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At Hartford's University High School, Students Writing History Literally

American Studies Class Shines Light On African Americans From Hartford's Past


January 04, 2013

HARTFORD Lemuel Rodney Custis became Hartford's first black police officer in 1939 and later was a Tuskegee Airman, one of the elite African American fighter pilots who served in World War II.

Emma Tillman, born in 1892 to former slaves, worked as a caterer for wealthy families in Greater Hartford and was the world's oldest living person before her death in 2007 at age 114.

And not to be forgotten in history is the Rev. Richard A. Battles, a Hartford preacher and close ally of Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. He died in 1980.

At the University High School of Science and Engineering, students in Theresa Vara-Dannen's American Studies class have not only researched and written about these figures, and others, from Hartford's past their work has become part of the historical record.

The African American National Biography, a multivolume project of the Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University and Oxford University Press, has compiled more than 4,000 profiles of African Americans in history, from the famous to little-known. Since 2009, 30 of Vara-Dannen's students have written profiles accepted for publication.

Vara-Dannen was named the 2012 Connecticut History Teacher of the Year by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and that research is a big reason why, said Steve Armstrong, president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies.

Armstrong, a West Hartford educator, presented Vara-Dannen with a certificate of recognition during a brief ceremony in her classroom Dec. 14. Sixteen educators were considered for Connecticut History Teacher of the Year and Vara-Dannen "by far was the best candidate," Armstrong said.

"I'm so happy to come to work every day to be with these students," said Vara-Dannen, a Middlebury resident who has taught for more than two decades. "You make my day."

Vara-Dannen teaches history and English at the magnet high school affiliated with the University of Hartford, and students in her American Studies class get college credits through the University of Connecticut's Early College Experience program.

Students have searched the Connecticut State Library, local historical societies, the University of Connecticut's library and the Hartford Courant archives to glean facts for their research project, like arranging pieces to a puzzle. Subjects have included abolitionist Selah Africanus, one of the few black schoolteachers in antebellum Hartford, and William Saunders, a successful tailor who opened his own shop on Talcott Street in 1820.

Several students said their essays got plenty of red ink from Vara-Dannen's pen as they revised them before submission.

The last print edition of the African American National Biography was in 2008, so the students' succinct entries have been published online by the Oxford African American Studies Center, whose editor-in-chief is the renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. An additional two University High students have their historical biographies under review for possible publication, according to Vara-Dannen.

Vajid Pathan, a senior, said Saunders' life inspired him as he wrote about the man last year.

"If you try hard," Pathan said, "you can accomplish anything at any time."

"I think every high school teacher should do a project like that because there's so much history out there, in our own backyards, and we don't even know about it," said J'Vaughn Joseph, a senior who wrote about Custis during sophomore year. "To see all these influential people came from where we live is truly amazing and tremendous."

Joseph wants to be an airline pilot and became fascinated with the Tuskegee Airmen. Custis, who died in 2005 at age 89, was an officer in the all-black 99th Fighter Squadron, flew 92 combat missions in World War II and received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Custis was buried with military honors at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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