Students glimpse part of difficult history

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 11, 2002

NATCHEZ &045; The young man steps up to the auctioneer, looking apprehensive at what is to come.

&uot;Let me take a look at you,&uot; the older man says, looking the teenager over. Calling up a young woman, he tells the crowd, &uot;She’ll have plenty of children.&uot;

&uot;Do I hear $1,000? Do I hear $1,200?&uot; he calls out, holding onto the arm of the teenage girl who looks around with uncertainty at the crowd.

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Stepping out of the auctioneer’s role, Ser Seshshab Heter-C.M. Boxley told the group of Jefferson County Middle School students that that is the scene that would have met them if they had been at the Forks of the Road site in the early 1800s.

And that was just the first part of a Wednesday morning tour the students took of black heritage sites in Natchez. Other stops included the Mostly African Market and the Natchez Museum of African-American History and Culture.

The tour was organized by local citizens to help ensure that black youth know the history of the enslavement period.

&uot;They’re not getting it in the school system and they’re not getting it at home,&uot; Gettye Israel said. &uot;I’ve given up on the adults. But I want these kids to be educated.&uot;

Israel organized the tour with Mary Hamberlin, a school librarian in Jefferson County; Thelma Williams and Evans Rucker Dickey of the Mostly African Market; and Shirley Wheatley of the Natchez Association for the Preservation of Afro-American Culture.

When Hamberlin and Dickey approached her with the idea, &uot;we thought it was a great idea,&uot; Williams said. &uot;There’s such a need for the public to know more about African-American history.&uot;

Although Israel said other schools have not shown an interest in taking the free tour, five eighth-grade classes from Jefferson County took part Tuesday and Wednesday.

During the tour the students, who have been studying the enslavement period for a month, also took a quiz to test their knowledge of parts of &uot;The People’s History,&uot; a book they were assigned prior to the tour.

But nothing in a book, it seemed, could prepare them for the stark reality of having Boxley, president of the Friends of the Forks of the Road organization, describe the scenes that once took place on the way to, and at, such slave market sites.

&uot;They sold you Š and you Š and you Š and you,&uot; Boxley said, pointing his finger into the faces of the students. &uot;They wanted to buy up people like you Š to build their way of life.&uot;

Long after she was brought up before the crowd, 14-year-old LaToya Jackson talked softly about the experience.

&uot;It didn’t feel right,&uot; Jackson said. &uot;It wasn’t right for people to be treated this way.&uot;

The experience may have stunned some, but Alex Pipes III, who teaches American history and was one of the teachers who accompanied the students on the trip, said it ultimately was good for the teens.

&uot;It helps them understand how they got here and what their foreparents endured,&uot; Pipes said.

But the story doesn’t end there, Boxley said. Black people went on to escape slavery, fight for their freedom, attain an education and establish institutions ranging from churches to universities.

Understanding one’s history is crucial because it helps &uot;explain why you and I are here,&uot; Boxley said. &uot;It explains why there are the plantation houses you’ve seen.

&uot;We’re talking about the people who are responsible for you being here today,&uot; he said. &uot;They survived.&uot;

Israel knows firsthand the importance of knowing the full story of black history. She started researching the subject on her own time in college and now teaches it to her son through homeschooling.

And she hopes the tour will spur students to read and research on their own to get whole story.

&uot;I would want them to do as I did, to not wait on the teacher, to get a passion for information,&uot; Israel said. &uot;Find the books and read them yourself. The greatest educational experience is outside the classroom.&uot;