Learning My History
Learning My History
Kaitlyn Foster ’18

Kaitlyn Foster '18 on her eye-opening senior tutorial experience

This essay by Kaitlyn Foster '18 (seen here in the painting studio) is part of our new Voices of SAS web series. Voices of SAS will feature writings and talks by students and faculty that focus on a particular aspect of their St. Andrew's experience.

In my tutorial, we're studying lynching in Delaware. We're focusing on George White, who was burned at the stake by a mob in Wilmington [in 1903]. We've learned about his background, what happened to him, and how his lynching was glorified. As a person of color, I desperately want to know my history. What I was hoping for when I signed up for this tutorial, and what I've gotten so far, is to get personal with these stories—to not just register that slavery happened or lynching happened or racism existed, but really connecting with that and saying "This is not someone far away that I don't know. These are my ancestors, my relatives."

Our tutorial went to see this play called Greenwood: American Dream Destroyed [at The REP Theatre at University of Delaware]. It's based on a true story of what happened in this black middle class neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the 1920s. In the play, the main character's name is Jimmy. He's working in downtown Greenwood, polishing shoes, moving up in the business. He goes into a building to restock something, and a white lady who is manning the elevator didn't exactly line it up with the floor, so when Jimmy steps out, he trips and goes to brace himself and accidentally catches her instead. She immediately flips out and a bunch of men come running and are like, "This man was trying to attack this woman!" And so of course, the police come and arrest him without question and put him in jail. The mob ultimately kidnaps and lynches him, and that set off this race riot, where white people came in and burned and looted the entire neighborhood, killed hundreds of people, and completely wiped out Greenwood. The entire community was gone in less than 24 hours. I ended up crying so much because I saw the connection between this play and what people of color are going through now.

At the talkback after the play, the director talked about how the duPonts bought up all this land in Delaware, and they compared that to how the residents of Greenwood prided themselves on being able to buy their land as black people, and as a black community maintain and grow their wealth solely dependent on each other. Through owning their land, as a community they were able to be very successful and enter into the upper middle class. They even had maids. Finding out that a place like Greenwood even existed was crazy to me. I didn't even know that we were ever at that place before today. It's not that we're some alien nation—it's not that we can't succeed—it's that we've haven't been given the opportunity to succeed, and when we have been given the opportunity, it gets unjustly stripped away from us.

That was a really, really big lesson for me. The director talked about how, as a whole, America is kind of taught black history with one story: slavery happened and we were at the bottom for so long, and we never really reached a point of equality until today, and we're still just getting into that place of equality. As black people, we have this one idea of ourselves because our educational system has written our history in one way, and sometimes we voluntarily put ourselves into that box. We walk into a place where the majority of people are white, and we already have an idea of what they're going to think about us, because they don't know our history, and we don't even know our history. But now, because of my tutorial, I know the story of Greenwood. Now, I know the story of George White. Seeing that play put me in this headspace of: You need to learn your history, so that you can get out of believing the American story of black history. I don't know my history, how can I make someone else see that we don't have a single story, that I don't have a single story?