At Brooklyn Jesuit Prep, Black History Is a Yearlong Subject

Brooklyn Jesuit Prep fifth graders recite Martin Luther King’s Jr. “I Have a Dream” speech. (Photo: Paula Katinas)

EAST FLATBUSH — At Brooklyn Jesuit Prep, the portraits of Sister Thea Bowman and Mother Mary Lange that grace the school’s walls aren’t just there for Black History Month. Their portraits, as well as depictions of historical figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., are on display throughout the year. 

It’s part of the philosophy at the East Flatbush middle school, which holds that teaching black history shouldn’t be limited to just Black History Month in February but integrated into the curriculum throughout the school year. 

Similarly, the subject of Black Catholics and their contributions to the church doesn’t come up only during November — Black Catholic History Month. 

“We don’t have a specific black history curriculum at Brooklyn Jesuit Prep, but rather we infuse a recognition and celebration of black history into our everyday happenings at school,” Principal Russell Quiñones explained. 

The concept manifests itself in many ways, including the artworks adorning the school’s walls. “We have artwork and Catholic icons on our walls that we actually had specifically commissioned for our school,” Quiñones added. 

From the material students read in English class to discussions of famous figures in school assemblies, “right down to the music we sing at Mass,” reminders of black history are evident at the school, he said. 

The approach makes sense, the principal noted, pointing out that 90% of the school’s students are black. Brooklyn Jesuit Prep, which opened in 2003, is a small school, with 75 students from fifth to eighth grade. 

“I do try to incorporate those lessons throughout the year,” explained Cheryl Malcousu, who teaches fifth grade. In some cases students will ask about a particular figure in black history that they read about on their own, and that will spawn a classroom discussion. 

When it comes to Black Catholic saints, “most of the students who are Catholic attend churches and recognize their names,” Malcousu said. “So that also helps them when they are doing research for reports. It makes them curious to know what it takes to become a saint.” 

Seventh grader Jayden Rouse is aware of the legacy of Sister Thea Bowman, Mother Mary Lange and other blacks under consideration for sainthood. “I’m actually proud. I feel like what they accomplished did not go to waste. I feel like they really deserve to be saints,” he said. 

Sister Bowman (1937-1990) was a well-known scholar, liturgist, and musician who advocated for Black Catholics to be treated equally by the Catholic Church. The Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration was designated a servant of God in 2018. 

Mother Mary Lange (1789-1882) founded a religious order of sisters, the Oblate Sisters of Providence, in Baltimore, and was the first African American mother superior. She was designated a servant of God in 1991. 

Jayden agrees with the idea of incorporating black history and Black Catholic history into everyday class discussions. “It really has a big influence on me, learning it that way,” he said. 

Pam Stock, the school librarian, said the library’s shelves are filled with books — both fiction and nonfiction — by and about black figures, and students are encouraged to pick out their favorites to read. Brooklyn Jesuit Prep has “silent reading” incorporated into the school day. 

“I do not have a section that says, ‘This is Black History.’ I do tend to showcase books that feature faces that are familiar,” Stock said. “I want to feature books that have black people on the cover, to be honest, because you would be surprised how few book covers feature people of color. The default tends to be white faces. 

“But there’s also a lot of really great books now written by people of color that feature characters of color,” Stock added. 

While lessons on black history are woven into the fabric of everyday life at Brooklyn Jesuit Prep, the school does take extra steps to mark major holidays, like Martin Luther King Day. For example, Malcousu’s class memorized Dr. King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech and recited it at an assembly. 

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