TV actor brings stories of black trailblazers to children in Fitchburg, Leominster

By Paula J. Owen
Telegram & Gazette

LEOMINSTER — Children at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster were inspired after hearing the story of a little known African-American inventor who blazed a trail for others with his many patents.

If not for Sweet Blackberry, 7-year-old Robson L. Depaula might never have heard about Garrett Morgan.

Mr. Morgan’s patents included a breathing device that led to the design of World War I gas masks, and improved sewing machine and traffic signal patents, though he only had an elementary school education. He was born in Kentucky on March 4, 1877, and began his career as a sewing-machine mechanic.

“I didn’t know who he was,” Robson said in the cafeteria of the Boys & Girls Club after eating lunch Tuesday.

The second-grader from Fitchburg watched a short animated film before lunch created by actor and writer Karyn Parsons — founder of Sweet Blackberry, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching children about little- told stories in African-American history.

Though he did not know the word “inspired” to describe how he was feeling, that was exactly how Robson felt after watching a film on Mr. Morgan, “Garrett’s Gift,” narrated by Queen Latifah.

“He made a stop light,” Robson said. “I would like to rebuild it. I think I can make a better stop light.”

Ms. Parsons — best known for portraying the character Hilary Banks on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” — said it was the first time she had given her presentation at a Boys & Girls Club.

She started Sweet Blackberry in 2005 and it became a nonprofit in 2009. She said she has visited many schools.

“My mother was a librarian and started telling me fascinating stories about black history,” she said while children watched the film. “She told me the story of Henry ‘Box’ Brown, who mailed himself to freedom in a wooden box. I was so fascinated by that story and I had never heard of it.”

And neither have a lot of children today, she said, because schools don’t have the time or resources to teach children more than a handful of stories about black Americans.

“There is a dangerous subliminal message with that,” she said. “When black history is relegated to a short month of the year and the kids only hear a small number of stories, it sends the message that every now and then a black person comes around and does something good. As slaves, they had to think outside the box, and there were a lot of inventors who had to think differently to overcome obstacles. There are great stories for children to hear.”

She hopes Sweet Blackberry’s stories will inspire and empower children. So far, she has written about and created short films on Mr. Brown and Mr. Morgan and is working on Janet Collins’ story — she was the first black soloist ballerina to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. The film will be narrated by comedian Chris Rock.

“I do think we have the power to really change how kids look at race, themselves and their neighbors,” Ms. Parsons said. “If they can look at contributions African-Americans have made — not just the classic American story of having nothing and fighting through it — and we bring history to them in a fun and engaging way early, we can plant seeds about race, power and feeling emboldened. We can teach them the value of neighbors and what they are capable of and they can enter the world from a different perspective.”

Anthony L. Emerson, CEO of IC Federal Credit Union in Fitchburg and vice chairman of the Boys & Girls Club board, said he met Ms. Parsons, who lives in New York, on LinkedIn and was impressed with her commitment to teaching children about diversity. It turned out she spends summers in Massachusetts, he said. He and a few others privately sponsored Ms. Parsons’ visit Tuesday, he said.

“The message was perfect,” Mr. Emerson said. “I’m from San Diego and I had to be integrated by virtue of what San Diego is, and that didn’t happen for me until later in life. I didn’t have that message of inclusivity like that when I was young, and I wish I had. It helps with integration, socialization and tolerance. I’m 47 years old and I never heard the story of Henry ‘Box’ Brown before. She’s got so many stories like that. It is phenomenal, and it is nice for these kids to have an introduction to that at a younger age.”

After watching “Garrett’s Gift,” Ms. Parsons asked the group of around 80 children, ages 8 to 12, their ideas for inventions.

The children had many, including new video games, an impenetrable metal wall, a toothbrush that turns into a comb, a motorcycle you can talk to, a bike that flies, a time machine and a bike that shoots lasers.

The club’s executive director, Donata Martin, said Ms. Parsons’ visit was part of the organization’s summer program, Summer Brain Gain.

“The children are reading, and this fit right into our program,” she said. “We started talking about that even though she is an actress, she is also a writer and you can do both; and the historical aspects of the stories. It is good exposure for the children. We will definitely have her back.”

First-grader Mackenzie R. Leger from Leominster, who watched the film earlier with around 22 other children ages 4 to 7, said she was going to home to teach her 3-year-old brother about Mr. Morgan.

“I thought it was really, really good,” the 6-year-old said. “No one teaches you this in school, so we learned it here.”