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Howard County Center of African American Culture highlights Black History 365 for Juneteenth




As a fourth grader, Walter Milton Jr. was so excited to learn about Black history that he donned his only suit and sat at the front of the classroom for the start of the unit.

“My mother and father would remind me and my siblings that we were descendants of kings and queens,” he said. “That the shoulders that we stand on are the shoulders of those people who were the original people of the earth.”

But the first thing his teacher did was play a video showing an enslaved person being beaten.

“That caused damage in my fourth-grade mind,” said Milton, who went home crying to his parents. “I said, ‘You told us that we were kings and queens.’ I didn’t see that. I saw servitude. I saw pain.”

Milton’s mother told him he’d be able to tell the larger story one day. After receiving his doctorate in education and serving as superintendent of school districts in Michigan and Illinois, Milton began researching and writing a textbook covering Black history from ancient African civilizations to the present day.

Milton’s efforts resulted in Black History 365, an educational curriculum that includes professional learning tools, digital resources and activities designed for teachers and students in grades K-12 across the country.

On Monday, Milton and co-founder Joel Freeman discussed their work as part of the Howard County Center of African American Culture‘s 30th annual Juneteenth celebration, held at St. John Baptist Church in Columbia. The center also co-hosted performances of spirituals, art songs and opera by Black composers at Howard Community College on Sunday.

“When we observe Juneteenth, we always try to include something that is of relevance to the Black community,” said Everlene Cunningham, the center’s board chair. “We were impressed by [Black History 365] and we thought that we would just introduce it to the Howard County community.”

Howard County Center of African American Culture executive director Nat Alston (left) and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (right) deliver opening remarks for the center's 30th annual Juneteenth celebration at St. John Baptist Church in Columbia.
Howard County Center of African American Culture executive director Nat Alston (left) and Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (right) deliver opening remarks for the center’s 30th annual Juneteenth celebration at St. John Baptist Church in Columbia.

Juneteenth commemorates the day that some of the last enslaved people in Texas received word of emancipation in 1865. It was recognized as a federal holiday by President Joe Biden in 2021. While various celebrations date back over 150 years, Juneteenth has increasingly become a nationwide observance in recent years with parades, cookouts and festivals.

“Many in our community are sort of unaware of the existence of the day and its significance,” said state Del. Courtney Watson at Monday’s event. “In order to continue to work against racism, continue to educate children … we have to push awareness into the normal everyday lives of the people in this community and largely the white community.”

Along with hosting the annual Juneteenth celebration, the center operates a museum in Columbia that reopened in February and offers a range of artifacts and exhibits chronicling African American history and culture in Howard County.

“There’s a richness in local history that needs to be put forth more,” said curator Marcus Nicks. “As we hear talks about critical race theory, books being banned, AP African American studies being banned and all these types of things, it’s given a push [to] people to want to say, ‘OK, that’s happening in Texas. …What’s happening on the ground here in Howard County?’”

The center’s executive director, Nat Alston, says the group is working on recording oral histories of 29 Howard County families and hopes to expand programming to include field trips and traveling exhibits for students.

“We talk about education, we talk about also our history,” Alston said. “You don’t know your history, then what? You’re doomed to repeat it.”

Alston had dreamed of bringing Milton and Freeman to give a talk in Howard after meeting the two authors over Zoom during the pandemic and learning more about their textbook, titled “BH365.” He said he hopes the curriculum is eventually taught in Howard County public schools and that all residents can benefit from it.

“I bought three copies, one for myself, one for my son and one for my daughter,” he said. “It is the most extensive book I’ve ever seen and read.”

Black History 365’s curriculum is already being used in more than 200 school districts across the country, from Texas to New York. Milton and Freeman say part of the textbook’s broad appeal stems from its interactive features, which include QR codes readers can scan to access videos, images and songs that supplement lessons.

Freeman, whose interest in Black history was sparked while serving as a player development mentor for the Washington Bullets/Wizards for two decades, says the textbook aims to make difficult subjects, including lynching, accessible to as broad an audience as possible.

“Let’s embrace uncomfortability in our classrooms, let’s not put Bubble Wrap on the walls, but let’s do it in a way that doesn’t harm,” he said. “It’s not designed to divide but brings people together.”

Unlike Milton’s own fourth grade experience and other Black history textbooks they had read, the authors made sure to start their curriculum centuries before the trans-Atlantic slave trade in order to cover the development of agriculture and African kingdoms. Even when discussing slavery in America, they were careful to use words like “kidnapped” and “captive” when describing enslaved persons’ experiences and detailing the history of slave rebellions.

Wherever students encounter the textbook, Milton hopes it will inspire them to become critical thinkers and better analyze the past in ways that help them understand the present.

“Many nights when we were writing it was cathartic to me, but it was an out-of-body experience,” Milton said. “I had to dry my eyes many times because we were able to identify the faceless and the nameless that made a deep and lasting impact.”

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