Redan High history teacher honors Black History Month with art exhibit

historical photo with text on easelFor one veteran history teacher and DeKalb County School District (DCSD) educator, the best way to study the past is not hearing about it or reading about it, but seeing it with one’s own eyes.

Redan High School history teacher Jawan Olajuwon has developed an engaging way of celebrating Black History Month—an art gallery made up of more than 20 illustrations. The thought-provoking display, which includes supplemental information explaining each image, stands in Redan’s cafeteria alongside Black History-themed banners.

Throughout the month of February, students were guided through the gallery to learn about the theme of “Migrations.” Olajuwon says this theme inspired him to seek out images and develop the gallery.

“I tried to find pictures that show the cause and effect of migration,” Olajuwon said. “I’ve seen some of these pictures in Ebony and Jet magazine. Students analyze the historical pictures; instead of just talking about [history], we’re looking at it. We’re able to capture the essence, and really understand the movement of 6 million African Americans.”

Being limited to 20-something images, Olajuwon chose to focus on the migration from 1910 to 1970, where African Americans moved to the northern United States en masse before making a tumultuous return to the south to places such as Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, and other cities. While the gallery does include pictures from the 1600s, it primarily depicts a more modern side of American history.

Jawan OlajuwonImages of seemingly normal, everyday life in Chicago or Harlem are contrasted with families in poverty in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Pictures show families leaving harsh, overcrowded school houses in the south for smaller classrooms in the north, and farms for factories.

Certain images—those depicting lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan—help provide a historical context.

“Lynching was at an all-time high in 1910 and 1920. More than 350 lynchings took place leading up to the 1970s,” said Olajuwon. “It’s considered to be one of the main causes of that migration. Some of these images are graphic, but they’re effective.”

As students browse the gallery in history an English classes, some are tasked with interpreting the pictures through writing. Others are expected to know the overall causes for this often overlooked piece of American history.

According to Olajuwon, most students have been quietly reflective as they browse and absorb. He says some have looked shocked as they take a trip through the past. Either way, Olajuwon hopes the gallery helps students develop a broader sense of the past, as well as how it fits into the present.

historical photos on easels“I hope the gallery sheds some light on a portion of history that’s not normally talked about, and puts people in touch with the reality of our ancestors,” said Olajuwon. “Not a lot of people talk about this, the Great Migration. This is a big part of our country’s history and Atlanta history. Atlanta can be considered the ‘Black Mecca’ now—there is hardly anyone who are Atlanta natives anymore.”

Black History has been a topic of interest for Olajuwon since he was a child. Growing up in a small town in Ohio, he attended one of two black churches. Outside of his own family, this was the only place he ever saw other black families and children. Ever since, Olajuwon has made it his mission to impart knowledge about the community.

The Redan High School art gallery is a prime example of this effort.

“It’s about making sure people understand who African-Americans are, and were, in the context of American history in general,” Olajuwon said. “We’ve grown from 20 people in Jamestown to more than 40 million people. We’ve been here since the beginning.”