Abolitionist history comes to life at inaugural Black Student Union presentation

Feb 10, 2023

Though Dartmouth High’s Black Student Union was founded only this year, the group is wasting no time in promoting diversity and Black history at the school.

The student organization welcomed its first guest speaker on Wednesday, Feb. 10 for a presentation on New Bedford’s history of abolitionism and racial equity from New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park ranger Rufai Shardow.

Shardow, a UMass Dartmouth graduate of Ghanaian origin, told the students about the Whaling City’s role in providing safe haven to several abolitionists and civil rights activists who would go on to become famous for their work.

Frederick Douglass, for example, settled in New Bedford after escaping slavery and called the city the “starting point of a new existence” for him. Harriet Tubman, too, took shelter in New Bedford at one time, Shardow said.

Shardow said that while he spends a lot of time doing presentations at schools in the area, they are typically for third-to-fifth-grade students. Wednesday’s talk, he said, was his first time speaking to a high school.

“It’s hard to get into high schools,” he said. “So I was so glad when Kristianna [Fontes Callahan] reached out to me.”

The feeling was mutual.

“I cannot begin to express the impact Rufai had on the students at DHS,” said Kristianna Fontes Callahan, a co-advisor of the Black Student Union, of the group’s first event. “Countless students personally thanked or spoke directly to Rufai about something they learned from him. So many kids started his presentation not even knowing our community had a National Park, and left asking how they could volunteer or intern for them.”

The presentation was sponsored by the Bristol County District Attorney’s office, and was even attended by the D.A. himself, Thomas Quinn III.

Callahan said that she reached out to the D.A.’s office soon after taking on the advisor role because of its Community Funding Program.

The program, Callahan said, reinvests money from seized forfeitures back into the community and has put an emphasis on promoting “positive youth programming.”

“I knew it was the best place to start,” she said.

And Callahan was proven right when, only a day after making the request, Quinn reached out to her personally to let her know that his office would be happy to support her work and had approved her request.

In addition to presentations like the one held on Wednesday, Callahan said the Black Student Union will look to plan a field trip to important civil-rights-related landmarks in the area, sponsor an art or history project that could be displayed at the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, and host a “day of solidarity against hate” at the high school.

The Black Student Union’s student co-president, senior Alexia Ashe, said she was proud to have grown the group into one of the school’s largest clubs — at about 50 members — in only its first year.

“We really want to grow representation and allyship,” said Ashe, explaining that the group did not limit its membership to Black students. “We want everybody — everybody that stands for the cause.”

Ashe showed how the group had already made use of the bulletin boards outside the school library to put up displays highlighting Black history, the do’s and don’ts of common microaggressions, and the faces that make up its own membership.

“This is exciting. I hope we have more events like this,” said Kathryne Moniz, a co-advisor for the Black Student Union. “It’s a nice change of pace.”