A group of young students walked down a hallway Thursday at Barrett Elementary School in Homestead, passing Rihanna, Joe Lewis, and Barack and Michelle Obama, when they came to a figure wearing a black gown and standing at a microphone.

One student tapped the sign next to the figure, making her come to life.

“My name is Whitney Houston,” the figure said. “I won 400 awards, and I also hold the record for the most awards won by a female artist.”

Another student tapped the sign. “I was alive for 48 years.”

And another. “I made the hit song ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody.’ ”

Whitney Houston was portrayed by Kierra Sanders, one of about 20 Steel Valley middle and high school students who depicted significant figures in African American history for the elementary school’s Black History Month interactive living museum.

Eighth grader Kierra Sanders grabs a microphone to portray Whitney Houston. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress).

Now in its fifth year, the interactive living museum was the brainchild of Jonette Bost, a second grade math and science teacher at the elementary school, who said she wanted her students to understand that history is happening every day.

“I noticed when I first started here that children would come to the Black History Month assembly, and there was a disconnect,” Bost said. “Nobody gave the children a reason to want to shine or hold their own heads up high, so we had to re-envision it.”

Students in different elementary classes went from station to station where they learned lessons about historical figures from the past and present during the two-hour program that took place over two floors of the school. In addition, the program included displays about historically Black colleges and universities, Kwanzaa, Africa, jazz, pop culture and more.

Elementary school students are fascinated by 12th grader Gregory Davis’ portrayal of George Washington Carver. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress).

The cafeteria, meanwhile, was transformed into a soul food kitchen, where students ate Caribbean coconut rice and peas, greens, black-eyed peas and sweet potato pie. Students were also given a cookbook with soul food recipes.

Many of the middle and high school students involved in the program were once Barrett students themselves, including Tiera Menefee, who portrayed tennis star Venus Williams, while her twin sister, Alexis, was Serena Williams.

Tiera, a Steel Valley High School junior, said she was impressed with how much Black History month programming had grown at the school since she was there.

An elementary school student presses a “hand” to activate President Barack Obama, portrayed by eighth grader Ray’dvon Harris. When activated, Harris would state facts about the former president. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress).

“I just love it because when I was this age, we didn’t have anything like this, and I would have loved it,” Tiera said. “It kind of gives the young kids knowledge on Black history and things that they didn’t know.”

The middle and high school students who participated in the program did their own research into the person they were to portray. Some students already knew their subject, while others had more to learn.

RaSaun Hough, a sophomore at Steel Valley High School, decided he wanted to be Malcolm X after reading a book about the assassinated human rights activist.

Another former Barrett Elementary student, RaSaun said he was happy to be able to help the school’s current students learn a history lesson.

“It was cool,” RaSaun said. “I see myself in some of them.”

For her portrayal of entrepreneur and activist Madam C.J. Walker, 10th grade student Londyn Askew gets a hug from her proud father, Rashad Askew, during the Black History Month interactive living museum at Barrett Elementary School on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. Walker, who lived from 1867 to 1919, is recognized as the nation’s first female self-made millionaire. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress).

Andrew writes about education and more for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at agoldstein@unionprogress.com.

Andrew Goldstein

Andrew writes about education and more for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at agoldstein@unionprogress.com.