Bonnie Branch Middle School Black Saga team

Bonnie Branch Middle contestants Chelsea Okeh, 11, Korliss Britt, 13, Taylor Wheatley, 12, and Lauren Harris, 13, from left, study some last minute details before beginning the competition. (Photo by Nate Pesce / February 10, 2012)

Howard County students spent part of their weekend celebrating Black History Month with a bit of friendly competition.

Students from 15 elementary and middle schools took to the stage on Saturday, Feb. 11 at Veterans Elementary School in Ellicott City to test their knowledge of African American history at the seventh annual Black Saga competition. Over the course of six hours and two competitions — one elementary and one middle — the teams from Bonnie Branch Middle School and Hammond Elementary School emerged victorious.

Numerous ethnicities were represented at the competition. Kelly Reichardt, coordinator for the competition, told the audience that students could not know U.S. history without knowing African American history, and Kim Loisel, coordinator for elementary social studies, agreed.

"We encourage all students to participate (in Black Saga)," she said. "To know about history, African American history is history for us all, all students — not just students who happen to be black. We infuse as much of this into the social studies curriculum as we can, so all students can get this information."


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Any team that participated at Veterans Elementary can take part in the state-wide Black Saga competition on Saturday, March 17 at Towson University. The county competition wasn't a vetting process, Loisel said, and while some schools selected their representing teams based on in-school competitions, others did not. By the same token, some schools that did not participate in the county competition will be sending teams to the state competition.

Korliss Britt and Lauren Harris, both eighth-graders, and Taylor Wheatley, a sixth-grader, made up the winning Bonnie Branch team. One of their advisers, Faye Ebron, said the students were eventually meeting as often as twice a week after school to prepare for the competition.

"These students went above and beyond," said Ebron, special educational instructional team leader at Bonnie Branch. "It's a friendly sense of competition, and it's history — history that just happens to focus on African American contributions — that they were able to draw connections from. They were reading aboutBooker T. Washingtonin other classes, for example, so they were able to make the connections, see the relevance."

At the afternoon competition, elementary students from nine schools answered questions of increasing difficulty. They included:

• On Jan. 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued what order ending slavery? The Emancipation Proclamation.

• In the 1920s, what was considered the capital of the African American world? Harlem.

• What three empires emerged in West Africa between 500-1600 A.D.? Ghana, Mali and Songhai.

The competition ended with a tie-breaker between Hammond and Forest Ridge elementary schools.

Name the society founded in 1816 by Washington D.C. clergyman Robert Finley to re-settle a colony free blacks on the West Coast of Africa, and the name of the colony.

With the answers of the American Colonization Society and Liberia, it was the team from Hammond — fourth-graders Ryan Saunderson, James-Michael Musser and Ethan Dixon — that took the top spot.

Their adviser, fourth-grade teacher Nicola Walker, said the team began practicing at the beginning of January.

"Every day at lunch time," she said. "We reviewed questions, Supreme Court cases, landmarks, a sheet of 297 facts, quotes. It's exciting to see how much they evolved, learning so much in a little over a month."

As their practices progressed, Walker said, the students moved from retaining and comprehending the information to drawing connections between events and people throughout history.

"We began to have real conversations," she said. "They saw the impact the past has on us today."

For 10-year-olds Ryan, James-Michael and Ethan, the weeks spent learning about the past brought new insight to their day-to-day lives. Words of wisdom from Frederick Douglass, for example, could be related to rising above bullying, Ethan said.

"'You are not judged on the height you have risen,'" Ryan recited after the competition, "'but from the depth which you have climbed.'"