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?

Lenora Helm Hammonds

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and my childhood there traversed the 60’s and 70’s. My parents taught me Black history in ways big and small; my mother was a cosmetologist and beauty school teacher, my father was a painter (oil on canvas) but often had to work as a laborer for additional income. Till the age of 6 years old, we lived in the Robert Taylor Housing Projects, then moved to the South Suburbs. That was a very interesting migration for my entire family. Lessons about living spanned how to make a way out of no way – how to run a business (mom) and lead lives of a creative artist (dad). My mother would often do hair (in addition to her work at my grandmother’s beauty shop all week) in the beauty shop my dad built for her in our basement of the home we lived in Chicago’s Maple Park area. I watched and learned from her, and also used those skills to make extra money in college. I followed my dad’s footsteps though, and became an artist – a jazz musician. As a kid, I would sit on his lap while he painted, and he would play jazz music, so the experience created a fondness for Jazz; and of course he would tell me the history of the jazz musicians we listened to together. But watching my mom teach (sitting in her evening cosmetology classes as a young child) inspired me to also teach; hence my present work as a music professor. We were taught to work hard, handle your business and pay attention! Discussions at family meals and events always turned political and included views and opinions about current social matters. We were taught to be independent thinkers, and were encouraged to focus on how our goals and achievements could impact the future for our family and communities. My favorite black history lessons were discussions with my dad around the book he would read to us from; Great Negroes, Past and Present and about the origins of Jazz music; from watching my mother manage her beauty shop job of teaching and doing hair while raising her 5 children.