By Dedra Cordle
Students in Elaine Hughes-Pittman’s acting classes have some level of comfort with performing in public, but upon learning that they were to recite poetry in front of their peers for Briggs High School’s first-annual Black History celebration had some doubting whether they could go through with the challenge.
As the weeks went by and they became more comfortable with the material, their confidence grew. Then came the day they were to perform before the entire student body and guest speaker Mayor Michael B. Coleman, and the doubt started to creep through once again.
“They were all very nervous,” said Hughes-Pittman, who has been the school’s theater director for three years.
She watched as her students took to the floor and recited, with only slightly shaky voices, Carole B. Weatherford’s poem “I Am the Bridge.” Later, she said they exemplified the spirit of the event that was being celebrated.
“They overcame their fears,” she said.
Tasked with coordinating the school’s first Black History Celebration, Hughes-Pittman had her own fears to overcome. She said while she envisioned a theme of overcoming odds, she was not sure how much participation there would be for the event as first time celebrations often have trouble finding its footing.
Her primary fears were soon assuaged as the band and vocal music directors volunteered their services. Then, she received confirmation that Mayor Coleman would be the guest speaker, which was a welcomed surprise to Hughes-Pittman.
“I really wanted him to be our guest speaker,” she said. “People look up to him and he has an inspirational story to tell.”
During the event, Coleman relayed the story of his great-great-grandmother, Margaret Dean, who was born into slavery, sold while in slavery, then was freed and lived to be 104 years old.
He said it was remarkable how she was never able to vote, yet her descendent was elected mayor of “the greatest” city in the country many years later.
“This celebration is about respecting the past and knowing your history,” said Coleman.
He also told the crowd that he attended an event in Toledo where Martin Luther King Jr. was a speaker. He said that he was so inspired by his words that he knew, even at the age of 9, that he wanted to make a difference in the lives of others.
He challenged the students at Briggs to do the same.
“I want you to know that you can make a difference as well,” he said. “You can make a difference in the lives of your families, in your neighborhood, and in your school. You all have the capacity to do good, to make a difference, to make a change in America.”
Before he left, he gave the students a homework assignment – to watch the movie “Selma” and write about it.
Principal Marcy Drafts said it is important for students to be knowledgeable about all aspects of culture and history.
“We need to learn about other people’s cultures and their history,” she said. “And then we need to celebrate who they are and embrace them. We need to tear down walls and barriers and open up communication.”
She said this celebration was just one way of doing so.