Nia Webb stood on the stage, pointing her finger skyward as she recited her spoken word piece honoring her generation, known as “Generation Z.”
“They say we’re the most lazy generation, they say we’re the most sensitive generation,” the Edgewood High School sophomore said. “They say we’re the generation that wants everything in life handed to us on a silver platter.”
The latter line drew some laughter from the audience, gathered in the second-floor theater of the Cultural Center at the Opera House in Havre de Grace for the third annual Langston Hughes Oratorical Contest.
The contest, held Saturday afternoon, is put on by The Havre de Grace Colored School Museum and Cultural Center Inc. The organization is working to raise awareness, as well as funds, to open a museum and cultural center in the former Havre de Grace Colored School building on Alliance Street in the next two years.
Langston Hughes, a African-American poet, writer and activist who became famous during the Harlem Renaissance cultural movement of the 1920s, had ties to the Havre de Grace Colored School through its principal Leon S. Roye, a close friend and fraternity brother.
Hughes often traveled to the school, a segregated institution established for African-American children in 1910, to work with students. Havre de Grace Colored School served students up to eighth grade in the beginning — the Havre de Grace Colored High School was established in 1930, and a brick building for high schoolers was constructed adjacent to the existing frame school for elementary and middle school students, according to the oratorical contest program.
Area middle and high school students who participated in this year’s contest wrote their pieces to incorporate the theme “I dream a world,” based on Hughes’ poem of the same name.
“I dream of a world when the next generation won’t have to fight like how we had to fight,” Webb recited.
“I dream of a world where the next generation knows it’s OK to walk alone, where the next generation knows it’s OK to shoot for the stars and dream, where the next generation knows that it’s OK to shoot high,” she continued.
Webb said, in her piece, that she dreams of a world in which people put their arguments aside and focus on “our one common goal: to raise the next generation, to raise the next generation with the values and morals we wish we had when we were younger.”
“This is the generation I hope and I dream that they wish to be like because this, 1997 to 2012, this is Generation Z,” Webb said in her conclusion.
Webb’s piece elicited loud cheers and applause from the audience and ultimately, first prize in the high school category, netting her a medal and a $500 scholarship.
Roosevelt Barfield, chairman of The Consilium Group Inc. business consulting firm, sponsored the scholarship prizes awarded to the top three high school and top three middle school contestants. Barfield also was one of three judges along with Amy Rosenkrans and Peter Brooks.
The scholarships were presented in honor of Woodrow “Woody” B. Grant, a civil rights activist and past president of Harford County’s NAACP chapter, who died last July. His widow, Janice Grant, is a 1951 graduate of Havre de Grace Colored High School, and she attended the contest Saturday.
Brittany Powell, host and organizer, urged the audience to give another round of applause for all contestants after Webb concluded her piece.
“We have so many inspirational students here with amazing dreams, and our future is certainly in excellent hands,” Powell said.
The respective second and third-place winners in the high school category were Selena Hamilton, a senior at Aberdeen High School, and Donovan Peyton, a sophomore in the Science and Mathematics Academy magnet program at AHS.
The middle school winners included Sydney Lewis, a seventh-grade at Patterson Mill Middle School, in first place; Elijah Alexander, a sixth-grader at Alexander Academy, in second place; followed by Johannah Skye Stevens, a seventh-grader at Rosedale Baptist School, in third place.
The runners up included Andre Clarke, a sixth-grader at Aberdeen Middle School, Joycelyn Jacobs, a sixth-grader at The Tome School, grade 6, Addison Samantha Golding, a sixth-grader at Harford Day School, Danovan Golding Jr., a freshman at Bel Air High School, BAHS sophomore Logan Roberts, and Desmond McAllister, a junior at Edgewood High School.
The audience was treated to additional youth performances, including readings of Langston Hughes poems by Desmond McAllister and Leon Shear-Smith, several songs played on cello by Bryson Sales and selections by Wisdom Grant and Maya Samone, of the Music iPortals Youth Gospel organization — Maya sang while Wisdom danced and Music iPortals director Jamil Gaston accompanied them on keyboard.
