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History comes alive at Fairlands 'African-American Living Museum'

First-person exhibit honors historical figures for Black History Month

It was a star-studded event graced by the likes of former President Barack Obama, Beyonce and LeBron James -- or, rather, their pint-sized counterparts from Pleasanton.

Although no actual celebrities attended the fifth annual “African-American Living Museum” held last week at Fairlands Elementary School, students from teacher Kelly Lack’s fifth-grade class were plenty happy to bask in the spotlight themselves.

More than 30 kids dressed up and presented as historical black figures that they selected and studied for the event held inside the school’s multipurpose room as part of Black History Month. Meanwhile, students from other classrooms were shuttled inside at various points that morning to hear the presenters, which included the incarnations of aviator Bessie Coleman and Olympic medalist Jesse Owens.

In addition to writing a five-paragraph essay, each student gave a first-person oral presentation on the life of their chosen subject including their childhood, young adult life and greatest contributions. The students set up tables around the room, each decorating their own with photos, books, statues and other objects representing a notable or important aspect of the person’s life. For example, one boy dressed as inventor George Washington Carver had a small plant as an homage to Carver’s agricultural roots, while multiple students who dressed as famous athletes wore jerseys and displayed trophies.

The living museum started at Fairlands five years ago, but Lack told the Weekly that she “stole” the idea from a friend that she worked with in Pittsburg, where more than half of the students at her old school belonged to minority groups.

“We clearly have a very different group of kids but it’s a project I think they get a lot from,” Lack said, like cultivating empathy and “having perspective.”

“The thing I emphasize is putting emotion into their writing so they’re becoming the person’s autobiography, basically,” she added.

There were some guidelines and lessons that Lack laid out beforehand, like requiring the person picked to be born in the United States and forbidding anyone from darkening their skin color for their costume, but otherwise students could pick just about any well known historical black individual they wanted.

Jhadis Luckey struck a pose near the entrance of the room that morning as Martin Luther King, Jr. while his dad, Jerry, and younger brother looked on. Luckey said he chose King because he was someone who “wanted racism to end”, and he was surprised to learn that King had been arrested and was also the youngest man to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

“He’s a person that stood up for any type of black person,” Luckey said. “He’s the one who changed segregation laws and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him.”

Like her classmate, Leanne Javier selected Civil War abolitionist Harriet Tubman -- also known as “Moses of the People” for leading other slaves to freedom -- for similar reasons.

“She did a lot of good stuff and I wanted to be like her,” Javier said.

Strength and leadership were some of the most mentioned and admired qualities about the kids’ research subjects. Samaree Bradly related to the feisty essence of Ella Baker, a lesser known but important figure in the civil rights movement who worked side by side with people like King (with whom Bradly said Baker occasionally butted heads) and Thurgood Marshall.

“She seemed like a really strong woman because when she was in college, she was valedictorian,” Bradly said. “She had many quotes that were inspiring like, ‘strong people don’t need strong leaders’.”

Along with tolerance and open mindedness, Lack said embodying the spirit of great trailblazers taught the children importance of having a growth mindset: “When someone says no to you, you figure out how to work harder to reach those goals.”

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