First Annual Black History Month Panel Spreads Awareness about Racial Inequality


A panel of successful African American and Haitian pillars of the local community, including Norwich City Councilman Derell Wilson ‘10, Hartford’s Poet Laureate Frederick Knowles ‘91, Dance Instructor Lashawn Cunningham ‘03, NFA Corporator Sheila Hayes ‘76, and NFA EL Intervention Specialist Enock Petit-Homme ‘05, celebrated Black History Month in the Slater Auditorium.

Karen Lau, Editor

From Haiti and Cape Verde to China and Puerto Rico, Norwich Free Academy students come from all around the globe, speaking a plethora of diverse languages. However, a lack of diversity in the faculty and staff still permeates the culture of the school. In celebration of Black History Month, students tackled injustices such as prison reform, workplace discrimination, and racial profiling at the Black History Month Panel in Slater Auditorium. The Robertsine Duncan NAACP Youth Council organized the panel with the help of Leo Butler, Director of the Diversity Department, and Laura Howe, Secretary of Student Affairs.

“What Black History Month means to me is 365 [days per year]. As long as I exist, my history and heritage exist. My family lineage comes from the Deep South. My family is from Tuskegee, Alabama. My great grandfather and great-great-grandfather were a part of the Tuskegee Experiment. Growing up in a southern household, what happened [in the past] is still pertinent today. What was going on back then still goes on right now,” explained panelist Lashawn Cunningham, an entrepreneur who founded the Blooming Into Greatness dance group.

Celebrated in February, Black History Month honors notable black figures for their efforts to change society through activism, the arts, and culture. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a renowned historian, and Jesse E. Moorland, a minister, are the fathers of Black History Month. Cunningham was joined by fellow pillars of the community including Councilman Derell Wilson, Professor Frederick Knowles, community activist Shiela Hayes, and educator Enock Petit-Homme. These panelists, who are all NFA graduates, explored the core of their humanity, their race, and the fundamental impacts of living in America as a black person.

“My grandmother, who moved from down south during the Great Migration and brought my mother and my aunt [with her], and then raised 18 grandchildren, [is the hero who inspires me.] By being a byproduct of her legacy, what she endured, and how she had taken that strength and her backbone to allow [my siblings and I] to start on a level playing field, has been incredibly inspiring,” stated Frederick Knowles.

Knowles is a professor of English at Three Rivers Community College and he is Hartford’s first poet laureate. As a child, his passion for poetry was ignited by the growth of African American artists in the music industry during the 1980s.

“When I was eight years old, this new genre of music hit the scene. No one had ever heard of it before. Public Enemy came around in 1985 and uses lyrics that are packed with social and political content, like the philosophies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. [The music] talks about black love, self-love, and self-pride. [Music groups like Public Enemy] used their artistry to propel social movements,” commented Knowles.

Beyond music, panelists were inspired by historical figures that paved the way for equal rights in education, housing, and transportation systems during the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Constance Baker Motley were a few of the thousands of advocates for civil rights. Some unsung heroes are hidden from the pages of a history textbook.

“The hero that I looked up to was Angela Davis. She was a very strong, articulate, intelligent black female who was an activist. She wanted us to integrate, and she challenged the system and became politically involved,” stated Shiela Hayes. She is the President of the Norwich Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the adviser of the Robertsine Duncan NAACP Youth Council.

Panelists spoke about crucial political issues impacting American society today, such as prison reform and criminal justice. According to a 2015 study conducted by the NAACP, although African Americans and Hispanics comprise 32% of the American population, they represent 56% of prisoners. Cunningham raised her voice against the prison industrial complex.

“Many black men are more likely to be arrested, sentenced, and imprisoned. Many African Americans remain situated in communities with the lowest prospects for upward mobility. This reflects the consequences of United States policies that shape where people live and the opportunities in those communities. We, as a people, must acknowledge the problem of racial injustice. The rest of the world is watching in disbelief as we continue to pretend that our nation is whole,” explained Cunningham.

Many of the issues African Americans face today originate from slavery. Although the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, was ratified in 1865, the wounds of slavery are still fresh in the hearts of many.

