IRVINGTON, N.J. — In 2013, Sandra Hayward quizzed the children she knew. What, she wondered, would convince them to spend a Saturday learning about black history?
Snacks and the freedom to speak their minds, they said. She promised both and set to work.
Five years and thousands of bags of potato chips later, Hayward has created a monthly hub for black history in this small city west of Newark.
Over the course of 63 programs, she has overseen lessons about Thurgood Marshall, Frederick Douglass and many others whose stories are, if not exactly lost, then not easily found in many school classrooms, from the pioneering anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells to the historian Carter G. Woodson to the educator Mary McLeod Bethune.
“I wanted the children to have knowledge of themselves and their culture,” Hayward said. “They need their history to know who they are.”
The program takes place one day a month in a small room in the basement of the city’s public library. Hayward, 52, is not a teacher; she is a day-care provider who also runs a photography business. But she became determined to start a youth program after visiting the People’s Organization for Progress, a social justice group based in Newark, in 2012. