WEST ORANGE, NJ — Janice Johnson Dias kicked off Black History Month at West Orange High School as the guest speaker at the WOHS Student Council’s annual Black History Month Scholarship Dinner on Feb. 1, talking about the importance of students learning about black history in school. Ticket funds from the dinner are funneled into a scholarship that will be handed out to a graduating senior in June and the event is run by students with the help of Student Council adviser Catherine Connors.
“Black history is about paying homage to those who came before us,” WOHS Principal Hayden Moore said to kick off the event. “Without black history I wouldn’t be your principal. It’s an important history that has manifested to where we are today.”
Student performers filled out the program, with Olivia Ridley reading her own poem titled “Blood Lungs,” and Eberechi Ekweghariri and Mariana Simpson singing “Motherless Child.” There were other musical performances by the WOHS Jubilee Choir, and the WOHS girls’ and boys’ step teams, in addition to poetry readings by Geraldine Louis, Emily Cardona, Chanel Chambliss, Kai McCall and Orianna Carter.
Kristian Reynolds and Ashleigh Phillips danced, while Stacey Lozin, Indigo Jackson, Nyasia Foster and Jordan Scott-Young sang at the dinner.
Dias is the founder of GrassROOTS Community Foundation, a local training organization that emphasizes public health and social action. The foundation develops wellness programs for women and girls, and advocates for policies that reduce racial and gender disparities.
“Being a good citizen is difficult if we cannot understand who is around us,” Dias said in her speech. “It is essential for black people to know black history but it is equally essential for others. This white worldview encourages bigotry and undermines black people. It says that black people are the only ones with race. When we do not teach black history we are ignoring allyship. We are widening the gap. If members of our society do not know black history, how can they value black lives?”
Dias highlighted the work of several black inventors in her speech, pointing out how black history has affected people’s everyday lives without them being aware of it. She talked about Shirley Ann Jackson, who was a physics researcher at AT&T Bell Laboratories in the 1970s before becoming the president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1999. Jackson served as the chairwoman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board from 2014 to 2017.
Dias also talked about Lewis Latimer, an inventor who patented Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, as well as invented the carbon filament light bulb after Thomas Edison’s paper filament bulb. She discussed Garrett Morgan, who invented the gas mask and the traffic light. Dias also mentioned Marie van Brittan Brown, the inventor of the home security system. Finally, she talked about Madam C.J. Walker, who developed beauty and hair care products for black women.
Connors said the dinner and performing program was coordinated by members of the Student Council, who ask around for students to take part in the event. Student Council President Selam Woldai and Vice President Mike Petros took the helm on the planning.
“This is a good night to showcase all of the talent we have here,” Connors said in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle at the event.
In an interview with the Chronicle at the event, Woldai said she and Petros asked their friends and people they knew would be interested in performing to be at the dinner. She also attended the WOHS’ “Poetry Out Loud” event and asked students who performed works that fit the Black History Month theme to perform.
“Black history is our history,” Dias said to close her speech. “It is my hope that you recognize the contributions of black people. I hope you spend time learning about them.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic