Class is living history

Published 8:48 pm Monday, February 20, 2006

By By ANDY HAMILTON / Niles Daily Star
NILES - School was in session on Saturday afternoon and the lessons were in African American history. A chilly Ferry Street School Resource Center was the site of the annual Living Black History Program. The day was hosted by the Niles branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and included a few history lessons and some soulful singing.
President of the NAACP, Saundria Wilson, greeted the crowd of around 25 who squeezed into the old school desks of the historic Ferry Street School classroom.
The story of the building was laid out by the director of the Fort St. Joseph Museum, Carol Bainbridge. Bainbridge used old photos to describe what it was like for children of all ages to attend class in the one-room school.
Ferry Street School started holding classes in January of 1868 and for the first three years was a school solely for black children, Bainbridge said. But, by 1872, the classes on Ferry Street were integrated.
A wing was added to the building in 1912 and the school closed in 1951.
Finally in 1978, a local group of volunteers joined to reconstruct the original section of the school and in 2004 the building was sold to the Greater Niles Community Development Corporation for $1, Bainbridge said.
The next lesson of the day came from Joseph Strotter, who delivered a biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Strotter said he attended every march and speech by Dr. King in Chicago. It is also where Strotter said he got to meet and shake hands with Dr. King.
The focus of the program then turned to the history of black music. Many of the soulful hymns originating on plantations were easier to document and preserve than a slave's family history, Bernice Farmer said.
The melodies often served a dual purpose, the next speaker, Alice Fletcher, told the class. Slaves would sometimes use the songs to hide messages that needed to be spread among the workers without the knowledge of an owner.
Of course many of the hymns were also used to celebrate and lift the spirits, just like the class at Ferry Street School on Saturday.