Scholar Debra Newman Ham to present on four centuries of black experience in Pa.
Many people can point to a wonderful bit of wisdom from a teacher that they regularly call up.
Such is the case with Debra Newman Ham.
I first met Dr. Ham at a couple of York conferences in the early 2000s, including the 25th Annual Conference of Black History in Pennsylvania.
You might remember the black history conference, a gathering also marked by the meeting of York countians, former Gov. George Leader and Daisy Myers. Leader was governor in 1957 when the Myers family, a black family, was persecuted by members of their community in Levittown.
It was a big moment for elevating the York community’s understanding of our community’s past, something that is continuing to this day – and must accelerate.
Ham, a York High graduate, has spent much time in debunking a myth: Black history is not being taught mostly because no one kept records.
In a York Daily Record interview in the early 2000s, here’s her response that includes the lesson she taught me years ago: “There is an unbelieveable ocean of African-American history resources for people who are interested in viewing them or studying them.”
She said her first love for black history began during her college years at Howard University.
“Since then, it’s been an absolutely moving desire of mine to tell other people about the historical resources,” she said.
World-renowned scholar from York High
Ham will be in her hometown on May 4 to tell about those resources and to present on “A Phenomenal Journey: Four Centuries of African American History in Pennsylvania.” The free public program is set for 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Shiloh Baptist Church, 740 W. Locust St., York.
Jeff Kirkland of the York African-American Historical Society and Shiloh Baptist Church and its pastor the Rev. Dr. Larry T. Walthour are sponsors of the event.
“She is able to give us a real story about the value of our history,” Kirkland said about Ham.
In telling about the event on Facebook, Kirkland noted that the presenter is a world-renowned scholar.
He is so right, and it would take someone of her credentials to provide such a sweeping history covering four centuries.
In 1986, she became a black history specialist in the manuscript division of the Library of Congress, where she cared for papers belonging to Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall.
In 1995, she moved to Morgan State University, where she taught history and was chief curator of a major Library of Congress exhibit, “The African American Odyssey.” The exhibit documented black America’s quest for full citizenship.
African-Americans as overcomers
After that 2002 conference, we kept in touch.
I traveled to Morgan State University to observe her students reading their research papers. I can tell you that she can command a classroom, and clearly her students would go away with long-remembered lessons.
She brought her class to the York Daily Record where I presented on historical resources in York County, and then the class traveled to the York County History Center Archives.
I’m looking forward to reconnecting with her when she is back in town on May 4.
In an email this week, she said her presentation will not focus on blacks as victims of historical circumstances.
“Rather,” she said, “I plan to focus on African Americans as overcomers.”
Interview with Debra Newman Ham
The YDR interviewed Ham in a question-and-answer format as part of a series of black history profiles in the early 2000s:
Q. What makes a hero?
A. “Someone who succeeds in the face of great odds.”
Q. Do you consider yourself to be a hero?
A. “No. Many doors of opportunity were opened for me.”
Q. Who is your hero?
A. “Jesus Christ.”
Q. What impact did you have on your profession?
“I would say that I honestly believe that the resources that I have provided in these 30 years of my doing historical work, the resources that I have identified have deepened and broadened the scope of African-American history … because my people didn’t know about the availability of these resources.”
Q. Who or what is your inspiration?
A. “The Holy Bible.”
Q. What is the best piece of advice you can give or have gotten?
A. “This is a quote, I don’t know whose it is: “God gives his best to those who leave the choice to him.”
Upcoming: A night of storytelling
Jeff Kirkland will be a big part of another public event.
Kirkland will be the lead storyteller in a York Daily Record-sponsored free event – “Personal stories and lessons from York’s race riots” – at 7 p.m. April 23 at Logos Academy, 250 W. King St., York.
Fifty years ago this summer, York was the scene of public violence that resulted in the deaths of two people, scores of injuries and profoundly affected the community for decades. The storytellers for this evening will be people who experienced the racial unrest in York City in 1968-69, the aftermath of the riots, as well as from those involved in the investigation of the deaths launched 30 years later. A panel discussion will follow.
The YDR thanks the storytellers: Kirkland, Serena Frost Gillespie, Tom Kelley, Dorothy King and Mark Woodbury.
Jim McClure is retired editor of the York Daily Record. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.