Programs teaches history, legacy of black inventorsWritten by Brigitta Burks | News Editor | BBurks@toledofreepress.com
When students began the Woodberry Park Inventors & Art program, they listed Eminem, Kanye West, Lil’ Wayne and Michael Jordan as black inventors. Some students thought a patent was waiting person.
Now, they can rattle off a list of black inventors and their contributions with ease and a smile.
“What I get out of Woodberry Park is the vast majority of my confidence. I never knew that black people invented all the stuff that they did,” said Nakeya Brown, a sophomore at Bowsher High School.
Brown was one of about 15 students at a joint presentation of Woodberry Park and the Self Expression Teen Theater (SETT) on Feb. 16 at Kent Branch Library. SETT is a teen community theater that presents on issues like domestic violence and drug abuse.
Both Woodberry Park and SETT meet at Frederick Douglass Community Association at 1001 Indiana Ave. Warren Woodberry, a community activist, reached out to SETT when he realized the two programs were a “natural marriage.”
Woodberry and his wife Yolanda put on classes for other programs like SETT and travel to area schools to give students knowledge on inventors, art, writing and theater. The couple funded Woodberry Park’s startup out of their own pockets. The program officially kicked off at the start of 2012.
“It really started from our interest in finding a contribution to the community and kids who needed something extra,” Woodberry said. The two worked hard to create their colorful, painting-filled classroom, which includes a stage and holds 70 people.
At the Feb. 16 presentation, Woodberry said schools haven’t done enough to teach students about black inventors.
“This is your history. You’ve been deprived,” Woodberry told the group. “It’s our fault and now it’s your fault if you don’t go further.”
The group of teens seemed more than willing to go further when they presented as Madam C.J. Walker, creator of hair products for black women, Garrett Morgan, inventor of the gas mask, and Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker.
The presentations included biographical information and, of course, some humor.
“This just touches my heart to see all these people come out to look at me,” said the young woman playing Johnson. “I call it the Super Soaker, because it soaks people superly.”
The presentations are a different take on Black History Month than the usual fare of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., said Brother Washington Muhammad, program coordinator for SETT.
Traditional curricula also tend to focus on just a handful of black inventors, Woodberry said.
“When I was in school I got George Washington Carver (inventor of peanut butter) and that was it,” he recalled, adding that most don’t know that Carver also invented methods of soil enrichment.
“We have not learned a quarter, a pinch of what we’ve done,” Woodberry said. “Our history did not begin when we hit this shore.”
This could be attributed to the fact that blacks didn’t always get credit for their work and that they were often unable to get patents on their inventions.
Woodberry’s teaching has led the students to be more conscious about their history. Kathleen Williams, a seventh-grader at Imani Learning Academy, was upset about recent efforts to remove parts of black history from textbooks.
“I’m gonna write a real nasty letter,” she said. Williams, who played Walker during the skit, said the inventor of hair products was her favorite black innovator.
“I love my hair,” she said and smiled.
Woodberry Park has inspired other students to take a stab at inventing. Paulette Rice, a home-schooled 15-year-old, said she and her sister are aiming to make it rich off a big invention, “but we can’t think of anything yet.”
The program is also a hit among teachers in the classrooms Woodberry visits. “Mr. Woodberry did an awesome job presenting these inventors. More importantly, his introduction sparked interest and curiosity among several of my students,” wrote Tamara Smith, a science teacher at Woodward High School, in a letter praising Woodberry Park.
In the future, Woodberry plans to include documentary making, book clubs and more in his program. Ideally, he would also like to provide a GED program, a program for children under suspension and mentoring for students. However, Woodberry Park needs money, computers and other equipment for these endeavors, he said.
To donate or get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (419) 508-0776. Visit www.woodberryparkinventors.com to learn more.