. “Which just means I have a lot of hope for this one. With the passion and energy of the youth pushing things forward right now, I think we are headed in an excellent direction.”

Gradient Learning is dedicated to confronting unjust systems through education by providing curriculum that reflects and honors our students’ identities and the diversity of our Summit Learning schools. Research shows that students learn more and are more engaged in school when they see themselves in their lessons. 

“This is an exciting moment,” said Evan Gutierrez, Managing Director of Curriculum and Assessment at Summit Learning. “It’s a moment that belongs to the people that are willing to make changes.” 

Each week in February, we will celebrate Black History Month by honoring the following Black difference-makers in education on our Summit Learning social media channels:

Ruby Bridges

“Two, four, six, eight… We don’t want to integrate!”

Those chants by angry white adults greeted 6-year-old Ruby Bridges as she walked from a car to the front steps of William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, La., on Nov. 14, 1960. At the time, Bridges didn’t understand what was going on and only wanted to be treated like a normal first-grade student on her first day of school.

Instead, Bridges became a symbol of the civil rights movement by becoming one of the first Black children to integrate an all-white elementary school in the South.

Bridges, who was escorted by U.S. marshals to and from school every day during the 1960-61 school year, was placed in a class of one for the entire year and she never missed a day. By the time she entered second grade, eight Black students were enrolled as first-graders in the school and the numbers increased every year after. Ruby’s four Black nieces eventually attended the school.

Bridges, now a 66-year-old civil rights activist, was featured on a 1964 Norman Rockwell painting titled, “The Problem We All Live With.” In 1998, her story was told in a Disney movie, “Ruby Bridges,” that is now streaming on Disney+. 

Barbara Rose Johns

Barbara Rose Johns was 16 when she led a two-week student strike for more equitable conditions at her all-black Moton High School in Farmville, Va.

Johns was frustrated by overcrowding (over 450 students crammed into a building built for 180), extremely poor plumbing, and the absence of a gym, a cafeteria, and a science lab. When she voiced her feelings to her music teacher, she was given all the motivation she needed when the teacher replied: “Why don’t you do something about it?” 

On April 23, 1951, Johns led the protest that would make a profound impact far beyond the walls of her school. Her strike led to a lawsuit, Davis v. Prince Edward, that was one of five cases – and the only one that was student-initiated – combined into the historic Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court case. 

In 1954, the Supreme Court justices unanimously ruled on the case declaring that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. The landmark case was a pivotal moment of the civil rights movement and overturned the “separate but equal” standard that was set in 1896.

Johns, who grew up to be a librarian, died of bone cancer in 1991 at the age of 56. In December, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced that a statue of Johns will be on display in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. She will replace Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who had his statue recently removed from the National Statuary Hall Collection after being there since 1909.

Johns’ statue will be the only teenager featured among the 100 statues in the collection at the Capitol. Each state is represented by two statues. Johns will represent Virginia alongside a statue of President George Washington. 

Sidney Keys III

Sidney Keys III is a bro who loves to read books.

“Each book is like a portal to a new world of unimaginable fun,” Keys said.

Keys, a 14-year-old from St. Louis, Mo., is the CEO and co-founder of “Books n Bros,” a monthly book club for African-American boys between the ages of 7-13. The group began in 2016 with seven members and now serves over 400 members. 

Keys and his mother, Winnie Caldwell, have devoted their time and effort to this book club because they want other Black boys to have more opportunities to see themselves in the stories they read. In a world filled with technological distractions, the mother-son duo also want young boys to simply be excited about reading.

“What I really enjoy is finding a book that interests me and I think that’ll interest a lot of people,” Keys said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” in January.

Keys is featured in an episode of the Disney+ original series, “Marvel Hero Project.” The half-hour Marvel documentary, titled “The Spectacular Sidney,” highlights his work with “Books n Bros” and ends with the eighth-grader receiving a Marvel superhero comic that is all about him. 

Little Rock Nine

Three years after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional, nine Black teeneagers put that to the test. 

In September 1957, the group of nine students enrolled at all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Together, the “Little Rock Nine” – Minnijean Brown-Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, and Carlotta Walls – symbolized the ongoing struggle to desegregate public schools.

After being met with resistance by the Arkansas National Guard (270 soldiers blocked the students from the school’s entrance), the Little Rock Nine became an international news story. President Dwight D. Eisenhower then sent 1,200 soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to place the Arkansas soldiers under federal command and to protect the students from hostile protestors.

But the Black students couldn’t escape the prejudice and hateful bullying inside the school. They endured daily physical and verbal abuse by their white classmates for months. Brown-Trickey was 15 when she enrolled at Central as an 11th-grader. When she stood up for herself and retaliated against the torment, she was suspended and eventually expelled from the school in February 1958. Brown-Trickey finished 11th- and 12th-grades at a school in Manhattan, N.Y.

Green, the lone senior of the nine, became the first African-American graduate of the high school. Martin Luther King Jr. attended his graduation ceremony on May 25, 1958. 

For their pivotal role in the civil rights movement, each member of the Little Rock Nine received a Congressional Gold Medal from President Bill Clinton in 1999. 

Follow our Black History Month celebrations throughout February on our Summit Learning social media channels: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

About the author

Summit Learning
Summit Learning is a research–based approach to education designed to drive student engagement, meaningful learning, and strong student–teacher relationships that prepare students for life after graduation. Created by teachers with experience in diverse classrooms, Summit Learning is grounded in decades of research about how children learn. With Summit Learning, students gain mastery of core subjects like math, history, English, and science, while also carefully developing the skills and habits of lifelong learners. Summit Learning is independently led and operated by the nonprofit, Gradient Learning.