“Slavery has been abolished for quite some time, but we are still grieving. If we go back to history, Africans were not the only people who were forced to migrate to this country. If we talk about inequality, Africans have faced the most adversity and disparities from the get-go,” stated Enock Petit-Homme, who is an English as a Second Language intervention specialist.

Today, the reverberations of racial inequality are sometimes felt in classrooms across America. Panelists discussed the obstacles they overcame as a result of prejudice and bias.

“During sophomore year, one of the hardest classes was organic chemistry. I had one of the top two scores in the class. I remember my professor [accusing me of] cheating off of the test, and he made me retake the test. I scored a higher score the second time than I did the first time…I marched over to his supervisor’s office and got involved on my campus to understand the importance of having a diverse faculty. I had the same opportunities as my other classmates and just because I got the highest score, does not mean I am lesser than my other classmates,” expressed Councilman Derell Wilson.

Students in the audience also had the opportunity to ask questions to the panelists. Students asked if the panelists had encountered discrimination in the workplace.

“[During a job interview,] the person that was interviewing me asked, “you don’t really like to write, do you?” I said to him, “What do you mean that I ‘don’t really like to write?’ I have double-majored, I can write.” He said, “Your people don’t really do well in writing.”…I never forgot about that interview and made sure that I worked my way up, to the point where I became his boss. I took that negative experience and made sure that those kinds of interviews are no longer allowed to happen…When you face adversity and racism, have a plan as to what you are going to do to affect change so it will not happen to anyone else,” urged Shiela Hayes.

Racial profiling and “stop and frisk” are forms of discrimination in which an authority figure exploits one’s race as the grounds for accusing them of having committed a crime. Today, the criminal justice system is riddled with cases of racial profiling against African Americans as law enforcement officers target people of color.

“Our car was pulled over. The first [words] out of the [officer’s] mouth was, “I can tell that you guys smoke.” Everyone, including all of my best friends, did not smoke. You could not smell any smoke in the car. It was the fact that it was the only car on this road trip that had all black males in it…We found out that the color and model of our car was not the same as the car that he was looking for…That individual had ten other complaints about stopping the wrong car…He was later removed from his job,” explained Wilson.

Shiela Hayes discussed the importance of open communication about race and thoughtful dialogue between teachers and students, especially in diverse schools. She stressed the need for teachers to provide a safe atmosphere for all students, no matter their race or nationality.

“Caucasian teachers had said to me, “We don’t see color.” [To them, I ask], how can you not see a beautiful person? How can you not see what their hair is like? How can you not see how they are dressed? How can you tell me that you do not see color and that you are colorblind? The real issue is [the educators] have difficulty having a conversation about race [with their students],” remarked Hayes.

Although both Hayes and Wilson faced challenges, they did not let racism stop them from achieving their goals. Wilson became one of the youngest people elected to the Norwich City Council in 2019, after running for Mayor of Norwich in 2017. He is also a former recipient of the prestigious Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Scholarship and former president of the Robertsine Duncan NAACP Youth Council. Wilson and the panelists gave encouraging advice to the students of Norwich Free Academy to carry with them following the panel.

“You’re never too young to lead anything that you put your mind, your energy, and or focus on. Age is not a factor. Race is not a factor. It’s how hard you work, how determined you are, and if you are willing to take the risk [that matters],” commented Wilson.

“Have a poem, have a saying, have something that means something to you…My poem was “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. When I reflect back and when I have to make those decisions at the fork in the road, the road I take is the road that I have chosen and I am going to make the most of it. It will be the road less taken,” expressed Hayes.

“Challenge yourself. Step outside of your comfort zone…Sit with new people in the cafeteria. If you have the willingness to learn about each other, you will realize that you are not that different from each other below the surface. Make new friends. Get involved in the community. Get involved in your school. Try to connect and have a passion for something…and take steps to [achieve your goal] and you will be fine,” asserted Petit-Homme.

The Black History Month Panel spread awareness about significant issues faced by communities of color and reflected the diverse experiences of esteemed panelists. Inspired by the panelists’ remarks, many NFA students will move forward with a greater sense of pride in their heritage and feel a stronger connection to their cultural identity.