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Music, dance, poetry and more at Riverhead’s annual Black History Month celebration

A night of music, culture, dance, poetry and history was celebrated at Riverhead High School Wednesday night for an annual Black History Month celebration.

“Black History Month has been celebrated here for many years,” said high school math teacher Alethia Ford, the event’s master of ceremonies. Ms. Ford is in her 20th year at the high school and has been part of the event in different capacities over the years.

“One year, I was actually the recipient of the award for Black History Month and then, I had my gospel group sing here a couple of times,” she said. “Last year, I was recruited to be master of ceremonies and it was amazing, so I’m back here again because I love doing it.”

She paid special credence to the First Baptist Church of Riverhead for giving up their time to perform “African Medley” by Tye Tribbet, a song many in the audience joined in on. She also said Tijuana Fulford, founder of The Butterfly Effect Project, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering young women, deserves credit for her work with children.

“It started out with just a small group of girls,” Ms. Ford said, “and look at how it’s grown.”

The event began with a pre-show performance the high school’s Jazz Ensemble, samplings by the Culinary Club and cultural artwork by the K-12 art department. A series of festive and celebratory productions followed, including “The Roanoke Mixtape,” in which the Roanoke Avenue Elementary School’s fourth grade chorus serenaded the audience with the likes of “Hit the Road Jack” by Percy Mayfield, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder and “Celebration” by Kool & The Gang. Additional youth performances included song recitals by Riley Avenue Elementary School’s fourth grade chorus and the Pulaski Street Elementary School chorus.

Through poetry by community members Sarah Bullock and Bubbie Brown, the speakers told the story of African-Americans’ plight, achievements, endurance and persistence. Such sentiments were echoed and historical background provided by two student representatives of the Council for Unity, who read off a slideshow information about renowned African-American historical figures and powerful legislation that shaped modern day life for African-Americans.

“I think this is just a great opportunity to celebrate the history and the culture,” said Jason Rottkamp, director of fine arts. “Anytime we can bring our community together and really sit back and reflect on what existed and what is here and what’s to come, I think it’s a great opportunity.”

Students Addison Heck, Isabella Umana and Dayami Carbajal Serrano were recognized as winners of the annual Garfield Langhorn Essay Contest.

Pulaski Street teacher Donna Elmore was presented with the MLK Jr. Humanitarian Award by the two young women from Council for Unity for her longtime commitment to the district. Ms. Elmore started out as a classroom aide in 1982, continued in that role through 1991 and then relocated due to familial obligations. She returned to the district in 1997, serving as a one-to-one aide and in 1999, decided to pursue a teaching career. At the time, she would attend night school and work during the day, ultimately graduating with honors in 2005. She spent 31 years working in the district and was quoted as saying she sees her students as her own children, adding that they are like family to her.

“Pulaski Street is extremely fortunate to have Ms. Elmore,” said one of the girls. “She is a vital force in shaping the lives of so many students.”

Another Pualski Street teacher, Marion Johnson, received a Lifetime Achievement Award for her 51-year dedication to the district.

“She was more than just a teacher,” said Pulaski Street acting principal Patrick Burke, who alluded to Ms. Johnson as an unsung hero. “She was a volunteer. She was a teacher on special assignment. Ms. Johnson is currently and has been titled a math specialist, a home instructor, math club adviser, math Olympiad adviser, curriculum liaison, academic intervention teacher, tutor, mentor.” 

Ms. Johnson organizes a Black History Month celebratory meal for staff, faculty and administrators at Pulaski Street each year. Administrators from other schools in the district step out to get a taste, too, Mr. Burke joked.

“Not once did she ever ask for anybody to contribute,” he said.

“The schools portrayed black history in a very positive way and I absolutely loved it,” Ms. Ford said.

To cap the event, a dedication created by Phillips Avenue Elementary School students and staff commemorating the life of late special education teacher Lana Randall, who died this year, took center screen. Photos of Ms. Randall, along with videos of her community involvement and singing reverberated through the auditorium, ultimately leaving many in tears. A collage of Ms. Randall was displayed just outside the auditorium.

Ms. Ford, who knew Ms. Randall through church, as well as from teaching, said she found the dedication very touching.

“I had the privilege of working with Lana for a couple of months,” she said. “She moved up here to the high school this year and then, in her passing, it was just very sad … It was just very touching to see how she affected those here and at Phillips Avenue and at the high school … She is definitely very missed.”