Celebrate Black History Month With These Student, Faculty Projects

Friday, February 14, 2020
Sgt. Henry Johnson

Across the U.S., communities and historians take time in February to celebrate the contributions of African-Americans as part of the fabric of the national identity. Through research, publications and social media, these students and faculty at Rockhurst University are telling those stories in unique ways.

To freshman Jerrit Payton, black history is a subject to be shared with all people, no matter what month it is. Payton created Black History 101, a video series exploring influential figures and their achievements in black history, while in high school. He said he plans to revive the podcast at Rockhurst and release episodes throughout the spring semester.

“I wanted to start Black History 101 back up because I realized that I had some unfinished business from my previous works, and I didn’t get to collaborate with others as much as I would’ve liked,” Payton said.

Using rap instrumentals in the background and an intriguing, humorous take on the subject, Payton garnered more than 400 views each episode, which he shared using social media. By sharing the videos, he said he hoped to spread a message.

“I wanted listeners to take from this podcast that black history isn’t just for black people, it’s for everyone,” Payton said. “It’s history, and we should know it.”

Rockhurst University junior, Stockton Grunewald, also used social media to share a story of black history. Grunewald created a video detailing the life and struggles of Sgt. Henry Johnson, an African-American soldier who fought in World War I, and his African-American brothers-in-arms. Grunewald’s inspiration came from the National World War I Museum and an exhibit on the subject.

“I did some more research and the more and more I read about Sgt. Johnson and his really tragic story, the more I felt it really reflected strongly on his character but was also a great point of comparison,” Grunewald said. “Here’s someone who contributed way more than anyone ever asked him, and he just faded into obscurity.”

Grunewald wanted viewers to take more from the video than a history lesson.

“There’s this kind of general idea that freedom isn’t free and that a country is built on sacrifice,” Grunewald said. “We are always striving to be a more perfect union.”

Craig Prentiss, Ph.D., professor of theology and religious studies, has written numerous articles, even a book, titled Staging Faith: Religion and African-American Theater from the Harlem Renaissance to World War II about the intersection of race and religion. Prentiss’s book discusses the dominant religious theme in plays with a primarily African-American audience. 

“I also wrote about a collection of anti-lynching plays that, taken as a collective, made a strong argument for political activism in the face of a white supremacist culture that wasn't lifting a finger to stop extra-legal murder of African-Americans,” Prentiss said.

Prentiss said researching and sharing sometimes forgotten aspects of African-American history is in the spirit of why the month’s recognition is more than symbolic.

“Carter G. Woodson [creator of Black History Month] realized that not only did African-Americans know very little about their past, but that the overwhelmingly white establishment of historians had systematically blotted out a remarkable history from their own narratives,” Prentiss said.