Ryann Dawson, an eighth-grader who attends St. Luke Parish School, 519 Ashland Ave. in River Forest, has read classics of African-American literature, particularly W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk. She has studied Booker T. Washington’s famous “Atlanta Compromise” speech, delivered in 1895. She’s read Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
The intellectual load is what you’d encounter in a college undergraduate or advanced high school course. For Dawson, engaging with that material is preparation both for a rare opportunity and for life.
The St. Luke student will represent Illinois in the National History Day contest held virtually, June 12-16. Dawson’s history teacher, James Bratager, said she’s one of 67 students from Illinois who will compete nationally. Roughly 11,000 students across the state competed in five categories: video documentary, exhibit, performance, website and paper, he said.
Dawson, who plans to attend Fenwick High School next year, won the statewide performance category for “The Negro Question: Integration v. Segregation, From Slave to Scholars,” a roughly 10-minute dialogue between the great 20th century Black scholar W.E.B. DuBois and the famous Black philanthropist Booker T. Washington.
“This was a debate post-Civil War about whether or not African Americans should integrate or segregate,” Dawson said in a recent interview. “My project focuses on DuBois’ ideals of the Talented Tenth and expanding as a people by becoming scholars and having certain people advance, and Washington’s ideas of segregation and evolving as a people on their own.”
Dawson, who lives in Broadview, said she lives surrounded by Black history and culture, mainly due to the activity of her parents, Brian and ShaRhonda Dawson. The Dawsons are the founders of Brondihouse, an organization that conducts workshops and creates resources “for students, educators and organizations to learn about foundational Black History,” particularly history and culture rooted in West Africa, according to its website.
Their Broadview home is a virtual museum of Black cultural memory, extending from African civilizations that existed thousands of years ago to the modern achievements of African Americans like Barack Obama and Harold Washington. In February and March, they displayed some of their artifacts in an exhibition at the Oak Park Public Library.
“I grew up in a house with a lot of Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey ideals,” Ryann said. “My mom is very much an Afrocentric person and learning about our roots. That’s been a really big part of me as well. The [Pan-African Flag] flies outside of my house.”
Last week, Bratager and Dawson, both poised to represent the state in June, wore matching “Team Illinois” T-shirts. They represent St. Luke’s rich tradition of high performance in the state and national History Day contests.
“Ryann’s the fourth kid we’re sending to Nationals,” Bratager said. “We sent two in 2013 and one in 2018.”
Even in this year’s statewide competition, St. Luke was rather dominant, with two of the six state finalists in the website category hailing from the River Forest Catholic school. Bratager said the consistently high performance is fueled by his classroom creed that his students, including Ryann, can rattle off from memory: “You’re not going to waste your mama’s money, your talent, or my time.”
It’s also fueled by his teaching motto, which he very succinctly summed up when asked what sparks his passion for history and teaching.
“For me, it’s six words,” Bratager said. “Every story needs to be told.”