Black history, women's history intersect at Uniondale school's 'wax museum'
"Welcome to the Blacks in Wax Museum," said "Sidney Poitier" as he greeted guests Wednesday at the two-room exhibit space at Northern Parkway School. "Please enjoy our exhibit, and don't touch the wax figures."
Poitier was actually Olamide Otulaja, age 10; the wax figures were his fellow fifth-graders at the Uniondale elementary school; and the exhibit emphasized the accomplishments of Black women in politics, the arts and the civil rights movement as the school segued from marking Black History Month to celebrating Women's History Month.
Guests could take in "wax" likenesses of political titans like Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress and the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for president from a major political party; Stacey Abrams, the voting rights activist currently running for governor of Georgia; Vice President Kamala Harris; and civil rights activists Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, Mamie Till and others.
Also on display was information about performing artists like Poitier, the Academy-award-winning actor and civil rights activist who died in January.
The Blacks in Wax Museum is a project of the school's fifth-grade class.
"Our students have studied historical figures, with the theme of women behind the movement," said Shielah Jefferson-Isaac, assistant principal at the school, which covers prekindergarten through fifth grade.
"Our 'wax figures' are part of the 'dream chasers,'" she said of the fifth-graders who have been together since second grade. "So they are a community within a community. The teachers are known as 'dream keepers,'" she said, adding, "Our goal is to make sure our students have rich experiences and are empowered to be leaders."
Chanda Smart-Smith, a fifth-grade teacher, said that in February, during Black History Month, the goal was to celebrate "women behind the [civil rights] movement."
"We transitioned it into Women's History Month to celebrate African-American women — past, present and future," she said.
The relevant details about the historical figures each student portrayed were displayed on a printout affixed to a lectern, along with a QR code — a type of bar code that contains information about the subject — that the students developed, their teachers said.
A class of first-graders sat on the floor with their iPads and, through the QR codes, listened to the voices of fifth-graders recite some highlights of the lives of the historical figures, such as Colvin, who as a 15-year-old in Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person and move to the back of the bus, nine months before Rosa Parks famously did the same.
Several students stood perfectly still behind their lectern, without speaking — they were wax figures, after all — their clothing often evoking the era or style of the historical person.
The student portraying Meghan Markle, or the Duchess of Sussex, wore a "fascinator" hat, which female British royalty are known for sporting, while the student standing in for Harris wore a white pantsuit and pearls, sartorial touches the vice president is known for.
Isabella Medrano, 10, portrayed Parks. "I wanted to play her because she was one of the first people to stand up for themselves," Isabella said during a break.
Standing next to Isabella was Tamia Tobin, 10, who played Colvin. She said Colvin's decision not to give up her seat on that Montgomery bus "means a lot to me because she stood up for herself and justice for Black people."