Black Residents Record Memories

By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

When the high school juniors and seniors in Laura Kick's class began talking four months ago about African American life in Southern Maryland, most did not imagine they would go on to develop one of the most comprehensive oral history projects of black life in the region.

The students at Henry E. Lackey High School in Indian Head have interviewed several of the region's oldest black residents and are creating an hour-long DVD that will be aired during Charles County's 350th anniversary celebration this summer. The DVD will also be shown to younger generations of students.

Yesterday, students in Kick's "Teaching as a Profession" class interviewed their most recent subject: 104-year-old William Butler, the county's oldest known living black resident. They asked him about his work and learned he was a sharecropper for 40 years. They asked about his family and heard about his wife of 77 years, who died in 2005, and his seven children. They asked what the county used to be like and were told to imagine the fast-growing suburb as the home of tobacco fields and cattle.

"Waldorf was just, like, one house back then," senior Amanda Duran, 17, said about what is now Southern Maryland's largest city.

"And then we asked one lady about whether she went to the mall, and she told us how she actually made her own dress," junior Jasmine White, 17, chimed in.

Such revelations have become common in the class, which has roughly equal numbers of black and white students, all but one of whom are girls. Half of the students plan to become teachers, and many others took the class to improve their communication skills, Kick said.

The project is one of several recent efforts to expand knowledge about the black population in Maryland's oldest counties. A private collection of a retired journalist's photographs donated last year to the College of Southern Maryland included some rare visual depictions of black high schools, weddings and church events and is now part of the school's Southern Maryland Studies Center. Last month, the center received a gift of 60 oral histories on audiotape from a group dedicated to African American history in the region.

Local historians said the students' film is capturing an important part of the region's history that has not been sufficiently documented. That the recording is being done by high school students rather than professional videographers or writers, they said, makes the project even more impressive. Kick is overseeing the project with some help from a technology specialist at the school, but the film is being produced and directed entirely by students.

"This is really a unique chance for them to teach other young people about their own history," said Mary R. Boyd, president of the African American Heritage Society of Charles County. "It's a good opportunity to share what they've learned with the community."

Butler regaled the students with stories of working on a farm in Bryantown -- about 10 miles southwest of Waldorf -- where he tended 350 chickens and 50 cattle, chopped wood and shucked corn. Although he worked until dark, he said, he always made time to go dancing.

"Nobody drank and nobody smoked, but we danced every night," he said. "I was a great dancer; I learned from my mother."

After his daughter, who accompanied him to the high school, told the students that her father was also known for his singing voice, they asked him to perform a favorite song on camera. Without hesitation, he rose to his feet and began singing the 1930s tune "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone." When he was finished, the students cheered loudly as Butler sat down, grinning.

Several students said they appreciate their education more after hearing Butler and other longtime residents speak about the sacrifices they made to attend school while working full time. And although they had learned about segregation in history books, many were awed speaking to people who had attended segregated schools.

"Ms. Webb was so passionate about talking about her education," said junior RaFeena Joseph, 17, describing an interview with one of Butler's distant cousins. "Even though she was working hard, she took her education very seriously."

Irma Johnson, 76, Butler's oldest daughter, said her father also impressed upon his children the value of hard work, requiring from a young age that they help out around the farm after school. Learning about the lives of people who had lived in the area that surrounds the high school should inspire students to work harder and achieve their goals, Johnson said.

Kick said the students had surpassed her expectations on the project, spending extra time in the classroom to design questions, tape interviews and edit film. Without exception, the students said it had been rewarding, though several added that their friends find their commitment to the project somewhat strange.

"They're like, 'Why are you putting so much time into talking to old people?' " said junior Carolyn Hocker, 16. "But old people aren't as bad as people think."

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