Latoya McGriff wanted to bring history alive for the students and improve representation of black figures in history.
A first-grade teacher from Virginia went the extra mile to raise awareness on historically African American figures by dressing up as them during each day of Black History Month. Latoya McGriff's idea was to pique the interest of her students, who are predominantly black, about historical African American figures. The out-of-the-box approach also paved the way for interactive history crash courses at the Creekside Elementary School in Suffolk, Virginia. "I decided to dress up for Black History Month so that the kids are actually seeing a live person from history," McGriff told Good Morning America. "I just wanted to bring history alive for the kids," reported ABC News. NASA aeronautical engineer Mary Jackson, American Ballet Theatre's principal ballerina, Misty Copeland, and former President Barack Obama are just some of the people Latoya McGriff came dressed as.
McGriff believes it's important for young children to learn about historical figures they can identify with. She believes there isn't enough representation of the African American communities within history and wants to change that. "It is important for the children to see that people who look like them have made contributions because it reassures them that they can, too … It's hard to believe in something you don't see," said McGriff. She said dressing up as black historically important figures act as a conversation starter with students asking her all sorts of questions about who she's dressed up as. She then proceeds to explain about them, and their contribution to the country and the African American community.
McGriff has also been particular about putting the spotlight on historical figures from Virginia. Mary Jackson, the aeronautical engineer who was instrumental in developing the NASA Space Program, is one of her favorites. She was a mathematician and played a key role in sending the first astronaut into orbit. Mary Jackson's contribution went under the radar despite her huge contributions to NASA. "Mary Jackson personally influenced me because of her struggle. She was known as a human-computer, yet she wasn't even allowed in meetings because of the color of her skin and because she was a woman. Yet, she prevailed," said McGriff. Mary Jackson would retire from the NASA Langley Research Center in 1985 after 34 years with NASA. Janelle Monae portrayed Mary Jackson in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures.
McGriff didn't limit herself to just historical figures but also honored historically black colleges and universities, HBCUs, and Black Greek-letter organizations. "[Learning about these organizations] gives children something to look up to, and they get excited about wanting to go to school and get to college," said McGriff. "I hope that [the students] learn, no matter the circumstances, they can make a difference in this world. No matter where they come from, how they look, they can make a difference." She's also hoping other schools take it upon themselves to celebrate Black History Month and raise awareness about the same. "I hope that [people who see the story] will implement some type of Black History Month program in their school," said McGriff. "They don't have to dress up like I did … but, I just want people to incorporate black history so that other students of color can see themselves represented in history."
McGriff also dressed up as lesser-known figures such as James Lafayette, a former slave who became a spy during the Revolutionary War. She also came dressed as Dr. L.D. Britt, the first African American doctor in America to have an endowed chair in surgery and Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court's first African American justice. According to demographic statistics, Creekside Elementary almost 60% of the students are black with 25% of them being white.