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Educating youth about African American leaders key to self-awareness, growth

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When 11-year-old Aubrey Neville is asked about her recent Freetown Village summer camp experience, she quickly rattles off a list of her favorite activities: learning how to cook and play chess, dancing, singing and seeing new places during field trips. 

Another top favorite? Learning about abolitionist Harriet Tubman, said the Eastwood Middle School sixth grader.

“I know a lot about Harriet Tubman,” Aubrey said proudly.

Freetown Village will host its annual “Making a Difference” gala Nov. 16 at the Madam Walker Legacy Center Ballroom, which will honor four African American leaders who served as role models during its summer camp. Each year, up to 60 campers ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade, interact with the local leaders as well as a community of family members and friends who watch them perform a play each week.

Aubrey’s mother, Ashley Sholar, said she first enrolled her daughter in the program’s summer camp as a kindergartener. She continued to sign Aubrey up for the camp in subsequent years.

“I really see her growth as an engaged learner,” Scholar says. “Aubrey has really evolved as far as knowing who she is and where she came from.”

Meeting interesting African American leaders teaches her not to ever see barriers. Learning while surrounded by people who care about you also matters.

“It’s a really loving community,” Aubrey said. “They make you feel loved and safe. It is like another family.”  

More than a summer camp

These are the types of experiences Indianapolis educator Ophelia Wellington envisioned nearly 40 years ago. Wellington found herself thinking a lot about the importance of teaching yesterday’s stories, and the frustration teachers often face to keep students’ attention.

After more pondering, Wellington recalled, one question challenged her most: “How do you make history relevant to a contemporary person?”   

Knowing people of any age relate to stories about people, she envisioned teaching history through reenactments. In an effort to make that vision reality, Wellington applied for and received a grant through the Indiana Humanities Council. Efforts by other educators, along with artists and historians helped bring to life the Circle City’s post-Civil War history and the impact that time period had on African American lives in Indiana.

Though Freetown Village is a fictional community, reenactments are based on real life in the Old Fourth Ward, an actual area of Indianapolis where 3,000 African Americans resided.

Audiences learn how Post Civil War freedom allowed African American families to live their lives without fear.

Finally, they could freely work, marry and raise families. To share these stories, rich with colorful moments and beautiful messages, performers visit schools, churches, theaters and civic clubs. To date, reenactments and one-character performances have been provided in 80 of Indiana’s 92 counties.

African American culture, heritage and societal contributions are also celebrated through collections of artifacts and art, as well as music of the time, performed by the Freetown Village Singers.

“United States history is segregated, taught in a vacuum,” Wellington said. “Black history is American history and it’s relevant to everyone.”

African American history lessons that engage youth

That passion for teaching African American history is equally present in the summer camp curriculum.

“Children don’t often realize they are learning since they are having fun,” said Marriam Umar, Freetown Village program director for 20 years. “We are getting them ready for the next semester.”

Summer camp is “low tech,” Umar adds.

“We provide the children with a break from screens,” she said

When kids and teachers aren’t distracted by testing preparation in classroom settings, creativity blooms.

“And that means creativity for teachers as well as parents,” Umar said.

Through the learning experiences her daughter has had at summer camp, Sholar sees how memorizing lines for a play helps her retain academically. Performing in front of an audience has given her child self-confidence. Learning about leaders in the African American community and meeting some of them when they visit camp also has an impact.

Freetown Village presents its annual fundraising gala in honor of Legacy Series honorees Olon Dotson, Eunice Trotter, Larry Williams Jr., and Felicia Brokaw.

What: Freetown Village “Making a Difference” Fundraising Gala

When: 6 p.m. Nov. 16

Where: Madam Walker Legacy Center Ballroom

Cost: $50

For more information and to buy tickets, visit eventbrite.com.

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