Belle Wheelan, the Virginia Secretary of Education, stood in front of a crowded auditorium filled with fifth and sixth graders Friday at Herndon Middle School, the embodiment of what the entire assembly was about: a celebration of Black History Month, which is recognized each February, and Women's History Month, in March.
Wheelan is the first female African-American Secretary of Education for the state. In fact, Wheelan has accomplished many firsts in her 52 years: the first African-American at Trinity University to be named to the Who's Who in American Colleges and Universities; the first African-American female to serve as president of a two- or four-year college or university in Virginia (Central Virginia Community College, 1992-1998 and Northern Virginia Community College, 1998-2002); and she was named one of the 100 most powerful women in Washington.
"This is a very exciting time of the year for people who look like me …," Wheelan said. "It's very significant that you understand the contributions made by others of other cultures."
FRANK JENKINS, principal at Herndon Middle, said the annual assembly was to celebrate black history and the contributions of women. For more than an hour, the students listened to songs inspired by so-called "old negro spirituals," a poem by the black author Maya Angelou and a rectal of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream," by Herndon teacher Lemond Anderson, which received a standing ovation. In between, students answered trivia questions about historical black figures including musician Louis Armstrong, tennis player Arthur Ashe, track and field Olympian Wilma Rudolph, the Tuskeegee Airmen of World War II, singer Ella Fitzgerald, attorney and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, performer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and former Miss America turned actress Vanessa Williams.
But it was Wheelan who tried to impress upon the young audience the importance of not forgetting the past.
"It is the 50th anniversary of Brown v. the Board of Education. I'm 52 years old, that landmark case happened in my lifetime," Wheelan said of the Supreme Court case that desegregated public schools. "The first eight years of my school career, every student looked like me. I was in high school in 1964, and only 2 percent of our schools were desegrated. It took until 1978 for our schools to have a significant number of desegregated students. It's been interesting to watch the history change."
She retold how through the generations blacks had have several different names: colored during her grandmother's generation, negro during her mother's generation, black during Wheelan's generation and her son is now African-American.
SHE TOLD THE STUDENTS, that when she was growing up people were either black or white, which included people of other ethnicities that are now separate such as Hispanic or Native American.
"You think it's been rough being black in America. … It was tough being a woman in America too. Black people got the right to vote before women," Wheelan said. "In the '60s, the two revolutions hit at the same time. The Proud to be Black and the Proud to be a Woman met. We had a revolution. We stood up tall, raised our fists in the air and wore our hair out 2 feet, the Afro, because we were proud."
Wheelan told of a childhood where she had to sit in theater balconies and having to enter restaurants through back doors because she was black. She said that when she was in school a teacher told the class, there will always be someone who will try to put you down because that person is afraid you will take something away from them. She said it was important to remember everyone was an American, and that American ends in I can.
She also stressed the importance of getting an education, "black folks used to lose their lives when white folks found out they could read because reading is the most powerful thing you can do," she said.