UA Schools and city organizations present an unprecedented amount of Black History Month events and programming.
BY CALLIA PETERSON, ’22. GRAPHICS BY MEGAN MCKINNEY ’22. PHOTOS BY BELLA VANMETER, ’22.
A couple of months after she moved to Upper Arlington, then new resident and current city council member Ukeme Awakessien Jeter noticed an absence of Black History Month programming and events in February 2019. There was a read-aloud at Wickliffe Elementary School, book kits at the UA Public Library and a display in the window of local bookstore Cover to Cover, but that was the extent of which Awakessien Jeter had seen.
Awakessien Jeter’s daughter had just started kindergarten in UA, and the lack of Black History Month events and programming in the community left few places for her daughter, and her daughter’s peers, to learn about Black history.
“In all the communities that I’ve lived in, there’s always a lot more, and so I was taken aback,” Awakessien Jeter said. “Like, ‘Okay, where do I take my then five-year-old kindergartner, who already was experiencing, for the very first time because of us moving here, her Blackness?’”
For Awekessien Jeter, celebrating Black history represented an opportunity for education for the broader community, not just herself.
“I’m Black 365 days a year,” she said. “So Black History Month is not for me, because I’m Black all the time. But I recognize the importance of Black History Month in honoring the people that have come before us, their accomplishments, but also in recognizing the work that still needs to be done and that educates our children.”
In her first post on the Upper Arlington Discussion Forum on Facebook, Awakessien Jeter asked what the community was doing for Black History Month. In response to her post, she did not get a clear answer.
“I was having this ‘Aha’ moment,” she said. “It was just kind of like, ‘Okay, we have got to do better.’”
Now, three years later, in February 2022, there are more than a dozen Black History Month events and celebrations taking place citywide with participating organizations including the City of UA, the UA Public Library, the UA Historical Society, Equal UA, the Senior Center, Rainbow UA and UA Schools.
“[Awakessien Jeter] really helped serve as a catalyst for everyone putting their heads together to think about, ‘Okay, we need to honor this month; we need to put together programming and opportunities for people to celebrate and learn more about Black history,’” Community Affairs Director for the City of UA Emma Speight said.
Last year, Awakessien Jeter, then a member of the City of UA’s Community Relations Committee (CRC), partnered with Equal UA to coordinate a virtual multi-session panel discussion about Pleasant Litchford, a Black man who owned some of the land that has become Upper Arlington. Among the panelists were authors of “Secrets Under the Parking Lot” Kim Shoemaker Starr and Diane Kelly Runyon, Director of the UA Historical Society Kristin Greenberg, Litchford descendant Toya Williams, UA City Manager Steve Schoeny and UA Schools Chief Academic Officer Keith Pomeroy.
There were also resources from the UA Public Library, book bundles delivered by Equal UA and dialogue within some schools across UA about Pleasant Litchford, Awakessien Jeter said.
This year, the events have expanded significantly, involving myriad city organizations.
“I look at it and I’m like, ‘Wow.’ Actually, it warms my heart…that just a little seed has kind of evolved to this,” Awakessien Jeter said. “We have the student groups doing things. It’s just great.”
Last year, the planning for the two-part virtual panel discussion about Pleasant Litchford began in January 2021, a little over a month before the event. For the 2022 festivities, the planning began last November, this time with a vision of bringing the entire community together.
“This year, we wanted to do a little bit more advanced planning and try to grow the program,” Speight said.
The City of UA, the UA Public Library, the UA Historical Society, UA Schools and Equal UA came together for the initial planning in November. Together, the groups invited other city organizations such as Rainbow UA and the Senior Center, to provide programming as well. Now there is a monthlong lineup of events.
Serving as an umbrella that brings together all of the Black History Month activities, the City of UA’s CRC houses all of the events and programs on its website and provides all of the groups involved with social media graphics and information to help them promote their events on their various platforms.
