February is Black History Month, and for the eighth year in a row, the Ohio Statehouse is hosting a Living History series to celebrate African-American figures from history. The series, put on by We’ve Known Rivers, revolves around the stories of four inspiring individuals: Rosa Parks, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Henry “Box” Brown, and George Washington Williams.
We’ve Known Rivers is an organization of teaching artists that share the history of the black experience in the United States. Each Tuesday from 12:00-1:00 PM this February, an artist portrays one of these historical figures in an intimate, storytelling performance. These events take place in the Ohio Statehouse Atrium, and the space really gives the feeling that history has come alive in the capitol.
On February 7th, I watched as Dr. Annette Jefferson portrayed Bea Black, a fictional character that she imagines living next door to Rosa Parks during the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Through this character’s eyes, Dr. Jefferson explored the experience of living in Montgomery during the Jim Crow segregation laws. She imagines herself as a little girl next to Rosa Parks as she refused to give up her seat to a white man on that famous bus ride. In her performance, she traces the history of Jim Crow as a slow burn, as a building pressure that eventually boiled over into a bus boycott and a nationwide movement.
What struck me the most about this performance was the focus on a “modern civil rights movement.” Dr. Jefferson emphasized the continuous struggle for equal rights from landing in the 17th century in Jamestown to the present, stopping along the way to focus on Rosa Parks and Montgomery, Alabama. She stressed that Rosa Parks was an ordinary person, a quiet woman with an inner strength that found the courage to stand up for justice. Sharing and remembering these stories from the past, Dr. Jefferson said, ensures that we won’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
In the Map Room of the Statehouse, a small exhibit entitled, “The Power of One,” honors Rosa Parks during the entire month of February. Students were asked to submit artwork showing what a kind or courageous act could look like to prove that ordinary people can do extraordinary things to stand up for what’s right. After the performance, we asked Dr. Annette Jefferson a few questions about why these performances are so important.
In case you can’t make the performances, they are all streamed live on OhioChannel.org. Show your children, your students, your coworkers or your family and celebrate Black History Month by learning more about how history can impact the present.
Here’s the schedule for the rest of the series:
February 14: Paul Laurence Dunbar, “The Poet and His Song” presented by Anthony Gibbs
February 21: Magician, “Professor Henry ‘Box’ Brown” presented by Rory Rennick
February 28: George Washington Williams, “The first African-American Ohio state representative” presented by Anthony Gibbs