Hillside High teens meet history makers

Sep. 27, 2013 @ 05:53 PM

When Herman Foushee was 15, he started his own shoeshining business and worked for 75 cents an hour as a dishwasher at a Chapel Hill restaurant.

This was during the days of segregation, and one day, the restaurant manager told him, “It won’t be this way always.”

Foushee is now a financial chief executive and radio host. He’s also president of the Howard University Alumni Association of N.C.

He and two other African-American leaders spoke to a class of 26 ninth graders at Hillside High School Friday, to share their individual paths to success.

“A lot of you don’t think you can’t get into a university or college, but believe me, the opportunities are out there,” Foushee said.

The discussion, reserved for a hand-picked group of young, talented Hillside students, was part of HistoryMakers, a national African-American oral history project used to inspire students. Stories from a younger Barack Obama to musician and actor Isaac Hayes have made the digital archive, which contains interviews from more than 2,000 African-American leaders.

Hillside was one of 230 schools across the nation on Friday that participated in the fourth annual “Back to School” HistoryMakers event.

Calvin Howell, a nuclear physicist and Duke University professor, showed the class a photo of a crowd, saying that physicists can be black or white, old or young. “There’s nothing special about being a physicist,” Howell said. “Human curiosity is what drives us to do what we do.”

Howell grew up with five siblings in Palmer Springs, Va. His father was a cement finisher, his mother was a teacher, and they all took care of the family farm. At 13 years old, Howell would help harvest the tobacco fields, taking late-morning breaks to enjoy a soda pop.

His father taught Howell and his brothers and sisters to have a mechanical mind. They learned how to fix machines at an early age.

“Well, a man built it,” his father would say. “I should be able to understand it.”

Howell said he grew up with an affinity for math and liked being nosy about nature. His physics team is now in a partnership with the Department of Homeland Security to help build technologies that screen cargo holds for nuclear material. The team also is looking at how radioactive carbon dioxide can speed along photosynthesis in plants.  

The third speaker, Kenneth Rodgers, became the art museum director at N.C. Central University in 1996. His uncle, J.J., always had a drawing pad with him, Rodgers said, and served as his inspiration. No one in his family had ever gone to college.

Rodgers shared a story with the classroom about a summer job he had as young man at a dog-food processing plant, where ground horse was used as the main ingredient. He had to haul ground horse meat from the back of a trailer into pans, losing his shoes and gaining a stench in the process.

From there, he pushed himself to get better at his craft and majored in art design at North Carolina A&T State University.

“You need to find something that maybe pushes you, that maybe motivates you,” Rodgers said.

He brought up the story of the late Ernie Barnes, a professional football player and artist who grew up in Durham and attended Hillside High. Barnes was bullied by classmates, who viewed him as chubby and un-athletic, and Barnes would find solace in his sketchbooks.

“He was large, people picked on him, they made fun of him,” Rodgers said, “but he always continued to do what he loved. He drew.”

Hip-hop artists Kanye West and Swizz Beatz are avid collectors of Barnes’ artwork, spending millions on one piece. “Ernie Barnes thought he would never reach those heights,” Rodgers said.

Before walking to third period, each of the 26 students had black “I Have Committed” stickers fastened to their shirts.

“Today, I commit to my education,” said the class, repeating the HistoryMakers pledge. “I do so knowing I will have to study and work hard.

“Today, I commit to my future based on knowledge of the past.”