Writing History for Elementary School Students
Gabrielle Turner wrote the story featured in today’s blog in the summer of 2003 as part of an eight-week, eight-hour-a-day summer of work and training that Students at the Center produced for 30 young people: about 20 9th through 12th grade students at Douglass and 10 of our graduates from Douglass, McDonogh 35, and McMain High Schools.
In addition to holding our own writing workshops, training sessions, and video production work, the SAC students and staff taught young people at the Drew Elementary UrbanHeart Community Learning Center and at the Treme Community Center’s summer camp.
Gabrielle had just finished her freshman year of college in 2003. As a high school student and intern with SAC, she had not only produced videos and radio pieces but also spent two afternoons a week helping to lead writing and reading workshops at McDonogh 15 and Craig Elementary Schools.
Gabrielle brought all these experiences to the story we feature today. Her goal was to write something that would appeal to upper elementary school students and teach them some of the history and values of the black New Orleanians who challenged Louisiana’s 1890 Separate Car Act. She and her peers studied carefully Keith Medley’s book We as Freeman: Plessy vs. Ferguson and then developed a catalogue of writings and plays on social justice history in New Orleans.
Gabrielle’s “Twelve Year Old Talks to Plessy” is one of the many selections from The Long Ride that SAC students and staff still use in writing and reading workshops with elementary school students in New Orleans. And Gabrielle is now a staff member with SAC, teaching writing and video production at Franklin and Bethune Elementary Schools. In May she will leave us for a year; she will be pursuing a master’s degree and teaching certificate and then plans to return to New Orleans as a classroom teacher.
Twelve Year Old Talks to Plessy
The date was June 7, 1892. It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon, when mama sent me to make groceries. As I walked down the road I repeated in my mind, "milk, bread, sausage, and sugar," over and over again so I wouldn't forget. My reciting was distracted, when I noticed the bright red train signals blinking on and off. The train was just sitting there, and I knew I had to wait. So I sat down on the ground and made my name out of some rocks.
With my head to the ground, I saw the shiniest pair of shoes walk past me. I knew exactly who it was. It was Mr. Homer. He always had the best looking shoes in the neighborhood, because he was a shoemaker.
Before I looked up I saw another pair of shoes that weren't so nice walking behind Mr. Homer. I looked up and saw Mr. Homer with his hands behind his back and handcuffs tightly on his wrist. The other pair of shoes was a man in a dark blue suit. Mr. Homer looked down at me with a weird expression on his face. He winked his eye at me as he always did, and I watched as they took him away.
I stood there for a while. I was confused. Mr. Homer was the nicest man you could ever meet. He wouldn't hurt anyone. So, why would he be arrested on the train?
The train started to move backwards and then forwards again. I walked to the grocery, and I got the items momma told me to get.
A couple of days later walking home from school, I passed Mrs. Louise's house. Mrs. Louise lived in one of the shotgun houses on my street. All the houses were painted the same color, a dull green, but Mrs. Louise's house was different. She had a little garden next to her step. She always kept some chairs in the alley for when her friends stopped by. She and three other women were sitting on her front porch talking. She leaned back in her old wooden chair with The Crusader newspaper in her hand and said, "that man, he was only trying to get us black folk equal treatment."
I was a little girl, only twelve years old, and I didn't quite understand what was going on. I walked along the brick cobblestone sidewalk to get to her porch. I sat on her step listening to them talk about how people in this organization called the Citizens’ Committee gathered together to plan to have Mr. Homer arrested.
I stared down at the bricked sidewalk. My eyes fastened to the green sponge-like grass that pushed its way up through the cracks between the bricks. While I continued to listen, I turned to catch Mrs. Louise's eyes, and with my eyes I asked a question "may I?" as I pointed to the newspaper.
Without interrupting her conversation she nodded, and I eased the newspaper from her lap. I read that the man in the dark blue suit was Private Detective Cain. I thought to myself, "why would Mr. Homer, a shoe maker, risk getting arrested?"
Later on that evening after eating supper mama and I sat down on the floor to do some arithmetic. My mind was not on counting how many dirt rocks were on the floor. Instead I wondered why Mr. Homer volunteered to be arrested.
I interrupted mama and asked "why would somebody get arrested on purpose?
"Child what are you talking about?"
I explained to her what I saw two days ago. She began to tell me that she and some other women in her women's club, the ladies of St. Joseph, had given money to support him getting arrested.
"Why would you do that?"
"You see baby, we cannot eat, shop, sit, or live among white folks, and it is not right. So people in the community rallied together to raise money to pay for the legal fees for Homer Plessy's case.”
“Oh child, there is going to be a big case behind this."
"Behind us not being able to sit on the same train car as a white person, and we all trying to get to the same place."
"So we breaking the law?"
I never thought I would see the day that mama would say it was alright to break the law. She always taught us to abide by the law. Her motto was always "put it in the hands of the Lord, and he'll take care of it," but not this time. Maybe she thought they were just trying to help the Lord.
She explained to me that things were getting bad. People were dying. Families were starving because they could not get good jobs, to make groceries. She was getting upset, and she started crying. She said, weeping, "we have to do something or we will never get anywhere in this world."
So I guess a lot of folks felt the way that mama did and wanted to see things change. I started to understand why we broke the law. It was for our own good.
"So, what can I do to help?"
"First of all you need to pray. We need prayer. You could also come along to the rallies at the churches and participate and listen. You need to learn all you can about what's going on, but I don't want you to get too involved, because you're just a little girl."
Mama looked at me with a strange smile.
"Child, why do you want to be involved with this?"
"Well, mama you know how I hate to see people, especially colored people, go to jail when they really didn't do anything wrong. You remember when we went by Grandpa Lloyd's house and we saw a man get arrested and beaten because a white woman said he raped her? It's not fair, and I want to help in any way I can, even if it means breaking the law. Because we are breaking the law for a good reason, right mama?"