Toni Harp & “Toni Harp” Take History’s Stage

Melissa Bailey PhotosNew Haven’s first female mayor told her story on one school stage—and a young understudy portrayed the same historic part on a second school stage across town.

The two Toni Harp performances took place Friday at two K-8 schools, a charter school in the Dwight neighborhood and a neighborhood school in Fair Haven, as Black History Month came to a close and made way for Women’s History Month.

Harp (pictured), New Haven’s first female mayor and first black female mayor, spoke Friday before over 400 cross-legged K-4 students in the gymnasium of Amistad Academy Elementary School at 130 Edgewood Ave.

Harp quizzed kids on some black history facts.

“There was a ship that came into New Haven Harbor,” she began. What was the ship called?

Lots of hands rose. The ship, it turned out, has the same name as their school. “Amistad” stands for friendship, one kid announced. It’s also the vessel in which Mende slaves mutinied, were captured, held captive in New Haven, and were famously freed by trial. (Editor’s note: The ship landed in New London, not New Haven.)

Next question: Did kids know that New Haven is home to some of the stops on the underground railroad? Escaped slaves found refuge at the parsonage hall at Varick Memorial AME Church on their way north, Harp said.

And did the kids know that Constance Baker Motley, who authored the landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, lived right here in New Haven, just around the corner on Garden Street?

Motley went on to become the first female African-American federal court judge.

As the next exhibit in the history lesson, she presented herself.

“I never thought I would be mayor,” Harp said.

“We were a poor family, but my father believed that even more important than riches was a good education.”

Her father moved to Utah for college so that he wouldn’t be discriminated against on account of his dark skin. (Click here to read more about that and about Harp’s Utah upbringing.)

Harp said though her family was poor, she got a solid education and went on to break ground as a pioneering black woman in Hartford. Harp was the second ever black female state senator; for 20 years she was the only black woman in the senate, she said.

Now, she told the kids, she’s the first female mayor in New Haven’s entire 375-year history.

She offered her life example as a model for the students, nearly all of whom are black or Hispanic.

“If you work really hard in school, if you get a good education, you too will find ways to make history,” she said.

Harp spoke between an adult drum troupe and a student karate performance.

After her speech, several African-American women, including grandmother and Dixwell activist Ruth Henderson, crowded around Harp and asked her to pose for a cell-phone photos.

Toni Harp, Take II

An hour later, Johnae McFadden (pictured at the top of the story) took the stage wearing a giant sign around her neck that read, “TONI HARP.”

Johnae stood on the stage of Fair Haven School. She lined up with other students bearing the names of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X; poet Elizabeth Alexander; and Michelle and Barack Obama.

Behind them stood vivid color portraits of those public figures, as well as South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela. The school’s three art teachers, Angela Leone, Vanessa Glenn, and Nicole Bimonte, did the artwork; students in a previous year painted a striking portrait of King. Harp did not attend the event to see her portrait appear in the middle of the stage, between the Obamas and the civil rights leaders.

In Harp’s absence, Johnae, who’s in the 2nd grade, approached the microphone wearing a blue skirt and glasses.

“I am Toni Harp,” Johnae said. The second black mayor in New Haven history, she announced.

Johnae and her fellow public figures asked the audience: “What legacy will you leave?”

“Legacies” was the theme of the 45-minute performance, the 6th annual African Heritage Celebration, which combined dance, video and speech. The school chose “African heritage” because it has many students who were born in Africa; it does not have many African-American kids who were born in the U.S. In addition to serving as a K-8 neighborhood school for city’s Latino community, Fair Haven serves as the city’s official “newcomer center” for students from other countries. About a hundred of the 800 students there have been in the U.S. for less than a year.

Benjamin Bietege, a newcomer from the West African nation of Angola, learned about MLK a week earlier in music class and performed the part on stage.

He also channeled his African heritage in an opening performance on the drums.

Jousabeth Lopez (pictured), an alumna of Fair Haven School now studying dance at the Educational Center for the Arts, returned to her school to choreograph a piece for the event. Kesa Whitaker, who taught Jousabeth dance through the Ballet Haven after-school program, asked her to arrange a dance based on the song “Endangered Species” by Diane Reaves.

The dance she arranged is about “women in danger” from abusive men who seek refuge in the jungle, and “become powerful,” Jousabeth said.

Jonna Bacote danced the lead part in a piece choreographed by fellow 7th-grader Mariyah Jimenez to the song, “Wonder” by Emelie Sandé ...

... then beckoned 1st and 2nd-graders onstage for what Whitaker dubbed a “flash mob” dance crescendo.

Janine Irokoze, who’s in the 7th grade, choreographed a piece that drew on her experience dancing and drumming in the east-African country of Burundi. Her family fled the country when she was 10 during a civil war. The piece starts with a traditional “call,” which she came up with from memory.

It’s a “call to get everybody ready” to dance, she said. From the front of a V-shaped formation of dancers, Janine issued the call. Her fellow students replied. The rest of the dance is set to music that Janine said includes words of Swahili, French, Kirundi and Kinyarwanda, two languages spoken in her homeland. Those are just some of the more than half-dozen languages she knows.

She said the dance and music “just reminds me where I was from, the things I have been through.”

Some of the dance moves are typical of Ghana, Burundi and Congo, she said. They are “from my culture.” Janine, an aspiring dancer, singer and model, shared the moves in rehearsals over the course of three days.

After the performance, Janine collected hugs. She was beaming.

She said she enjoyed the chance to “share my culture” with the school.

“It just makes me proud.”

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posted by: Lady Li on March 3, 2014  10:03am

“There was a ship that came into New Haven Harbor,” she began. What was the ship called?

Lots of hands rose. The ship, it turned out, has the same name as their school. “Amistad” stands for friendship, one kid announced. It’s also the vessel in which Mende slaves mutinied, were captured, landed in New Haven, and were famously freed by trial.
- - -
The only U.S. port or harbor the original ship La Amistad entered was New London. It was, I believe, auctioned from there and renamed.
There being many other ships that came into New Haven Harbor, technically the question was wrong; but what is a group of children to do when they know what answer is expected whether it is right or wrong?

posted by: ms.mary on March 3, 2014  2:46pm

Fair Haven School you rock !!!!! you inspire us all to believe in your dreams and to go for them!!!!!