According to its website, the CRC “evolved from a desire by many residents to advance Upper Arlington as a place that is welcoming, cohesive and inclusive.” In 2019, the process of creating the committee began with workshops, an online survey and a temporary committee to develop a framework and propose next steps. Delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the UA City Council officially formed the CRC in fall of 2020.
“We want to obviously help advance the community as a welcoming community where everyone feels that they belong and are a part of the community,” Speight said.
One of the first events to join the lineup of programming for Black History Month in UA was a presentation, Q&A session and book signing event with author Ann Hagedorn; the event is part of the UA Historical Society’s History Speaks series. On Feb. 16, at the Jones Middle School auditorium, Hagedorn spoke about her book “Beyond the River” set in Ripley, Ohio, about the major Underground Railroad route that ran from Kentucky to Ohio.
“We sensed a lot of interest in the community about the Underground Railroad, given some of the conversations we’ve been having about life in the 1800s and Pleasant Litchford,” Executive Director of the UA Historical Society Kristin Greenberg said. “Whereas we don’t have any concrete evidence that shows an Underground Railroad route through Upper Arlington, we thought it would be beneficial to learn about [one of the main entrance points to Ohio].”
The UA Historical Society will follow the author talk with an event in April where guest Leslie Blankenship will talk about Columbus’s Underground Railroad.
Next in the lineup, Columbus filmmaker Chris Bournea will discuss his documentary “Lady Wrestler” at the UA Public Library Tremont Road branch on Feb. 22. The UA Public Library, the City of UA, Equal UA and the UA Historical Society have come together to coordinate and facilitate the event. There will also be a screening of the documentary on Mar. 2.
Additionally, UA Public Library Community Engagement Specialist Jennifer Faure said the UA Public Library is putting up book displays, video displays and a new subject guide for the research tools offered on Black History, including the Pleasant Litchford archive collections. Upstairs in the youth services department, there is a bulletin board with interactive elements called the Periodic Table of Black History that features Black Americans from throughout history.
The almost one-year-old Rainbow UA, a community organization that seeks to create community, provide support, and share resources for LGBTQ+ families and individuals in UA, is hosting a virtual “Power Panel” on Feb. 24 with five Black LGBTQ+ leaders from the community who will share their perspectives on the intersectionality of LGBTQ+ identity and Black identity.
On Feb. 19, a family-friendly event called “Let’s Learn Together: The Black Queer Family Experience” will take place at the UA Public Library. Put together by Rainbow UA, the UA Public Library, Cover to Cover and the Harper’s Corner Foundation, the event will have screenings of two short, family-friendly films titled “Tyler” and “Carino” as well as a historic episode of children’s TV. Book lists, crafts and snacks will also be available.
“We want exposure and for people to understand that families come in all shapes and sizes and colors,” founding member of Rainbow UA Jillian Maruskin said. “We’re just trying to present our community as the growing-in-diversity kind of community that…we’re turning into.”
Other programming, ranging from a presentation on Buffalo Soldiers by UA Senior Center member Gregory Edmonds to Black History Month Celebration Packs full of books and cookies from the Black-owned bakery Yavonne’s Cookies delivered by Equal UA, can be found on the CRC website.
“There is a dynamic program happening this February again. I’m excited. There’s a lot of hybrid going on,” Awakessien Jeter said. “I’m just looking forward to this snowballing and growing because we have our own dynamic kind of Black history here within Upper Arlington that needs to be celebrated, and our children need to know about it.”
Leading up to Black History Month, German teacher Tricia Fellinger’s classroom was filled with glue sticks, colored paper, markers and the students that make up Ambassadors of Change, a group that promotes inclusion at UAHS. In between bites of their lunches, the students sprawled over tables and the floor, diligently creating informative posters about historical Black figures. The posters have been hung around UAHS to form a gallery throughout the school, with contributions from students and staff both in and out of Ambassadors of Change. The community will be invited into UAHS for a gallery walk and open house on Feb. 23.
