25 Feb 2019


Lessons in Courage and “Youthful Folly” from Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton surrounded by Stuart Hobson Middle School’s 6th grade class, 2/25/19. Photo by Maria Helena Carey

The 6th grade class at Stuart Hobson Middle School was treated to an inspiring town hall with Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton today, February 25, as a culmination to this year’s Black History Month. During an hourlong session, kicked off by the Stuart Hobson Middle School choir’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” Norton fielded questions from students in John Thrift’s 6th grade Social Studies class. The town hall was moderated by 6th graders Tatum Primus and Zaire Wilson, who did an excellent job of calling on their fellow students as well as asking questions of their own about Eleanor Holmes Norton’s life– specifically her work as a student activist during the early 1960s.

The students asked questions ranging from Norton’s personal experience as a student in a segregated DC elementary school, Bruce-Monroe Elementary, and how it felt to be aware of attending a school as a young child only because of your race, to her decision to become a lawyer while in college– a decision inspired by her firsthand experience doing sit-ins and other community organization work. She also talked about her work with John Lewis and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, SNCC. She talked candidly about her lack of fear as she went into parts of the state of Mississippi that had never “been touched by the Civil Rights movement,” and how hard it was for organizers such as Medgar Evers to get any students in the Jackson, MS, area to participate in demonstrations such as sit-ins. She also spoke about her role models– women like Ella Baker, who worked just as hard alongside men, but who did not get as much credit as them. She also fondly remembered her mentor, Bayard Rustin, who organized the March on Washington and with whom she got to work closely. When asked by one of the students about a particularly poignant memory, she mentioned standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Rustin, wondering how many people would show up to the March. She recalls feeling a deep sense of awe, seeing how the grounds slowly started holding more people than the eye could see.

Norton was engaging and thoughtfully answered the students’ questions. She was also very complimentary of what the kids asked, and praised them for their poignancy. In closing, Norton remarked, “I look at my life as a life of opportunity, not obstacles.” She encouraged the children to educate themselves and learn more about DCTAG, the tuition assistance program for District residents and an act she helped create in Congress.

When I asked Del. Norton how it felt to talk to a class of young District residents, she took a pause and then said, “It was weird– weird to look out and see both white and black faces, together in a DC school.”

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