Students see American history through eyes of black soldier, ex

February 20, 2004|Herb Brock

Frank X. Walker wasn't there - but his poetry was.

James Hunn was there - but his ancestor wasn't.

Through Walker's poetry, students at Bate Middle School were able to see African-American history through his eyes and the words of a slave incorporated into his poems.

And through Hunn's prose, the students were able to visualize what it was like to be Hunn's relative as he fought with other former slaves for the Union during the Civil War.

The poems of Walker, a Danville native, and the prose of Hunn, a Danville resident, were among the readings and lectures given to Bate students Thursday during a day of classroom observances of Black History Month. Through the eyes of a soldier and explorer, the students received a different view of American



The job of bringing Walker's verse to life belonged to Lesley Barsotti, a Garrard County native who is an athletic trainer at Centre College. Barsotti said her boss, Jamey Gay, recenty asked the trainers if they would like to participate in Black History Month observances, and she thought it would be a good thing to do.

"It would be something that I could do for Black History Month and the community, and it also would be something where I could learn something along with the students," she said.

The mutually-beneficial experience for Barsotti and students came in Amy Bradshaw's sixth-grade reading class at Bate. Ernest Dunn was serving as substitute teacher, and on the blackboard, he wrote, "I am Mr. Dunn. You are quiet." With Barsotti's riveting reading of Walker's colorful work, though, Dunn's admonition wasn't necessary.

She read a selection of poems from Walker's "Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York." The poems are about a slave named York who accompanied George Rogers Clark and Merriwether Lewis on their historic cross-country expedition and exploration in the early1800's. Each poem is written in the language of an uneducated but insightful man, one who used poor grammar but whose simple words were rich in description of where he was, who he was and the world in which he was living.

A student who listened with particular interest to the readings was Caleb Phillips. He was proud to let Barsotti know that his mother, Cathy Westerfield Phillips, was a classmate of Walker's when he attended Danville schools.

Meanwhile, in Shauna Howard's eighth-grade early American history class, students were transported to a later, more famous era of the 19th century - the Civil War. Wearing a Union uniform, Hunn gave the class highlights of the entire era surrounding the war and the war itself, from 1860-65. But the local African-American historian focused on the role blacks played in the war - a role that was not the passive one of slaves being held in bondage but of the active one of freed blacks who were fighting for the Union in an effort to free their people.

Hunn told the class that while President Abraham Lincoln at least partly deserved his nickname as the "great emancipator," Lincoln in reality was ambivalent about slavery, seeing emancipation more as a political act than a moral one.

But Hunn said there was no question what motivated African-Americans at the time: they wanted an end to slavery and many who had been freed were willing to fight for that goal - including several of Hunn's ancestors. One was named William Hunn and others came from the Turner and Givens families, he said.

Hunn's ancestors joined thousands of other blacks at Camp Nelson in Garrard County, now the site of a national cemetery which then was a training ground for Union soldiers during the Civil War. From there, blacks, along with their white comrades, were dispatched to battles all over the South, including the climactic conflict of the war at Appomatox, Va.

On her way out of Howard's classroom and heading to her next class, Andresa Lofton paused to chat about Hunn's history lesson. She said she already had heard that blacks fought in the Civil War but she said that Hunn's lecture made her aware of just how many did fight and just how important their role was in helping the Union to defeat the Confederacy and, thus, cause the end of slavery.

"A lot of people think African-Americans just sat on the plantations waiting to be freed," she said. "It makes you proud to know that many of our ancestors actually fought and died in the cause to end slavery, to free blacks from those plantations."

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