Trading Black Histories: Louisiana, California middle schoolers meet by chance while competing in national research contest
SILVER SPRINGS, MD—In life, there are many times when things happen and very few words can convey what’s occurred. That’s exactly what happened when two studentsfrom opposite ends of the United States happened to cross paths while competing in the 2018 National History Day contest held at the University of Maryland, College Park.
The young researchers had an interesting experience that will likely be etched in their memory for the rest of their lives when Condoleezza Semien, of Louisiana, and Thiana Aklikokou, of California, met.
Both women share a fervent love for Black history and research which led to them winning National History Day contests at their school, district, and state levels in order to advance to the semi-finals in Maryland.
More than 3,000 students from across the nation and countries like Guam, Korea, and China advanced to the final competition, which was held June 10-14 to culminate a year-long academic program focused on historical research, interpretation and creative expression for 6th to 12th grade students. Of those students was Semien, a seventh grader, and Aklikokou, an eighth grader.
In April, Semien placed first in the state NHD junior presentation division with the oral presentation, “But You Claim that I’m Violent: A Lesson on Influence and the Black Panther Party for Self Defense of 1966.”
“I wanted to relay the truth about the Black Panther Party and how their actions turned into programs and policies for our nation,” Semien told national judges. “We’re not taught these things in school. When a group came to Baton Rouge to protest the Alton Sterling shooting, I wanted to know why they were trying to connect themselves to the Panthers when their messages where drastically different.”
Founded in California during the racially-charged 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense galvanized as a response to police brutality in California. While the Black Panther Party maintained a focus on armed self-defense, the organization did not uphold resorting to violence to resolve issues, Semien explained.
“Historical texts do not record this truth,” Semien said before explaining that the Black Panther Party’s relentless efforts ultimately impacted federal food and health policies.
“They developed more than 30 social programs over the span of 10 years and are actually responsible for many of the federal food, head start, and sickle cell anemia programs still being utilized today,” she said.
The Black Panthers thrived, expanding to more than 63 U.S. chapters that provided free clothing, grocery, and breakfast programs, community protection patrol to combat violence and police brutality, free health clinics, political education classes, ambulatory services, and screening people for sickle cell disease, free libraries that primarily housed works by Black authors, legal assistance and early education programs.
“But you claim that they’re violent!” Semien said ending her presentation during the semi-finals. One judge responded, “You really did a great job dispelling myths surrounding the Black Panthers!”
The 12-year-old was later told she’d earned National Honorable Mention and placed second in her class of competitors—just shy of reaching the final rounds, said Adam Foreman, NHD state representative and student programs specialist at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
On the same day, Aklikokou, 14, presented a historical paper on the 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott–Semien’s hometown.
While touring the United States Capitol as guests of Congressman Garret Graves, Aklikokou and Semien met.
“My grandmother remembered seeing (Thiana) on television talking about her research, and she introduced us to each other. She was excited, telling Thiana about my research and telling me about Thiana’s,” Semien said.
There, the girls shared their amazement that so few people knew the history that they had researched about each other’s states. In 2015, Semien danced in the Manship Theatre’s production of “The Fading Line: A Commemoration of the 1953 Baton Rouge Bus Boycott.”
“I wasn’t surprised that people in California didn’t know, but I came to Baton Rouge and people still had no clue what I was talking about; it was a little surprising,” said Aklikokou.
Most history books only detail the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott which has often been regarded as the first large-scale United States demonstration against segregation. However, it actually wasn’t the first of its kind.
In 1953, Blacks in Baton Rouge and the Reverend T. J. Jemison organized the first large-scale boycott of a southern city’s segregated bus system. Two and a half years later, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. conferred with Jemison about tactics used in Baton Rouge, and King applied those lessons when planning the bus boycott that ultimately defeated segregation.
“I found it interesting that nobody talked about it at all. It was always the Montgomery (bus) boycott. But no one ever talked about what Baton Rouge did which was set it up for Montgomery,” she said.
Earlier this month, Aklikokou traveled through Louisiana and Mississippi for more in-depth research on her topic of choice just before heading to Maryland.
Aklikokou and Semien’s chance encounter in the nation’s capitol proves that spontaneous moments in life are often much sweeter than the ones strategically planned.
By Meaghan Ellis
The Drum Contributing Writer