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Springfield school celebrates Black innovators, designers during Black History Month

As her school's leadership team began preparing their Black History Month lessons, Medina Ali had one primary goal.

"I knew I didn't want their [students] first exposure to Black history to be about enslavement," said Ali, the principal at Freedman Elementary School in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Instead, Ali and her team of teachers and other school staff worked to divide each grade into a category where students would learn about prominent Black leaders in the arts, fashion, innovation, science and music.

"At this stage in their life, they're very receptive and they internalize everything. I want them to get a grasp on their identity through seeing the good things that their ancestors have contributed," she said. " I didn't want them to start off with the history of enslavement because that is a portion that is real, but that's not the beginning and that is not who they are."

Fifth graders Andre Robinson and Deriyah Walters learned about fashion designers like Dapper Dan, a Black American designer who has collaborated with fashion houses like Gucci.

Walters said her favorite designer she learned about was Amaka Osakwe, a Nigerian womenswear designer.

"I like that she physically draws the designs on the T-shirts or dresses and she uses African designs on the clothes," Walters said.

For a more interactive approach, the school invited Black artists, leaders and entrepreneurs to meet with the students and talk about their profession.

Omowumni Shelton is the owner of Afrique Fashion in Springfield. One day earlier this month, she was stationed in the auditorium and brought a variety of traditional African garments straight from Nigeria to show students and answer questions about the textiles and designs.

"This is what I did back home. I'm from Nigeria, from Lagos specifically. I've been in this business for over 20 years," she said. "When I got here, I looked at the area. I didn't really see exactly this product and I said, 'OK, I have to start this here.'"

Shelton said she has had many customers who want to wear traditional clothing for family events or for everyday wear.

"Some are for weddings or big events, but this clothing is meant to beautify and can be worn anytime," she said.

Lined up with some classmates in the hallway, third grader Dallas Imani Wilson, 9, shared her thoughts on her class learning about mathematicians and inventors.

"Well, I thought who was really cool was Katherine Johnson, because she was Black and she was forced to work in a basement," Wilson said.

Wilson said Johnson, a NASA hero, stood up for herself and for other Black people.

Principal Ali said while the school celebrates Black History Month every February, teaching the history of Black leaders is important all year.

"We have about 200 students in pre-K through fifth grade and the majority are Black and brown," she said. " We want them to know their history."

Elizabeth Román edits daily news stories at NEPM as managing editor. She is working to expand the diversity of sources in our news coverage and is also exploring ways to create more Spanish-language news content.
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