Teaching Black History Through The Arts

Every Wednesday evening, the sounds of music, laughter and powerful declarations resound through the chapel of the Tidwell Bible Building. These noises come from a group of Baylor students who mentor children in the Waco community through singing, dancing, acting, stepping and poetry. This diverse group of young people is called Portraits. Their objective is to promote confidence and growth in children of all ages.

“It is in one instance a mentorship program, in another substance it’s a theater arts program,” said Tonee Shelton, a Killeen graduate student in the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work.

Portraits Choir
The choir performing a song at the Portraits banquet

Pearlie Beverly, Baylor’s director of multicultural affairs, was inspired to establish this group based on her own experiences with the significance of education, confidence and black history. She constantly emphasizes the importance of education to children in the group because she recognizes that it is a privilege. Her mother only had a fourth grade education and her father could neither read nor write. Her persistence in school led her to attend Jarvis College in Hawkins and receive a master’s degree from Baylor.

Beverly also encourages children to take advantage of their ability to learn black history. According to Beverly, it is important because it is who African Americans are and they should not be ashamed of it.

“You don’t let somebody else know your history better than you do because you have to look at how far you’ve come,” Beverly said.

Beverly has established an outlet for students to embrace the arts. In 1991, a friend asked Beverly to perform as Harriet Tubman for Black History Month. In the midst of a time when female leaders were rarely recognized for black history, Beverly would don a big black dress with large red glasses and, for a moment of history, become Tubman.

“Everybody reads the history to you, but I wouldn’t. I would make it a live narrative by saying, ‘I am Mrs. Harriet Tubman, if you please,’” Beverly said.

Students performing their introductory number at the Portraits banquet

The community grew fond of her performances because, in part, they were different. Beverly’s passion for performing inspired her to establish a group that would teach others black history while celebrating the various performing arts. She named the group Portraits because she realized that portraying events in a visual manner conveys ideas better than reciting speeches.

“I wanted students to be able to experience learning black history and making it come to life for other people,” Beverly said.

In 1992, the organization began with eight students. The group traveled across the country performing Black History skits in churches.

Four of the original members stayed in Waco after they graduated from high school and encouraged Beverly to start a college company. The group then increased to 25 members.

“I said, ‘That’s it, we’re not going any higher,’ and then the next time I looked up, the group had grown to 62 kids,” Beverly said.

The leaders in Portraits have stimulated learning Black History through games. They would make flash cards with pictures of famous African Americans on the front and a summary of their legacy on the back. Each week, if children could recite facts about the famous African Americans, they would receive a “dollar for knowledge.” The organization has evolved to include Hispanic Heritage as well as Black History.

“A deep part of Portraits is sharing culture, sharing history and making sure that we don’t forget where we came from,” Dallas senior Breana Allen said.

Now that the group includes children under the age of five, they no longer travel. Although they do not perform publicly anymore, a showcase is presented at the end of each semester. A highlight of the showcase is a home-cooked meal with a dessert donated by each family.

“The children are able to see an end, to see all of their hard work and be able to present it and have something they can be proud of,” said Chisa Brigham, a former member and parent of one of the children involved in Portraits.

Each semester, the showcase has a different theme centered on Black History, Christianity and life. The group has used themes including Ruby Bridges, the first African American to attend an all-white elementary school, and The Wiz. Last semester, the theme was Jesus is the Reason for the Season.

“We love hard, we value the Lord, we value family and we just value each other,” Shelton said. “That’s what my plays are always going to be about.”

The organization has had a significant impact on the lives of children.

“Portraits is allowing the children to see that African American people flourish, and we flourish best together,” Shelton said.

Former members like Chisa Brigham bring their own children to be a part of the organization.

“I knew that it had such a great impact on me and my ability to be able to stand in front of people and speak, and I wanted that for my children as well,” Brigham said.

Although a large part of Portraits is mentoring, it affects the college volunteers as much as the children.

“It’s helping me to get out there, get past my comfort zone, and be more outgoing,” Cedar Hill junior Sydney Thompson said. “It’s reminding me of who I am and what I’m here to do.”

Some students consider it to be a getaway from the craziness of college work.

“I can just come and have fun, and I can make a difference in the kids’ lives,” Allen said, “I’m getting to be with kids, and I’m getting to do something I love.”

Beverly established an organization that is expected to last for generations to come.

“What comes out of Portraits is so great that what they set way back in the ‘90s will continue on for years to come,” said Cherri Williams, a Baylor alumna.