By Stefanie Jackson – A Kiptopeke Elementary School educator and two of her former students participated in an online event with Gov. Ralph Northam Oct. 29 as he announced 10 new historical highway markers that will honor Black Americans who made history in Virginia.
These signs can be seen on Virginia roadsides and are easily recognized by their distinctive shape, silver background, black lettering, and the official state seal.
The Black history-makers to be honored on the new highway markers were nominated by Virginia elementary school students last year for a contest started last February by Chief Diversity Officer Janice Underwood, who attended the virtual event.
Shavonne Ruffin, Kiptopeke Elementary’s sixth grade special education case manager, also participated and described how she had attended a conference where she met Katherine Johnson, an African American mathematician who worked for NASA and helped make the Apollo 11’s moon landing in 1969 a success.
The story of Johnson and two other African American women who were NASA computers was told in the 2016 film, “Hidden Figures,” which the KES sixth-grade team showed in the classroom.
After seeing the movie, the sixth graders decided to nominate Johnson for the Black history contest.
Two of those students participated in the October online event: Maliyah Jones, who is now a Northampton Middle School student, and Kaela Joyner, who currently attends Great Neck Middle School in Virginia Beach.
Kaela described how the story of Katherine Johnson inspired her to become a mathematician, and Malia introduced Virginia’s first lady, Pamela Northam.
Other participants in the virtual program included Laurel Ridge Elementary School student Javier Rodriguez-Aragon, Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni, and Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler.
Black Americans are underrepresented on Virginia’s historical markers, with their stories being told on about 350 of 2,500 markers, said Gov. Northam.
Maura Keaney, a technology coach for Fairfax County Public Schools, discussed how her students discovered this inequity while they were learning Virginia history.
Every year, Keaney sends fourth-grade Virginia Studies students, dubbed the History Hunters, on a history scavenger hunt.
Part of the project is finding Virginia historical markers, either in person or online. A student gets one point for finding a marker, 10 points for writing a summary of the information provided, and bonus points for taking a selfie with the historical marker.
Last year, Virginia history students were impressed by the story of 16-year-old Barbara Johns, who led her peers on a strike in 1951 for equal education at their high school in Farmville.
The fourth graders were “shocked, sad, and even angry” that there was no historical marker recognizing Johns’ contributions to the civil rights movement.
They learned there were also few or no historical markers in Fairfax County recognizing the history of Native Americans or women.
Keaney researched how to get a new historical marker installed by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, but it would cost nearly $2,000 and would need to be approved by Farmville officials.
That led to a classroom discussion about “how money and power influence whose story gets told,” Keaney said.
She later learned about the Virginia Black history contest, and her students nominated Johns, who was selected to be featured on one of the new highway markers.
The 10 Black Virginians whose stories will be told on the new historical markers, and the future location of each marker, are:
Angela (a slave with no last name), Jamestown
Evelyn Butts, Norfolk
William H. Carney, Norfolk
Barbara Johns, Farmville
Katherine Johnson, Hampton
Ona Judge, Mount Vernon
Gowan Pamphlet, Williamsburg
Maggie Lena Walker, Richmond
Wyatt T. Walker, Chester/Petersburg
Camilla Ella Williams, Danville
Northam said, “It’s important that we value our historic and cultural sites and preserve them when we can, so that the next generation can see and really touch the past.”
Kiptopeke Elementary School students who nominated Katherine Johnson for the contest but did not appear on video for the announcement of the winners were Brendan McGee, Domingo Brown Jr., Isabella Jordan, and Naili Velez Colon.