Alumni and students to help preserve borough’s African American past

Ideas include signs, walking tour in addition to oral histories

The intersection of Douglass and Lincoln avenues has long been a historic gathering place for Haddonfield’s Black community. The borough’s historical society wants to preserve that history through walking tours, signage and narratives from seniors in the African American community. (Special to the Sun/The Sun)

One year ago, Mabel Kay Senior Center coordinator Sheri Siegel worked with Haddonfield Memorial High School teacher Holly Maiese to create a memoir project where freshmen students made books based on interviews with Haddonfield seniors.

This school year, Maiese’s students will team with Haddonfield High School  alumni and the borough’s historical society over the next few months to preserve Haddonfield’s African American history through interviews with Black seniors. Organized by class of ‘78 alumni Adrienne Rhodes and Maiese, a pilot of the program took place in July, but the work will continue into fall.

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“When I worked with the seniors in the senior center, we wrote each senior citizen a book of narratives,” said Maiese. “ … This time, we’re giving them a compilation, because it’s a much smaller population and we’re (also) looking to have around 20 more seniors for the Black community.”

Prior to the interviews, students will undergo sensitivity training that covers interactions with the elderly, experiences of African Americans in Haddonfield and a general history about the town from the Historical Society of Haddonfield. Following the interviews, students will create stories to be published in a book in early 2023.

“It’s a very sensitive thing (talking to elders of the Black community), because what people often talk about is that (Haddonfield) was a segregated community,” Rhodes explained. “If you spent 90 years feeling detached from the larger community, how do you now find the will to celebrate? 

“Some people have difficulty with that.”

The project is a team effort, and Rhodes was responsible for finding elders in the community to interview. She sought out the oldest (90 and up) and worked her way down before settling on 22 to 25 potential interviewees.

“I think many students, because it’s a predominantly white community, have had very few interactions with the Black community,” Maiese explained. “They didn’t understand the history. We talked about racism during the summer and some of the stories really shocked them.”

While still in the early stages, the hope is that the oral histories will be one in a  three-pronged approach by the historical society to preserve Black history in Haddonfield. A walking tour and related historic signs are still in the planning stages.

“I’m looking forward to sharing this information with people, because ignorance creates opportunities for bad things to happen,” Rhodes noted. “The more we know each other, the more we understand our commonality.”

To learn more about the project, contact Adrienne Rhodes at mscarhodes@gmail.com.

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