Four teenagers sit in a smallish room with black walls, leaning forward to stare at the only bright light in the room – a computer screen.
In front of them is a blog post written by the late Linda Duyer, local historian and author. The post is about Howard Hudson Birckhead, a native of the tiny west Wicomico County community of Rockawalkin.
Birckhead was described in a 1977 story written by Dalton Fleming for The Daily Times as a “retired lumber man, bootlegger, and hospital cook, among other things.” Birckhead died at age 91 in 1983.
The teens are focused on Birckhead’s story – it was obvious from their body language, despite the face masks that covered most of their faces.
What they were doing would have been unimaginable in Birckhead’s not-so-long-ago time – searching online to learn more about the lives of Salisbury’s notable African-Americans for Black History Month.
On this particular Wednesday afternoon, the four of them were sharing information they had found in their research as they worked through the creative process that would yield a rough script for a new podcast.
This wasn’t a school assignment. Quite the opposite.
“We are planning for a podcast to teach our peers about black history,” said Toirae Hitch, 13, an 8th-grader at Salisbury Middle School.
“They don’t know as much as they should about black history,” said Caleb Ashley, a 17-year-old junior at James M. Bennett High School.
Hitch said she loves working as a group. Unlike many group projects involving young people, there was no idle chatter. This was compelling and serious work they had undertaken.
The project, a collaboration between the city of Salisbury and Fenix Youth Project, in partnership with the Lynching Memorial Task Force and Wicomico County public school students, is an online Black History Month project that focuses on three key themes: Learn. Heal. Empower.
The website created by the city for this project – salisbury.md/blackhistorymonth -- offers podcasts, video blogs, music, news, resources and documentaries on topics related to Black History.
The group of teens is responsible for the content, with support from Fenix Youth Project, the city and other adults involved.
“This is a way for the kids to take learning into their own hands,” said Amber Green, founder and Executive Director of Fenix Youth Project, as well as a co-founder of this Black History Month project.
“During our first conversations, one of them told me it was almost like they were pioneers. They’re not learning to please adults, but to inform their peers,” Green said.
Although the teenagers started out just learning for themselves, they have gradually taken on the role of teachers.
“They ping-pong from teacher to student and back to teacher roles,” Green said.
‘A bit taboo’ in rural Wicomico
“Celebrating black history on the Eastern Shore has become a bit taboo,” said Green, “especially in our more rural areas. Our youth are burned out from the overteaching of slavery and hardship. With the level of discomfort among teachers and administrators, this teaching lacks context.”
Working with Hitch on the podcast were 14-year-old Kaniyaha Outlaw, a Wicomico High School freshman, Ashley, and Darrien Brown, also 17 and a junior at James M. Bennett High.
The girls have been working on the project for a month now and were joined by Ashley and Brown two weeks ago.
All four were actively engaged in the process and worked together as equals to accomplish their goal, clearly hungry to learn more about a largely uncelebrated segment of the Shore’s history.
“At first, Toirae was learning things about her great-grandfather, Billy Gene Jackson,” Green said. “She was learning things she had previously had no idea about. Her great grandfather, who died in 2015, had been a civil rights and community activist as well as a mentor to children in Salisbury’s African-American community. A county-owned athletic park was renamed in his honor later that year.”
Hitch’s grandmother, April Jackson, is a Salisbury City Council member.
‘Why didn’t they teach us this in school?’
“As they began to learn, the young people began to ask questions,” said Green. “The one question that comes up constantly – it still comes up – is ‘Why didn’t they teach us this in school?” It recurs with every new project. ‘Why didn’t we know this?’ Even as the facts come out, we still have that very raw question coming up. These youths are coming to terms with the idea that they are taking learning into their own terms.”
Green said the project is turning into something they can really be proud of.
“Of course, you get over that fear of hearing your own voice,” Green said, laughing. “Instead, you begin to say to yourself ‘yeah, that’s MY voice!’”
A new way to experience Black History Month
“What I love about this group of kids is that you see different ages working together to do amazing research,” said Green. She credits a conversation with Salisbury City Councilwoman Angela Blake as providing the inspiration to create this Black History Month experience for young people.
In addition to Green’s work directly with the teens, Caroline O’Hare, director of the National Folk Festival in Salisbury, and Becca Brown, a graphic artist with the city, worked together to create the city website hosting the results of the teens’ research and hard work that Green describes as an amazing safe space online.
Michaela Moses, co-chair of the Salisbury Lynching Memorial Task Force, has also been involved with the project.
“They really appreciate the way the city of Salisbury is supporting them,” said Green. “It’s really meaningful when city government stands behind its young people.”