Students honor black history at Kresson Elementary

Jackie Robinson, Katherine Johnson, Kobe Bryant and more represented in annual Black History Museum

While actor Ben Stiller and the famous historical figures he interacted with in the film “Night at the Museum” did not make an appearance in Voorhees Township, students at Kresson Elementary School did their best to impersonate the film’s characters while celebrating Black History Month.

For over half a decade, third grade teacher Lauren Kerns has hosted an event to honor  important African Americans in history, an presentation that has evolved over the years into a larger spectacle.

After approximately two weeks of research, speech writing and other preparation, Kerns’ students transform an all-purpose room to resemble a museum, turning themselves into  still — or “wax” — figures dressed up as a famous person of their choosing.

Family, friends and other visitors who entered the room March 6 walked among students portraying athletes, politicians and inspirational figures, among others. To learn more about a specific person, guests would touch a button in front of each child, who would then briefly come to life to recite the character’s story.

“We really have stepped it up a lot more in recent years with the wax figure concept,” Kerns said. “The students act like they’re that individual and speak in the first person about their life and why they’re significant.”

The most influential African American in history, Martin Luther King Jr., is not included in the presentations for good reason.

“One of my very close African American friends has said how much he appreciates the event in the past, because we’re not just focusing on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr,” Kerns explained. “All the kids know about him, and we spend plenty of time on him in class in general, but there are so many other famous African Americans that have contributed to our history that don’t get enough attention.”

Each year, students in Kerns’ class select 20 famous African Americans to research and present at the museum simulation. Some of the figures are repeated year after year, including baseball’s Jackie Robinson, former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, civil rights activist Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman and more.

Some of the selections are the result of current events. Basketball giant Kobe Bryant was chosen by a student after his untimely death in January. Another picked Katherine Johnson, one of the women depicted in the 2016 film “Hidden Figures,” about black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the space race. She passed away in February at the age of 101.

“I like that current events can tie in with something historical like this,” Kerns said. “The students can then learn about someone they might not have thought about before if they see them on the news. A few times they’ll choose people I hadn’t heard of before or didn’t know much about, so really the parents and I can learn too.”