“The hope is that this will bring awareness to the so many accomplishments and contributions of Black people to our culture and to our global culture—people past and present,” Fellinger, who serves on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) building and district teams and the Equity Advisory Board, said. “Last year, we had lots of people—teachers and students—comment that they learned so much from the same project and that the posters featured so many people who have either been forgotten or that they’ve never learned about.”
For the entire month of February, UAHS students have been invited to participate in a trivia activity during second period, and some music students are learning songs by Black composers.
Other schools in the district are also getting involved. At Hastings Middle School, where Fellinger also teaches German, students are doing a similar poster project, and music group Jason Buchea & Friends will play West African music on Feb. 11.
Meanwhile, at Tremont Elementary School, the Tremont School Association funded an educator toolkit and boxes of crayons from the More Than Peach project, a multicultural crayon brand, for teachers to use in their classrooms. DEI building and district representatives Shelly Bloom and Lina Taylor provided teachers with a list of ideas of how to tie the crayon project to Black History Month.
The DEI team at Tremont also runs a book program that provides five books and corresponding activities to all the adults at Tremont to use with students. Through the books and classroom dialogue, Taylor emphasized that her students are exposed to diverse perspectives year-round.
“For…the grade that I work with, Feb. 1 or the month of February is not the first time that they are seeing a text or having a discussion through the lens of a Black or African American author or voice,” Taylor said.
At Tremont, teachers are provided resources for lesson plans, conversation starters and activities to do with their students, but they have flexibility in how they choose to use those resources.
“We’re very lucky that it’s not scripted, [like], ‘Here’s what you have to teach,’” Bloom said. “But it’s nice that we have resources that we can all pull from.”
Bloom also spoke of the balance between teacher autonomy and ensuring students are exposed to diverse perspectives.
“No one’s checking to see if I’m doing it, I do it because I feel like that’s what is best for kids,” Bloom said. “But that’s where teachers are all going to have their own points of view of what they feel is best for their classroom.”
UAHS students are also exposed to diverse texts throughout the year in their language arts classes. English teacher Matt Toohey said the language arts teachers have enveloped Black achievements and diversity of all cultures intrinsically in all that they teach.
UA Schools DEI Director Matthew Boaz said he has spent the past year listening and learning about the community, collaborating with others and discussing avenues for sustainable change.
Instead of requiring teachers to teach certain topics, Boaz said he wants to create change by sharing a common vision, educating others through conversations and professional development opportunities, discussing processes for desired outcomes with people who hold different perspectives, and piquing interest.
“I want to engage people so that they become interested and lean in,” Boaz said. “I don’t want to go and say I want every teacher to be forced to do XYZ because that will not get them to engage. That will get them to revolt—and what good is that to a kid in their classroom?”
Regarding the Black History Month celebrations in the district, Boaz said they are geared toward highlighting the achievements, history and perspectives of Black people throughout the world. Students across the district have been involved in planning the projects and festivities.
“I’m really proud of the way that this district has not only embraced Black History Month but involved students in creating the ways that we celebrate it and letting students lead with their voices of how we go about it,” Boaz said.
He said this pride extended to the district’s involvement in broader city-wide events.
“I will say it speaks to the fact that many entities in the Upper Arlington community area are working hard and working together to try to highlight the efforts of those who maybe haven’t had as much of a voice in our community in the past [and] to highlight efforts and situations that bring a better sense of balance for certain people’s perspectives to the community,” Boaz said. “And Black History Month was a great opportunity for that.”
On Feb. 7, Awakessien Jeter and her colleagues on the City Council unanimously passed an ordinance to contribute funds for the construction of the Litchford Plaza, a memorial to Pleasant Litchford, at the high school.
“I want to thank all those that were involved in birthing this visionary idea to honor what was once a hidden part of our community’s Black history,” Awakessien Jeter said in a Facebook post. “…Hope has bred change again and again. I cannot wait to hear all the stories the children of our community and afar learn from the Litchford Plaza…including mine!”
To learn more about the the Black History Month events in UA, visit https://uacommunityrelations.upperarlingtonoh.gov/resources/.