African-American history has played an integral role in the shaping of politics, economics, and culture in the United States. Growing up, how did you learn about the accomplishments and struggles of African Americans? Were you in a classroom? Reading a book? Talking with relatives or friends? How has your understanding or knowledge of African-American history changed and/or developed over time? What do you think is the most effective way to pass along this rich and growing history to future generations?

Corliss Latta-Dreher

As a child born in the South, but raised in Newark, NJ, I almost feel like my parents guarded us against all that went on in the South. I attended an all-white Catholic school, my family and about 4 of other blacks were the first families that attended the school. I don’t remember being treated any differently; I did not realize I was the only one until I started looking at old photos of all of us in class until many years later.
We had to be Catholic in order to attend the school, but my mother made sure we knew we were not baptized until we were submerged under the water. I remember seeing Martin Luther King coming to Newark, NJ, because my father lifted me on his shoulder to see him but I did not know who he was or what he stood for until after he was shot and the riots broke out. It was the movie Roots written by Alex Haley that sparked my interest to dig into my own family history. I had married and moved to Virginia were my husband was stationed and it was the movie that got me to question were I came from, and who were my ancestors. At the age of 27 I managed from Virginia to get my cousins in Chester, South Carolina, to set up the reunion at “The Home Place,” In 1985 we had our first family gathering. My grandmother had passed away by then but there were 4 sisters alive that attended. It was a beautiful day, but later on during the day it rained so hard that the family scattered and we never got information from the elders that could give us the facts of our great grandparents. We have a son that is in his eighties now that has given all he can recall. All of those that could tell us anything are long gone now. It took me 22 years to gather the family back once again but this time I had it in Virginia, we were few in number but we were together and met a few new relatives.
It was taking my twin daughters that were 14 at the time through the Blacks & Wax museum in Maryland that made me realize that they never knew any of the stories of our people and that it was not taught in school. When they saw the exhibits as they exited through the passage to the old world showing them where the slaves were taken from a free world of kings and queens in Africa, they heard the voices saying remember, remember, by the time I got there they were crying and I asked them why and they stood crying hard saying, mommy we didn’t know. My elder sister and I have gone on a journey to gather all that we gathered from our family to put a history book together for our children and their children. My only heartache now is that when we went to Chester to look for records from the 1800’s we found that the court house burned down twice with records that I only know to find my ancestors. I am at a dead halt. If anyone knows of another way for me to search I would be so grateful. It is with shows like this from Professor Gates that I continue to search all I can while I am alive to get the past to understand who I am and where I come from. Thank you for this, because our kids don’t have a clue.