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More than a History Lesson at St. Mark the Evangelist

“To live in a place that embraces African-American culture means not being afraid to be yourself,” Reniesha McLean explains. A seventh grader, Reniesha has a keener understanding of how her community impacts her sense of self than many middle schoolers do—although in fairness, most middle schoolers don’t get to live in Harlem, or go to St. Mark the Evangelist School.

Earlier this month, Reniesha and her fellow St. Mark’s students took a deep dive into both the historical significance of their neighborhood and its ongoing economic and cultural power with two experts: Joy Bivins, Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and Paul Jackson, publisher of The Harlem Times. Bivens and Jackson shared their insights on how St. Mark’s neighborhood is rich with history—and how our current students are part of that story. David Ellis, St. Mark’s librarian and a poet, facilitated the visit.

According to students, the talk with Bivens and Jackson deepened their appreciation for their community—and, as Reniesha suggests, for what Harlem’s history and culture can do for their sense of themselves. “Living in Harlem is such a blessing,” she shares. “My culture is expanded from street to street. I think it allows you to embrace yourself regardless of what others think. It makes me so glad to see individuals just like me in school, on the road, or elsewhere.”

“As an African-American preteen,” Reniesha goes on to explain, “it is hard to find people in the media who look like you and represent your true culture.” That true culture—the one she sees around her every day at St. Mark’s and in Harlem—is, she says, one in which people are kind to each other and deeply invested in children’s well-being, which stands in direct contrast to negative stereotypes that have already made an impression on her, even at 13 years old.

There is much about the culture and history Bivens and Jackson discussed that St. Mark students wish more people knew. Kayla Davis, also a seventh grader, wants more people to know the history of jazz, in particular the popularity of Harlem Stride Piano.

Fifth grade teacher Sandy Grant and students embody the Harlem Renaissance as they study it.

Eighth graders Marc Pressley and Jaccob McCoy “wish more people would learn more about Bishop Perry Hall,” the boys say, “which is our gym at St. Mark School and the spot where Marcus Garvey held his first meeting” in the U.S. They also cite the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X held meetings, as part of their neighborhood’s rich history.

“It is important,” the two boys share in an emailed statement, “because Harlem is like a family tree that we created with our own hands.”

The way that Marc and Jaccob express the value they place on the history of their school and their neighborhood feels significant in two respects. First, it echoes the words of Marcus Garvey himself, who spoke 106 years ago just a few feet from where the boys now go to school. “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture,” Garvey once said, “is like a tree without roots.” And when Marc and Jaccob say that Harlem history is something that “we created,” they convey a deep sense of participation in a life bigger than themselves, full of visionaries and change drivers like Garvey.

Middle school math teacher Dana Farmer honors Black History Month at St. Mark’s.

That sense of participation in something larger than themselves extends into the future, as Jaccob explains. He was struck by Paul Jackson’s encouragement in the Zoom session with students, and Jaccob came away from listening to the Harlem Times editor with a strong sense that “we have it much easier than many in the past, but we can still make a difference. Not maybe on the scale they did, but in our own way.”

St. Mark students can draw even more encouragement from the history they walk past every day than perhaps they even realize. At the time Marcus Garvey spoke there, St. Mark parish included one out of every six Harlem residents as a member, and Garvey’s speech there is frequently identified as a crucial beginning step for the Jamaican émigré’s work to foster Black pride, independent economic enterprise, and African nationalism.

But apparently, Garvey flopped at St. Mark’s. As Prof. Robert Hill explains, “Garvey was anxious, he was nervous, he was heckled. He at one point in his address lost his balance and fell off the stage, fell into the audience. He literally fell on his face.”

Yet three years later, Garvey had as many as three-quarters of a million followers, published one of the most popular Black newspapers in the country, and led massive parades through Harlem.

So the history that Marc, Jaccob, Reniesha, and their St. Mark’s classmates pass through every day isn’t just a history of achievements; it is a story of personal and communal resilience—a story they embrace as their own.