Barrett Elementary's Interactive Living Museum Celebrating Black History

Black History Month has been an integral part of the educational experience at Barrett Elementary for years. Ten years ago, though, a conversation began on how to revise the experience for students based on the diversity and strengths of the Steel Valley community. The key question: "How do we promote and celebrate their history, heritage and culture?"

The answer was to give the students their own voice, to allow them to use their voices and the voices of their ancestors to tell their stories. A pair of quotes from Motown founder Berry Gordy helped influence the approach. 

“Every day I watched how a bare metal frame, rolling down the line would come off the other end, a spanking brand new car. What a great idea! Maybe, I could do the same thing with my music. Create a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door, an unknown, go through a process, and come out another door, a star.” - This is how we envisioned our students: We saw that when the students entered our school district as Kindergarteners, they are like a bare metal frame and it is our responsibility to transform them as they progress through the grades.  We are confident that our school can create stars by the time they walk across the field on their graduation day.

“I've discovered that Motown and Broadway have a lot in common - a family of wonderfully talented, passionate, hardworking young people, fiercely competitive but also full of love and appreciation for the work, for each other and for the people in the audience.” - This is also how we envisioned our school community. Like Motown and like Broadway, Steel Valley is also a family. But we also are full of love of appreciation for the work, for each other and for the audience. 

With those concepts in mind, the Black History Month experience changed. Today, it includes an Interactive Living Museum, with students, alumni and community members taking part to help bring important moments and figures in history to life. In the words of organizer Jonette Bost, "The Black History Month Interactive Museum is hands-on. It allows for collaboration. It allows for creativity. It provides them with an experience that they might not have otherwise. It is the experience that will leave a lasting impression, but it will also teach them how resilient individuals who come from humble beginnings can be. What a powerful learning experience and something that should be celebrated."

The 2023 Program

History came to life for Steel Valley students and community members as they toured the 2023 edition of the Barrett Elementary Black History Month Interactive Living Museum on Thursday, February 23.

Developed by the Barrett Special Events Committee and the passion project of second grade teacher Ms. Jonette Bost, the Interactive Living Museum is an annual celebration of history, heritage, culture and families. This year's theme was Black Resistance and reminded everyone, "You have the strength and courage to inspire others and change the world."

Each grade of students wound their way through the exhibits and displays as they learned about various aspects of Black history. The displays featured information about major historical figures, entertainers, athletes and artists, educated visitors on the cultural influences from the Caribbean, Egypt and the rest of Africa, and shared the origin and traditions of Kwanzaa.

Cynthia Battles, a gifted storyteller versed in traditional African folklore, shared stories when students stopped by the music room. Artwork made by Barrett kindergartners, elementary art teacher Ms. Caralee McGraw, and Steel Valley seventh graders Effie Seidling, Otis Jolo and Jeremiah Owens dotted the exhibit area.

Students and visitors also had the opportunity to grab a delicious bite to eat in the Soul Food Kitchen, take photos in front of cutouts of famous figures, and interact with a number of wax figures portrayed by Steel Valley Middle School and High School students, as well as alumni and volunteers. Visitors could walk up to one of the figures and press a button on the wall to learn more about their contributions to Black history.

Below is a list of all of the wax figures and the individual who brought them to life, as listed in the official program:

Steel Valley Middle School Students

  • Rosa Parks (Kyrae Harris Wade
  • Muhammad Ali (Matthew Fulmore)
  • Robert Abbott (Damarion Hill)
  • Barack Obama (Ray'Dvon Harris)
  • Kamala Harris (Perfection Huirston)
  • Whitey Houston (Kierra Sanders)

Steel Valley High School Students

  • Madame C.J. Walker (Londyn Askew)
  • Franco Harris (Jason Bethune-Curry)
  • Ciera (Ariah Morton)
  • Swin Cash (J. Loni Garland)
  • Joe Lewis (Phillip Pick)
  • George Washington Carver (Greg Davis)
  • Malcolm X (Rasaun Hough)
  • Michelle Obama (Ryan Cameron)
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. (Vinton Keller)
  • Serena Williams (Alexis Menefee)
  • Venus Williams (Tiera Menefee)
  • Juice Wrld (Wendoll Slade)
  • Jack Johnson (Pharaoh Conway)
  • Russell Wilson (Cayson Simpkins)

Steel Valley alumni and volunteers

  • Rihanna (Tierra Hughes, Class of '17)
  • Fannie Jackson Coppin (Shallegra Moye, The Pittsburgh Study)
  • Jackie Robinson (Kevin Clarke, Community Liaison)

To close out the day, everyone was treated to a few student performances. Wendoll Slade performed Juice Wrld's "Reminds Me of You," Kierra Sanders performed Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing," and Teirra Hughes performed Rihanna's "Take a Bow." As a finale, Slade joined Pharaoh Conway and Chaya Beatty to perform "Glory" by Common and John Legend.

Photos from the 2023 Barrett Elementary Black History Month Interactive Living Museum

Photos from the 2023 Barrett Elementary Black History Month Interactive Living Museum

"Step Afrika! At The Byham Theater"

Barrett Elementary students as well as a group of Steel Valley Middle School and Steel Valley High School students attended the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust School Day Matinee performance of "Step Afrika!" The touring professional company performs shows dedicated to the art of stepping - which they describe as a "polyrhythmic, percussive dance form that uses the body as an instrument."

Step Afrika! has deep roots in traditionally African American fraternities and sororities, but it also incorporates elements of dance, percussion, and call-and-response sequences found in a variety of African dances and music. The high energy show included plenty of audience interaction, helping the students gain an understanding of the basic stepping techniques, its relationship with Greek Life at colleges and universities, and much more.

