For Chestnut Grove Elementary fifth grader Clover Wheatley, preparing to play the role of former astronaut Mae Jemison was enlightening.
Wheatley depicted Jemison for the school’s Black History Month wax museum program Thursday and told fellow students and visitors that the world’s first black female astronaut was born in Decatur. Wheatley said she didn't know about Jemison's local connection until researching the subject.
“She lived in Decatur from 1956 to 1959 before her family moved to Chicago,” said 10-year-old Wheatley, dressed in an orange NASA jumpsuit. Jemison made history flying in space in 1992 aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour.
Wheatley was one of 48 Chestnut Grove students who learned about a historical figure, created a poster and dressed as their character for the program. Students and guests looked at the different "wax" figures stationed in the hallways of the school during a 90-minute tour Thursday morning.
Donning a bow in her hair and dark leotards, Alani Ingram portrayed Olympic champion gymnast Simone Biles. Ingram said studying for the role has helped her become a better student.
“Simone always says keep trying and never give up,” said Ingram, 10.
Nyla Henry played Madam C.J. Walker, a black woman who made the first black hair care products about 120 years ago. “She lived in Irvington, New York, and made a lot of money making hair products,” said Henry, 11. Henry said she had never heard of Walker before the class assignment.
Walker, who died in 1919 at the age of 51, rose from poverty to become one of the wealthiest African American women of her time, according to the National Women's History Museum. She amassed about $1 million, or $15 million in today's dollars, and donated heavily to charities.
Fifth grade history teacher Cynthia White spearheaded the school program. She said her church, New Beria MB Church in Athens, introduced her to the wax museum concept.
“Our youths at church did something similar, and so I started this three years ago. The kids love it,” she said.
White said most of the male students wanted to portray Kobe Bryant, the former NBA great who died with eight others in a helicopter crash in Southern California on Jan. 26. Bryant was 41. Sam Gardner portrayed Bryant on Thursday.
“I assign the students who they will be,” White said. “They do research on that person’s life. They find out what success those people had in black history. It’s not just about black history. It’s about history.”
She said her students didn’t know who Frederick Douglass was. “Everybody wanted to be Dr. (Martin Luther) King or (former President Barack) Obama,” White said. “I stressed to them it was not all about blacks. We had whites who were civil rights activists, too. We started in early February studying black history, and today was the finale of the lessons.”
White said parental support helped make the program a success.
“The kids get to dress up,” she said. “The parents are our biggest supporters. They are just as involved as the kids. We got absolutely no complaints from the parents.”
White said the students were assigned their characters the second week of February.
“They have enjoyed doing the research, and I’m impressed with them all,” she said. “There was no dress rehearsal.”
Chestnut Grove Principal Mark Christopher said the program is a unique way of teaching the students.
“Anytime you can make learning engaging, active for the kids, it is a win,” he said. “They’re doing more than just reading in a textbook or taking notes from a teacher’s lecture. They were able to do their own research and share the knowledge with their classmates. They get to play the role of teacher. It was fun to watch.”