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Black history taught year round in and out of school
The Oxford Hills has a nearly all-white population, yet considerable emphasis is given in school to learning about Black History and developing racial acceptance and tolerance.
This learning seems to augment what appears, at least to one mixed-race family, to be a natural tolerance that exists here.
In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 13 percent of the nation was black. In a breakdown by states, only two had a lower percentage of blacks than Maine: Montana and Idaho. Maine had .7 percent, Montana .5 percent, and Idaho .6 percent. Those are very small percentages, less than one.
In northern New England, Vermont tied Maine with .7 percent. New Hampshire had 1 percent.
The 2010 Census data for Maine has not yet been released. The new data is expected to show an increase in the percentage of blacks in the state, due, at least in part, to the many Somalis who have settled here. Nonetheless, Maine will probably still be one of the most predominantly white states.
In the Oxford Hills, a foundation for racial acceptance and tolerance is laid in the schools.
The Guy E. Rowe Elementary School in Norway is probably one of the most ethnically diverse schools in the area. Principal George Sincerbeaux said, "We do have a lot of minorities here. But we don't think of anyone as being different. A student here is a student."
While Black History is not specifically taught at Rowe, the subject comes up in a big way in January.
"Around Dr. King's birthday there are a lot of projects, students reading nonfiction about the underground railroad, about Booker T. Washington, and so on, and writing reports. It's huge," Sincerbeaux said.
"Also, in January, we brought in the Cromwell Center for Disabilities Awareness. They talk about people that are different. They talk not just about physical disabilities, but about people who look different because of color or other reasons. They do an excellent job teaching about acceptance of others."
As students move on, instruction in this area continues. Tara Pelletier is head of the Social Studies Department at Oxford Hills Middle School.
"In Social Studies we have a unit that is dedicated to U.S. Civil Rights," she said. "Every year we kick this unit off after Martin Luther King Day. We listen to King's, "I Have a Dream" speech. We talk and write a lot about what King did and how influential he was and still is.
"Currently we are creating an interactive time line that includes key events in Civil Rights history. These events include Brown vs. Board of Education, the Little Rock Nine go to high school, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, "Letter from Birmingham Jail," and so on.
"In previous years we made a remembrance quilt that included quotes, pictures, personal stories. As we go through the Civil Rights unit, we try to bring in current civil rights issues. This connects students to their own lives and makes it very meaningful."
At Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School students study Black History as part of the American Studies course.
Thomas McGarvey is one of four history teachers at the high school.
"We study slavery, then the Abolitionist Movement. We spent time covering the Civil War. Then I extend that all the way up to Brown versus the Board of Education. The whole thing takes about two months," McGarvey said.
"It goes pretty much chronologically, though I divert when we get to Reconstruction — the post Civil War era. I bring that up to 1954 and talk about how it was a struggle for that long of a time; that Reconstruction didn't complete itself until the 1960s, if ever.
"I spend a lot of time on Black History in November and December, rather than devote a week to it in February."
Living in a white community
Studying Black History in school is one thing. Being black in a mostly-white area like the Oxford Hills is quite another.
In the early 1990s, John and Kathryn White, a white couple, had three children of their own, Eli, Hannah, and Naomi. Medical issues prevented them from having more children, so they adopted. First, a black baby girl, Anyah. Then a black baby boy, Asher. Then a Vietnamese boy, Ethan. Then another black baby boy, Garrett.
They raised — and are raising: Ethan is 17 and Garrett, 10 — these children in the Oxford Hills.
Today, John is the town manager of West Paris. He was the town manager of Durham for 10 years, and before that, the town manager of Paris for six. He remembers when he and Kathy adopted Anyah.
"We decided that adoption was something we could afford to do. We contacted Maine Adoption Placement Services and were told that an African-American child is what we would probably be asked to adopt. Caucasian children tend to go very quickly when they are babies.
"At the time — and now even more so — the race of the baby didn't matter to us."
Anyah — from New York City — was four months old when she became part of the White's family. John said that the three biological children were very supportive.
Did John and Kathy have concerns about what life might be like for a black child in a mostly-white area like the Oxford Hills?
"We certainly did. There were hardly any African-American children in this area at the time, and we wondered about how she would be received and about how we, as a family, would be treated.
"In general, the reaction to our family has been extremely positive. I'm not saying that our children have not run into issues, but if they have, they haven't made a lot of comments to us about them.
"I think this community is very tolerant."
Five of the White children, Eli, Hannah, Naomi, Anyah, and Asher, went to the Guy E. Rowe School, the Oxford Hills Middle School, and then graduated from Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School. Ethan is currently at the high school, and Garrett, at the Rowe School.
John said that he and Kathy made an effort to provide information about the racial and ethnic cultures of their adopted children.
"As much as we were able, we tried to introduce things from the Afro-American experience and about Vietnamese culture. It's very difficult, because, culturally, we are New England Yankees. And that's the way, to some extent, our kids are going to be perceived as they go out into the world.
"But we tried to give them a sense of where they've come from and make them feel good about their heritage. The schools have done a very good job of helping with this."