Sixth-graders Alia Jones and Joseph Saunders had learned that the former Goffe Street Special School for Colored Children —now the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Masons at Sperry and Goffe—was the city’s first school for African-American kids and adults.
They also had learned the school opened up shortly after the Civil War. They certainly knew what the Civil War was about.
However, they did not know that only white teachers were allowed in the early years. That really bothered the African-American students, who set about to make some changes.
The Brennan-Rogers Magnet School kids got that insight and others Wednesday morning from Co-Op Arts and Humanities senior Zherah Collier.
Collier along with fellow Co-Op seniors Zasha Rodriguez and Tamara Alexander were leading their enhanced version of a Walk New Haven tour of Lower Dixwell. Walk New Haven, a series of cultural walking tours of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods, emerged last year as a program of the Ethnic Heritage Center, with guides, online information, and published booklets.
Wednesday’s was the first tour in a special pilot program organized by Walk New Haven’s mover and shaker Rhoda Zahler Samuel in partnership with city schools social studies supervisor Sandra Clark.
The three seniors opted into a seven-week tutorial taught by Samuel and others on seven Mondays after school. Their job was not only to learn the material as presented in the guides, but also to enhance it with their own additional research. Then, in this the first presentation as tour guides and mentors to younger kids, they explained what they had learned.
“They had to delve deeper, developing research skills,” Clark said.
That is in partial fulfillment of the new C-3 National Council of Social Studies national standards for high school social studies
That was why and how Zherah Collier found herself standing on the steps of St. Lukes’ Episcopal Church, founded in 1884, explaining how Whalley, Goffe, and Dixwell (avenues and street, that is) got their names. “They were hiding in the cave, well, because when people are trying to kill you, that’s what you have to do,” she said.
“How great is it to have mentors and role models in learning,” Clark said.
Zasha Rodriguez, who would lead the tour at sites farther along, said that her preparation gave her an insight into what all immigrants have in common, whether Italian, Irish, or Jewish. “They all marked their spot with a sense of community, by sticking together,” she said.
Alia’s and Joseph’s teacher, Tara Thomas, had been doing a social studies unit on New Haven’s past and present when she heard about the pilot program and signed on.
She had taken the kids previously to the Goffe Street School, but not had the opportunity to enter it; or to hear from high school mentors to whom the kids were paying rapt attention; or to hear from Ed Cherry, a local Dixwell legend as the architect of the Q House and the man who has helped get sites such as the Goffe Street Special School on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Colored teachers weren’t employed here,” Zhera explained to the kids in an animated voice and with only brief checks of her note cards. She came by the role naturally, as her mom is a history reacher at King Robinson, she said.
“They wanted to learn from people who looked like them,” she added.
On the way out of the school and onto the tour’s next stop, Alia Jones reflected on what Zhera had said, and it made sense. At that time, white people thought blacks inferior. If that were the case with a white teacher, how would that have made the kids feel? she said.
Clark praised Thomas for finding the program and making it fit into her curriculum and she said the next step is to share the outcomes with colleagues.