The Lion of Anacostia inspires them to roar

By Chris L. Jenkins
Friday, December 10, 2010

Call them the Baby Lions of Anacostia.

There was Brayden Wood, 7, dapper in his all-black three piece suit and bow tie, pacing on the stage, reciting the lines of a speech given by the 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1883. Then there was Jaday Myers, 10, gesturing and insisting to her audience that slavery was the "common enemy." Later, Jordane Rhett, 6, commanded the stage with a Douglass passage, her gaze fixed on the crowd.

The three students were taking part Thursday morning in a three-day oratorical contest at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Anacostia. More than 100 elementary, middle and high school students from across the region and from New York and New Jersey are participating in the event - which ends Saturday - to show off their verbal skills and stage presence while reciting portions of Douglass's speeches.

For years, Douglass, who lived in a mansion overlooking the Anacostia River at what is now W and High streets SE, was known as the Lion of Anacostia. His speeches often touched on the need for slavery's abolition and self-determination for Northern and Southern blacks.

And Thursday morning, the young students tried to re-create Douglass's passion.

"Restore them! I said restore them! Are you listening! I said restore them to their long lost rights!" exclaimed Jaday, of the District, as she was showered with applause, ending her speech, "What is Slavery? The Common Enemy."

"Where should the black man look for support, my friend, if the American slavery society fails him?" bellowed Tiffany Isom, a sixth-grader at Nannie Helen Burroughs Schools in Northeast Washington, dressed in a pink sweater and plaid skirt, her pony tail pointing up.

The Douglass historical site has hosted the event for about 20 years, extending its reach over time, said Julie Kutruff, the museum's site manager for the National Park Service. This year, she said, students from New Jersey participated for the first time.

The students are judged by a four-member panel. The winners are given plaques and a chance to perform at the museum's annual party commemorating Douglass' birthday in February.

Many of the students practiced their speeches daily for about a month, memorizing the words between homework assignments. On Thursday, they strutted, thrust their fingers in the air and waved their arms while making their points.

Brayden, another Burroughs student, offered a range of emotion and varied the speed of the prepared lines during his version of "the Negro is a Brilliant Success."

The speech calls for repetition of the line "This discussion will go on," referring to Douglass's call for improvements in the lives of recently freed blacks. Brayden repeated the lines slowly, nearly whispering as he concluded.

"This - discussion - will - go - on," he said as the crowd of about 45 erupted.

"His use of the stage has improved," said Brayden's mother, Angela Wood. She said his voice control was better than it was last year, when he was 6 and took home first place for his age group after reciting a Douglass speech titled "What Shall We Do With the Negro."

For Davona Johnson, 11, it was all about instinct. She is an honor-roll student who also sings in her church choir. "I just felt the speech," said Davona, a sixth-grader at Burroughs, "and I just let it all come out."

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