Along with kindergarten through fourth graders from Barrett, select students from the Middle School and High School who will be helping out with the 2023 Barrett Black History Month Living Museum also were able to attend the show.

Barrett Elementary students take in Step Afrika performance at the Byham Theater

Barrett Elementary students participate in an interactive portion of Step Afrika performance at the Byham Theater

Steel Valley High School students take in the Step Afrika performance at the Byham Theater

Steel Valley Middle School students take in the Step Afrika performance at the Byham Theater


"The Greatest Wealth Is Health"

A banner promoting the 2022 Black History Month Interactive Living Museum

Steel Valley’s Barrett Elementary students had an interactive experience with Black history on Thursday, February 24 as they joined the community in touring the Black History Month Interactive Living Museum.

Kindergarten, first grade, second grade, third grade and fourth grade students toured each exhibit, where they learned about Martin Luther King Jr., African American Olympic athletes, Djembe drums, African Jewelry, delicious recipes, the history and legacy of Freedom House, African Masks, African American inventors, and much more.

As the students toured the exhibits, they came across wax figures stationed throughout the building. With a press of a hand on the wall, these figures started to speak and share their contributions to Black history and American culture.

Steel Valley High School students and alumni portrayed the figures. This year's cast featured Kayden Jefferson-Machiote (singer Donna Summer), Chamarra Ford (singer Aaliyah), Vinton Kellar (civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.), Nakiah Marshman (singer Lauryn Hill), Alijah Richardson-Beck (television host Oprah Winfrey), Wendoll Slade (singer Juice Wrld), Paul Townsend (musician Bob Marley), Zoey Townsend (civil rights activist Ruby Bridges), Nyjair Wilkerson (singer Michael Jackson), Shamirah Woods (abolitionist Harriet Tubman), Kamiyah McLemore (singer Beyonce), Tarai Jones (singer Janet Jackson), Lorraine West (singer Ella Fitzgerald), Danielle Chaffin (former First Lady Michelle Obama), and Kwamaine Cas (entertainer Montell Jordan). Students Shalawn Parker and Shatrya Parker portrayed Black Panther and Shuri from the Avengers as part of a photo booth.

The afternoon wrapped with a handful of musical performances, including three songs by Steel Valley students Wendoll Slade, Kayden Jefferson-Machicote and Nyjair Wilkerson. Wilkerson's performance of "Stand Up" featured the entire cast of wax figures conducting choreography put together by student Chamarra Ford.

Contributors to this year's experience included storyteller Cynthia Battle, Duquesne University's Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh, numerous Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Homestead Mayor John Burwell, Leslie McPherson of Muscles by McPherson, MUSA, UPMC, Rachel Sew and WQED, and the University of Pittsburgh's 3Rs program. Community displays spotlighted health and wellness resources from Mon Yough (MYCS), Steel Valley Wellness Group, Turtle Creek Valley Community Services, UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital and RESOLVE crisis center. 

Photos from the 2022 Museum

Click on the first photo to view larger and to click through the entire gallery.

Pittsburgh Cultural Trust performers present Black History month program to Barrett Elementary students

Visitors from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust stopped by Barrett Elementary in the Steel Valley School District on Monday, February 7 for a special assembly celebrating Black History Month. The group of performers relayed an important message about collaboration and working together and how that can be achieved when you help, share, listen and have courage. 

The performers put on an interactive program that incorporated drums, storytelling, colorful fabrics, singing, dancing, and even got to see some capoeira, which is a African-Brazilian form of martial arts that blends dance, acrobatics and music. The students had a chance to participate throughout the program and learned a little something new about different cultures.


2019 - "Honoring The Past, Inspiring The Future"

Each grade level focused on a different area. Kindergarten celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr; first graders focused on sports and entertainment; second graders highlighted game changers; third graders explored soul food and recipies; and fourth graders delved into the Underground Railroad. The students created artifacts for the displays while alumni portrayed wax figures like Condoleezza Rice, Michelle Obama, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Lauryn Hill, Etta James and Michael Jackson while providing entertainment.

Check out the full program for the 2019 experience.

2020 - "Building Bridges, Breaking Barriers"

Kindergarten celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr; first graders focused on sports and entertainment; second graders highlighted African culture; third graders explored soul food and recipies; and fourth graders delved into the Underground Railroad. Alumni again portrayed wax figures like Muhammad Ali, Allyson Felix, Toni Harris, Lisa Leslie, Wilma Rudolph, Michelle Obama, Sojourner Truth, Madam C.J. Walker, Irene Cara, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Montell Jordan, Alicia Keys, Norm Lewis, Bob Marley, Janelle Monae and Pittsburgh's own August Wilson while providing entertainment.

The program expanded to include exhibits celebrating African American military service, including the Buffalo Soldiers and Tuskegee Airmen. There was also information on Historically Black Colleges and Universities as well as a stronger connection with local community groups. The Harmony Club of Homestead, the Josh Gibson Foundation, WAMO and others all participated.

Check out the full program for the 2020 experience.

2021 - "The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity"

COVID-19 closed the museum, but the celebration of Black history continued on. The Special Events Committee organized a special walking tour with the help of The Waterfront, sign creators and local businesses. Behind a collection of books and yard signs, the group sparked important conversations to share not just the love of reading but to engage the community in important topics.

Billboard promoting the 2021 virtual version of interactive museum

Billboard advertising 2021 virtual version of interactive museum