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Black History Month Celebration Explores Princeton's Past

On Monday night, the PDS community gathered in the Campus Center to celebrate Black History Month. The well-attended event featured an excellent program with participation from students in all three Divisions, faculty and special guests. US teacher and Community Multicultural Development Team leader Anthony McKinley offered opening remarks, while US teacher and CMDT colleague Caroline Lee offered a deeply personal essay entitled, “Why Black History Matters to an Asian American Woman.” 

Zoe Rivera '20 and Joshua Colon '21, co-heads of the Black Latinx Student Union, helped plan the event and introduced the Upper School students, who shared original poems, personal narratives and other readings. Ahzaria Silas '20, Adayliah Ley '20, Fechi Inyama '20, Aidai Njanja Fassu '20, Andre Williams '22 and Jacques Hughes '21 together offered a range of perspectives about the black experience and the history of race in America. A group of Lower School students performed “Sing About Martin”, an echo song that highlights social goals Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., championed. 

Lower School students performing the song "Sing About Martin."

Representing the Middle School, Mikala Blakes '24, Kingsley Hughes '24, and Lea-Jade Richards '24 shared a video of interviews they conducted with students and faculty. Inspired by the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, they asked PDS community members, “Is there something that you would march for or against?” 

Keynote speaker Kathryn "Kitsi" Watterson is an author and professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. Watterson spoke about her participation in the civil rights movement as a researcher and journalist. She also recounted that when she was lecturing at Princeton University, 14 of her students set out to interview people in the neighborhood as part of her course, ‘Finding Voice: Perspectives on Race and Class.’ Watterson's published history of the African American community in Princeton, I Hear My People Singing: Voices of African American Princeton, began to take shape founded on those personal interviews, she explained.

The high point of the evening featured three local residents whose family stories are chronicled in the book. Lamont Fletcher, Sharon Campbell and Penney Edwards-Carter read excerpts from the books and spoke about their families' experiences.

From left to right: Kathryn "Kitsi" Watterson, Penelope "Penney" Edwards-Carter, Anthony McKinley, Joshua Colon '21, Zoe Rivera '20, Sharon Campbell, Lamont Fletcher.

Mr. Fletcher, born in 1942 and a longtime former kindergarten teacher at the Johnson Park School, was one of the residents originally interviewed for the book. “Growing up in Princeton, we never really talked about slavery in our family. I didn't realize how close I was to it,” he shared. After discovering that his grandfather, who had lived with them for a while, was born around 1865, Mr. Fletcher journeyed to his grandfather's hometown in Virginia to investigate his roots. “Lo and behold I got to the year of 1865 where it had a list of Fletchers. The surprising thing to me was that the only names in the ledger that included first names were those of the white people on the registry. The blacks were listed as 'Fletcher, slave. Fletcher, young boy. Fletcher, girl.' But never the first name,” he recalled. He realized his grandfather and his grandfather's family were surely among those named, but it was impossible to identify them precisely from the long list of Fletchers. “The closeness of slavery in my family makes it that much more real to me. I'm part of that,” he declared.

Ms. Campbell read an excerpt from her mother’s story. Consuelo Campbell lived from 1929 to 2013 and moved to Princeton when she was two years old. Her mother recalled segregated seating at the Princeton and Trenton theaters, the whites-only ice rink in Trenton, and the Jim Crow blacks-only coach trains out of DC. Sharon Campbell spoke about how her mother participated in voting, which mobilized the black community. When their neighborhood's segregated school building was in need of repairs, she shared, “people came in the few cars they had then and took people to vote, and my mother was so pleased that even though she was serving dinner she went and voted. Voting was that important.”

Ms. Penney Edwards-Carter, who became Mercer County's first female and the first African American to serve as Princeton Borough Clerk, as well as the first African American Municipal Clerk, read from the book about her mother, Kathleen “Kappy” Montgomery Edwards. After graduating from Princeton High in 1942, Kappy went into civil service work and ultimately served as the first black female elected into Princeton’s Board of Education. Kappy recalled the limited opportunities in Princeton at that time, even for those who came back with college educations. "Despite all the roadblocks put in our way we have still excelled. And most of us left because there was so little here for us. Now we have more opportunities and we know the sky is the limit, even though every once in a while you will still run into some who are bigots,” Ms. Edwards-Carter shared.

Professor Watterson encouraged everyone “to get your family stories from your parents and grandparents. Understand what the inner story is, the invisible story, because that's what makes up a community.” 

The evening culminated in a vibrant drum circle peopled by both students and adults and led by PDS French teacher Edem Afemeku.

Zoe Rivera reflected, "The energy in the Campus Center was electrifying. Many of the folks present automatically would've correlated the booming voices of and emotional height of the narratives shared by PDS's Black and Brown students as the definition of "Black excellence"; despite my agreement with the former, I dare say that it was more than that. We MCs reconfigured our unraveled hearts into a platform for a Black cultural efflorescence, a crock-pot in which the main ingredients were the fortification of interpersonal relationships and regaling folks from all walks of life (race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, age, class, etc.) of the unsung heroes — the "we" intermingling with the "I" — of the experience of Black and Brown Princetonians at school and at large. As Audre Lorde, a self-proclaimed "Black lesbian warrior poet", wrote so succinctly: "It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences." Monday's Black History Month celebration not only did its appellative justice; it made Black and Brown truth, in all of "unappealing" and heartwarming facets, a conduit for transformation, healing and community-based power. I hope — I know — that our selflessness opened the PDS consciousness to the wealth of knowledge and passion that Black and Brown folk share all-day every day." 

For more photo highlights, view our Flickr album

Photos by Nancy Erickson. 

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