Kings Glen Elementary School Students and Staff Making History, One Marker at a Time
Earlier this year, during a meeting of the Kings Glen Elementary School History Hunters and History Makers Club, young members shared their disbelief as they uncovered the lives of remarkable Virginians whose stories, they felt, deserved much greater recognition.
“How is it possible that we have not heard of Mary Bowser?” sixth grader Allison McKenzie remarked about a woman born enslaved in Richmond who later became a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War.
Step forward Maura Keaney, the Springfield school’s school-based technology specialist, resident history buff and founder of the after-school club for fourth, fifth and sixth graders.
Ms. Keaney, who has been with FCPS for ten years, is on a mission to shine a light on the lives of those extraordinary characters in our state’s past that have been either overlooked or misrepresented.
Late last month, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam paid tribute to the FCPS school’s time traveling detective work which resulted in the announcement of new historical roadside markers across our state.
Out of five markers up for grabs in the Black History Month Historical Marker Contest in 2021, the Kings Glen students’ suggestions were chosen for three of them.
During a virtual ceremony to celebrate the winners, Governor Northam thanked Keaney specifically for being a champion of the historical marker contest, working with more than 95 participating students during the first two years of the contest.
He added, “Thank you all for taking the time to participate in this contest and for your efforts to educate the public about Black Virginians who have transformed the commonwealth into a more compassionate, culturally rich place to live, work and learn.”
Christine Ritter, assistant principal at Kings Glen, spoke about the significance of Kings Glen’s virtual clubs during COVID-19 and how meaningful it was for students to work together to uncover and highlight overlooked stories from Black history in Virginia.
The History Hunters and History Makers club met on asynchronous Mondays and occasionally during the school’s “Gator Block,” intervention & enrichment period on weekday afternoons. Students submitted 23 nominations to the contest for eight different individuals.
Winning nominations written by Kings Glen students were for Mary Elizabeth Bowser, Dangerfield and Harriet Newby, and Dr. Edwin B. Henderson. Students researched and made their cases, writing their own unique marker submissions.
Multiple students got behind the nomination for Ms. Bowser, a woman who was born enslaved, educated in a free state, served as a missionary in Liberia, and returned to Virginia just before the outset of the Civil War, eventually working as a spy for the Union from Richmond.
Fourth grader Hailey Solar said, “I was amazed to learn about the courage of Mary Elizabeth Bowser - a true hero. By participating in this contest, I didn’t just learn about heroes from history, what I learned was that anything is possible and that I can make history.”
The marker will be placed in Richmond.
Fourth grader Valia Anderson was one of the students that nominated the Newbys, writing separate marker nominations for Dangerfield Newby and his wife Harriet Newby.
Daingerfield and Harriet Newby were held in slavery by different enslavers. When Daingerfield was able to live in the free state of Ohio, he worked heroically to save the money to purchase the freedom of his wife and children. When his attempts to buy his wife and children’s freedom were thwarted, he joined John Brown’s fateful raid on Harpers Ferry where he was killed on the first day of fighting. Love letters from Harriet, begging him to buy her and their children before they were sold further South, were found on his body.
Valia said, “I have learned so much this year about Virginia history from different perspectives and noticing whose perspectives might be missing from what we read. The story of Daingerfield and Harriet Newby meant a lot to me and most students don’t learn about them when they learn about John Brown’s Raid. They are Virginians who are important in history and it’s sad that so many people have never heard of them. I am proud that I was able to do something to try to change that.”
The marker will be placed in Culpeper County.
Fourth grader Sullivan Massaro joined the club with a determination to discover a little known sports hero from Virginia history. A basketball fan, Sullivan, aged nine, found a winner when he came upon former Falls Church resident Dr. Edwin B. Henderson, known as the “father of Black basketball''. Sullivan discovered that Henderson, an educator in DC Public Schools, introduced the sport to African Americans in DC and that he also played a pivotal role as a Civil Rights pioneer in Virginia, establishing the first rural chapter of the NAACP, serving as a leader in the effort to desegregate schools, and eventually serving as president of the NAACP’s Virginia Council.
He said, “Dr. Henderson spent his whole life trying to make things better not just for African Americans but for all. He wanted everyone to have equal opportunities to learn, play sports and just live.”
The marker will be installed in Falls Church.
Virginia’s historical highway marker program, which began in 1927 with installation of the first markers along U.S. 1, is the oldest historical marker program in the nation. This program recognizes and chronicles events, accomplishments, sacrifices, and personalities of historic importance to Virginia’s story. The Virginia Department of Transportation and the Department of Historic Resources manage the program.
There are more than 2,600 historical markers along Virginia’s roadways, but only 370 markers honor African Americans. Next year there will be five more.
Kings Glen students who wrote winning nominations for Mary Elizabeth Bowser were Allison McKenzie (6th grade), Larissa Chambers (5th grade), Hailey Solar (4th grade), and Sonia Alam (4th grade). Sullivan Massaro, a fourth grader, wrote the only nomination for Dr. Edwin B. Henderson. Valia Anderson wrote the only nomination for Harriet Newby, and 4th graders Sofia Rodriguez and Valia Anderson and 5th grader Michael Burgess wrote nominations for Dangerfield Newby.
Said Keaney, the History Hunters and History Makers Club sponsor, “Our little club is an example of the kind of meaningful, deeper learning that has happened in FCPS during COVID. In fact, due to the fact that elementary schools don’t have late buses for after school clubs, asynchronous Mondays were a unique opportunity to host a cross-grade collaborative student interest club like this. Students who love history were able to connect with each other virtually even when school buildings were closed, and we are hoping to leverage technology next year to be able to continue this kind of learning beyond the school day.”
The winning historical markers are currently being manufactured and will be erected next year. Students hope to be able to take a field trip to see the results of their hard work.
- Hunters Woods Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences - On August 3, Governor Northam announced four students and a teacher from Hunters Woods Elementary School successfully nominated W.W. Yen, who will now be honored with a roadside marker in Charlottesville. Yen graduated from the University of Virginia in 1900, where he was the first international student to earn a bachelor’s degree and the first Chinese student to earn a degree. One of China’s key early 20th century leaders, Yen served as premier five times and held a series of important cabinet and diplomatic posts. The University of Virginia now has a dorm and scholarship fund named after him.
- Historical Markers Contest - Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) will host an historical markers contest with a focus on African American history in Fairfax County. The contest will be open in January 2022.
- Laurel Ridge Elementary - Last year, students from Laurel Ridge Elementary School successfully petitioned for a roadside marker dedicated to Ona Judge, a woman born into slavery at George Washington's Mount Vernon. Judge escaped during one of Washington’s many extended residences in Philadelphia as president. She successfully resisted Washington’s attempts to recover her and ultimately married and raised a family in New Hampshire (Fairfax County). The effort of the students has resulted in the marker that was erected earlier this month close to the estate.