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Children walked through a living museum event (Saturday, February 18, 2017), at the Robert E. Lee Community Recreation Center. The event, sponsored by Dream City, featured local children presenting and personifying and important figures in black history. Black History Month occurs every February. (The Daily Iowan/Olivia Sun)

Iowa City’s Dream Divas and the Dream City presented an interactive museum to celebrate African American figures, past and present.

When asked who invented the light bulb, most Americans say Thomas Edison. Far fewer would know that it was the invention of the filament by African American inventor and draftsman Lewis Latimer that kept the bulb lit. For most students, Black History Month consisted of the retelling of the Civil Rights Movement and the actions of such figures as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. But this presentation of popular African-American figures leaves the work of less-popular figures ignored.

The Dream City, a nonprofit organization in Iowa City, along with the Dream Divas, has worked to change this.

Following last year’s success, the center and the Dream Divas held their second “Black History Living Museum” Feb. 18 at the Robert A. Lee Community Center, 220 S. Gilbert St.

Frederick Newell, the executive director and founder of the Dream City, said the event gives Iowa City youth the opportunity to learn about figures who have escaped attention during their academic careers, a responsibility Newell believes falls on him and the community.

“Lots of times, many, especially young African Americans, don’t know a lot about our history,” Newell said. “I put a lot of that on myself, as well as, others who work with [the students] every day. We have to be more intentional in teaching this type of history.”

Newell said he believes the interactive museum is important because it gives students the opportunity to do research, and to find historical figures that they feel they would have wanted to be.

These interactive presentations featured students dressed as Maya Angelou, performing gymnastics like Gabby Douglas, singing works by Nina Simone, and mastering the dialect of Muhammad Ali.

One student said she chose to be Helen Lemme, a civil-rights advocate and former resident of Iowa City, because she wanted to know more about people who aren’t traditionally taught in schools during Black History Month.

Lemme, along with her husband Allyn, used their Iowa City home to provide room and board for African American students at the University of Iowa who were not allowed to live in the residence halls until 1946.

MeLissia Caston, who works with the Dream Divas, said the event serves as an alternative to book reports and gives Iowa City youth the chance to perform, which she hopes will encourage more young people to join the program.

“Last year, they came up with the idea to do something different and try to get the kids to be that person instead of just doing a book report,” Caston said. “It was a chance for the students to say, ‘I am that person, and this is what I did and offered to the community.’ ”

Iowa City community members have noticed and shown their support for the programs and the events. Iowa City resident Annie Tucker said she is excited to be learning in-depth about African American historical figures from the students.

“I came last year and I was moved by it,” Tucker said. “It’s phenomenal to see kids research someone and begin to understand their lives, what they dealt with, what they accomplished, and what it took to accomplish that.”

She said it was “really powerful to see our kids in our community doing this.”

Newell said the Dream City and the Dream Divas would like to bring the living museum back again next year, as interest and student involvement continues to grow.

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