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In Honor of Black History Month, Author Paula Young Shelton Joins Us

February 16, 2011

The first time I heard Paula Young Shelton speak I was moved to tears. She is a gifted storyteller and has an uncanny knack at connecting with her audience in a soulful way. I hope you enjoy this essay about why she wrote her first book, Child of the Civil Rights Movement, as much as I did.

Author Paula Young Shelton

Everyone has a story to tell. This is how mine got to be a published book. I am a first grade teacher at Georgetown Day School, a school founded in 1945 as the first integrated school in Washington, DC. It was created because of segregation by a group of white women, who decided that segregation was wrong and that all children deserved a quality education. For the past 65 years GDS has stood by their mission to be inclusive and welcoming of all children and their families, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Part of that mission is to insure that the education the students receive is inclusive as well, and recognizes the contributions of all Americans.

As part of this effort one of our major assemblies is in honor of Martin Luther King. It is a wonderful assembly full of speeches, dramatizations, poetry and music, as it celebrates the sacrifices of civil rights leaders and activists. But it is long…too long for the Pre-K and Kindergarten students to sit through. A few years ago one of the teachers asked me to talk to her class. She knew my dad had worked with Dr. King and she just wanted me to tell the students a little about him and share what it was like growing up in the South in the 60’s. And so I did. I explained to them that my father had worked closely with Dr. King and our families were friends and how in those days children never called adults by their first name, but instead, for close family friends we would address them as “aunt” and “uncle” and that’s how I came to call Dr. King Uncle Martin. Well the minute I said “Uncle Martin” they perked up. All these 4 and 5 years olds stared at me and their mouths dropped open. Suddenly they were interested.

I went on to tell them stories that my father told me. Like the one about the parting of the Red Sea. They were somewhere in Alabama or maybe it was Mississippi, and they were marching and singing when they came upon a road block of police officers with batons, dogs straining on their leashes, fireman with hoses pointed right at them, fire trucks lining the streets. They stopped the march dead in its tracks. There was a sea of red before them. The people froze and didn’t know what to do and then somebody announced “Let’s pray” and the whole crowd dropped to their knees and bowed their heads, though my daddy admits he was praying with one eye open. And then one woman began to hum, and the humming grew into a song and before long all the marchers were singing like a celestial choir. And when the song was over the crowd rose from their knees to find that the line of police officers was slowly backing up, the firemen’s hoses had dropped to their side, even the dogs were quiet. The road block had opened up creating path through the middle. One of the marchers jumped up and shouted “Good God Almighty the Lord done parted the Red Sea one more time.” And they marched right on through.

I told this story and others to my young audience as they listened intently. I had them hooked. They wanted to hear more stories about my “Uncle Martin”. They wanted to know what his favorite ice cream was, his favorite color, what games he liked to play and what he ate for dinner. They knew who I was, and now I was telling them about my “Uncle Martin” and so they were able to make a personal connection to this historical figure. This wasn’t just another dead guy in the history books it was a real person that they could now relate to.

I continued to spend each King Holiday talking to our Pre-K and K students sharing my memories, singing protest songs and acting out the parting of the Red Sea. Then one day a parent came in during my presentation and said to me, “You should write this down”. Well by this time I had started to put my recollections onto paper and this parent happened to be a published author who then introduced me to his agent. I spent the next couple of years editing and revising until finally my first book was born. But it all started with telling my story.

Everyone has a story to tell and I urge you all to share yours with young people so that they can make that personal connection to our past. It doesn’t matter whether you spoke at a national convention or just watched it on TV, we were there and what we saw, heard and felt—matters. Our experiences can help a young person understand how we got to where we are today and that’s why I felt it was important to tell my story. Now go tell yours.

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