Day School wax museum figures celebrate Black history

N.E. Miles Jewish Day School students watching wax museum depiction of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson.

By Kiara Dunlap

If you wandered into Birmingham’s N.E. Miles Jewish Day School in late February, you might have “met” tennis star Serena Williams, civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, NASA space pioneer Katherine Johnson and Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles, among other famous Black figures.

Students at the school, which has Jewish and non-Jewish students including students of color, celebrated Black History Month by creating a simulated wax museum honoring African American trailblazers.

Ringing the upstairs level of the school’s large central area, the students, dressed as the figures they were portraying, stood silently, not moving until you pressed a make-believe button. Then, staying in character, they told about their lives and achievements, and when they were finished, they again stood silently. It succeeded in giving the effect of a wax museum.

Seeing how knowledgeable and excited the students were about the figures they were portraying was a joy. They had spent time studying the lives of these Black leaders and you could tell how motivated they were to tell their stories.

Visitors felt as if they were in a time machine — one that took you back into decades of Black excellence and achievement. “Meeting” these leaders from the past and learning about their accomplishments not only made Black History Month more relevant, but also made American history come alive.

These pioneers clearly impacted Black history. But they also changed American history. The students’ wax museum helped visitors appreciate this.

A goal of the project was to help the Jewish students and their families learn more about Black history. But another goal, given that the school is racially and religiously mixed, was to further bond the families through common learning experiences. This was evident as African American, Jewish and other families mingled together enjoying the exhibit.

Watching it all with pride was school staff member Emily Friedman, a mom of one of the students and the school’s librarian. She felt it was important to create ways for the students to hear Black voices.

“In the library, we made a special effort during Black History Month to highlight Black authors and their stories. Most of our students, even the older ones, don’t fully understand Black history — and that it is so much more than African Americans overcoming struggles.”

Turning toward the bookshelves, she pointed and said, “Reading is a path to empathy. By learning these stories, others can better understand the impact Blacks have had on American history. As a Jewish school, it is important that we teach about other minorities — and stress the importance of minorities not succumbing to misfortune and being overwhelmed by challenges, but remaining strong and prevailing.”

(Kiara Dunlap, a senior at Miles College, an HBCU in Fairfield, is interning jointly with Southern Jewish Life and the Birmingham Times, which serves the city’s Black community. She focuses on stories of interest to both communities.)