The youths heard remarks from several guests, including Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, Roosevelt Barfield, Janice Grant and Patricia Cole, president of the Havre de Grace Colored School Museum and Cultural Center Inc.
Cole said the oratorical contest is a way for her organization to kick off Black History Month, which is observed around the nation in February. She thanked those who supported the contest, including parents, volunteers who help students prepare to perform, sponsors and judges.
She also lauded the youths for their courage in presenting their pieces, noting that “it’s not easy, getting up here and speaking to a group of people.”
Webb, this year’s first-place high school winner, has participated in the contest each year; she won first prize in the middle school category her first year and was a high school runner up her second year.
She said it is “nerve wracking” before she starts speaking, but once she says her first line, “it just kind of flows.”
“It’s a natural thing to do,” Webb said. “You’re speaking to someone, and they’re willing to listen; I think it’s one of the best feelings.”
Inspiration from her generation
Webb, 16, lives between Aberdeen and Havre de Grace; she is part of the International Baccalaureate magnet program at Edgewood High School.
It was a challenge at first to decide what she wanted to write about for this year’s contest, but the words began to flow as she thought of current events happening in the nation and world and the many challenges she and her peers have dealt with ― such as mass shootings — and the challenges they could face as community leaders and parents.
“I hope that we are able to help the next generation, and we’re able to set a path for them so they don’t have to go through things that we went through,” she said.
Webb praised her high school for its diversity and how it is “super cool” that she can meet people from all walks of life there. She said “it kind of just broke my heart, honestly” when she first learned about the history of Havre de Grace Colored School and racial segregation in Harford County.
“I couldn’t imagine being forced to separate just because of race,” she said.
The Colored School closed in the 1950s as black students from the Aberdeen and Havre de Grace areas went to a new school, Havre de Grace Consolidated School, in the Oakington area. That building is now the home of Roye-Williams Elementary School — Harford County Public Schools integrated in 1965, more then a decade after the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, striking down school segregation nationwide.
Webb said she has been able to meet people who attended the Colored School as children, and she noted it is “such a symbol of how far we’ve come and it’s so inspirational to see people who have been” students there.
People were invited back to the former school for a reception after the contest. The Alliance Street building had been a medical office before it was acquired in 2018 by the community members who want to convert it into the museum and cultural center.
Archive photos have been placed throughout the interior, and a former classroom in the rear holds multiple posters, memorabilia such as trophies and school uniforms, even merchandise such as T-shirts bearing lines from Hughes’ poems.
The Museum & Cultural Center organization is hosting several fundraising events this year, such as the Phenomenal People Celebration scheduled for March 21 with attorney William H. “Billy” Murphy Jr. as the keynote speaker, a wine and jazz festival scheduled for August and the “90 for 90” gala in October.
The 90 for 90 campaign is an ongoing fundraising effort this year in honor of the 90th anniversary of the founding of Havre de Grace Colored High School — people can donate $90 to celebrate 90 years. More information about the campaign and events is online.
The Morning Sun
The oratorical contest is not a fundraiser, but it does raise awareness of the Colored School’s history and the activities of its nonprofit organization.
Carol Bruce, vice president of the Museum & Cultural Center board, said nonprofit officials plan to restore the building to its original state, with four small classrooms in the front, the original large classroom in the rear and the basement with its “beautiful stone walls.” Bruce said Hughes would meet with students in the basement when he visited the school.
Visitors will be able to see displays of memorabilia and push a button to experience audio and video recordings of former students talking about their time at the Colored School. Officials hope to have the facility ready by 2022, according to Bruce.
Abingdon resident Fred Hammett, who made his first visit to the Colored School Saturday, looked through the current display of memorabilia during the reception.
He described the photos and uniforms as “amazing” and noted the students had to deal with “shortcomings,” at their school, but they still “thrived really well — they didn’t let that stop them.”
Hammett also praised the students who took part in the oratorical contest, lauding their courage for getting up on stage and speaking “with passion.”
“The kids were amazing today, outstanding,” he said.