This month, as America celebrates African Americans who most influenced our nation’s history, it is worth remembering that our “history” as a people has a very personal aspect. For the young people of our community, the adults who help them to learn and grow as human beings are the leaders they will most remember.
An object lesson from our own time and community illustrates this truth.
When I was young, the librarians at my local branch of the Enoch Pratt Library helped me realize my learning potential — transforming my life. Recently, this memory came back to me while the Pratt’s Dr. Carla Hayden and I joined some community leaders to pass the gift of learning on to some children of our own time.
In 2001, Baltimore City’s budget constraints forced the closing of the Pratt’s Pimlico Branch Library. Another branch located on the far side of Northern Parkway became the closest place that young people from Pimlico could find free books to read and enjoy.
Since that local closure, parents have been doing their best to pass on their love of reading to the children of Lower Park Heights. However, local community leaders decided that the children of their Baltimore neighborhood deserve something more.
They decided to make some constructive Black History of their own.
Working with the Park Heights Community Health Alliance (PHCHA) and its executive director, Mr. Willie Flowers, they agreed to create a book sharing and community reading center in the Weinberg AFYA Center located at 4151 Park Heights Ave.
They named their planned learning center the “Mother Henrietta Lacks Reading Room and Community Book Share” for the local African-American woman whose “HeLa” cells became the backbone of genetic research.
Their development plan was both straightforward and comprehensive. PHCHA and the Weinberg AFYA Center would provide the space and supervision for the reading center — and their “community partners” would help them obtain the initial books and other publications that would make the Center a reality.
With substantial help and other donations from the Library of Congress, the Lacks Family, Baltimore Reads, the Book Thing and Chesapeake Urology — as well as some books of my own — we were able to stock the Reading and Book-Share Room and open it for use by the community.
This was the event last Nov. 5 that brought Dr. Hayden, Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton and me to join other supporters of the Henrietta Lacks initiative at their opening.
I share this story about a local reading and book sharing initiative for an important reason.
The librarians and books that helped me at the Pratt Library as a child did something more than teach me history and English and math. They helped me define myself as a human being.
This is why, as we celebrate our history this month, we should recognize that the women and men who are lifting up our children today are just as important to those children as the heroes and heroines of our historical past.
I still remember the academic lessons that I learned at the Pratt Library so long ago.
I also remember the people who helped me.
They became role models for my life.
That is why I am so hopeful that this new chapter in Park Heights’ history will offer the same inspiration to the neighborhood’s children that I received as a child — the same, life-long love of learning.
This month, the Mother Henrietta Lacks Reading Room and Book Share will begin an expanded program of book clubs, readings by local authors, after-school tutoring and “movies with a message.” Interested parents should call 410-542-8190.
In other Baltimore neighborhoods that also lack a nearby library branch, community leaders may wish to consider adopting the Park Heights model for their own children.
They should know that the Surplus Book Program of the Library of Congress (the same program that provided nearly 600 books to the Park Heights initiative) is open to all Section 501(c) non-profit organizations, as well as to existing libraries and schools. I urge interested non-profit organizations to contact my special assistant, Hope Williams, at 410-685-9199 for more information.
The Black History that we are celebrating this month is not limited to the heroes and heroines of our past. It should also be about those who are lifting us up today.
As filmmaker Ken Burns once observed, our history is about the essential “…question of survival. Without any past, we will deprive ourselves of the defining impression of our being.”
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.