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Stories Out of School: Silent Voices

One of the ironies of racial segregation was that it prevented  the best and the brightest in the black community from sharing their intelligence and creative gifts with the wider society. And so in the 1940s and 1950s many of those best and brightest black minds in America taught in public schools, where they poured their dreams and passion into their students, hoping that one day we would be able to move and succeed in the world that was closed to them.

My seventh-grade teacher was Miss Rozetta Caldwell, and her passion was history — but not only the history in books. She was aware that every day, when we walked to and from school, we passed through history.

This was in Kansas City, Kansas, a small city overshadowed by its larger sister city, Kansas City, Missouri. The two cities are on opposite banks of the confluence of the Kansas and Missouri rivers. Because of Miss Caldwell I stopped seeing the meat-packing plant and airport that bordered the rivers and instead tried to see the trees and Indians in canoes that had been there once.

Next to the public library in Kansas City, Kansas, was the burial ground of, as I recollect, the Kaw Indians. I remember walking along the broad walkway to the library and looking to my right to the trees behind, where the burial ground was, haunted by a single thought: who were they? I felt a determination to know, because perhaps if I did, they would not be as dead, their joys and sorrows would not be so much dust, as their bodies were now.

Although I would never write about that local tribe specifically, for much of my life as a writer I have been obsessed with being a voice for those whose voices were not heard while they lived. Because of Miss Caldwell—and my father, too, but that’s another story—I learned that just because the dead are silent, it does not mean they cannot speak. Miss Caldwell and my father taught me to listen to them.

Julius Lester’s most recent book is Guardian (Amistad/HarperCollins), forthcoming in November.

From the September/October 2008 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: School.

Julius Lester About Julius Lester

Julius Lester (1939-2018) is the author To Be a Slave (illustrated by Tom Feelings), a Newbery Honor winner; Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History; When the Beginning Began: Stories About God, the Creatures, and Us (illustrated by Emily Lisker); and Coretta Scott King Author Award winner Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue, among many others. His frequent collaborations with Jerry Pinkney included their iconic John Henry (winner of a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award); The Old African; Sam and the Tigers; and collections of Uncle Remus tales.

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