When it comes to Black history, Lauren Broussard thinks people often focus so much on the important but somber topics of slavery and segregation that it overshadows important contributions Black trailblazers made in spite of racism.
“I think when you learn about Black history, it should not just be, ‘this is depressing,’” said Broussard a rising senior at Western Albemarle High School, after giving a tour of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center Tuesday.
Saturn Edwards, a rising senior at Charlottesville High School, agrees.
“A lot of times African American history focuses on the depressing parts. And a lot of the history that we learn is a bit depressing. It is important, but it’s not always good to focus on that and I feel like we should also learn more about the joys in African American history,” Edwards said.
Broussard, Saturn Edwards and her sister Jean Edwards are participants in the heritage center’s Trailblazers program, which teaches area Black students the history of Charlottesville’s Black community. The goal is for the students to become tour docents.
The program started in 2015 and runs every summer. Over the course of six weeks, students engage in discussion, complete projects, go on field trips to historical sites and museums in and out of the area and learn to be community educators.
The students are paid for their training and for the tours they give. The tours focus on the history of Black people in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, starting with early enslavement and telling the story of emancipation over time.
Parts of the tour highlight the razing of the thriving Black community of Vinegar Hill, as well as successful Black leaders and businesspeople in the community throughout time.
“We started this program largely because we wanted to shorten the distance of history. We felt like young people thought history was in the past,” said Andrea Douglas, executive director of the heritage center. “We encourage the students to speak in their own voice.”
Douglas said the goal is for the students to become tour guides if they so desire, and to give tours to both their peers and adults.
“These young people are very smart. They’ve done a lot and I’m very proud of them,” Douglas said.
This week, the newest class of Trailblazers is completing their training. They say they want the community to learn about the successes of Charlottesville’s Black community.
Jean Edwards, a rising senior at Charlottesville High School, said she grew up spending a lot of time participating in heritage center programming with her family, but she wanted to learn more.
“I went ahead and applied because I never actually learned the real history behind this place,” she said. “I’d been here for Kwanzaa celebrations and events like that, but I’ve never been able to be acquainted with the people behind here and the people behind this history until now.”
Broussard said one of the things she learned through her experience is how many Black businesspeople and property owners contributed to the success of the community. That’s why she’s so passionate about focusing more on Black joy and success in her tours.
“When you talk about Black history, they don’t really mention the Black middle class, and usually it goes from Civil War to Civil Rights era and you leave this almost 100-year gap,” Broussard said. “And so learning about the Black property owners and learning about their influence, learning about how people tried to prevent Black people from buying property and gaining wealth, that’s what shocked me the most and I was most interested about that.”
Saturn Edwards said she hopes people will come to the heritage center to learn more about the history of the place they live in, which they may take for granted.
“I feel like it’s really important for people to become familiar with the area’s history. Before the program, I didn’t know a lot of the places I’ve been to are historical places,” she said. “I feel like it’s really important for people to be well-versed in the area and to expand their knowledge on the area they live in.”
JSAAHC offers guided tours throughout the year. Those interested can visit https://jeffschoolheritagecenter.org/about-us/guided-tours/ to sign up.
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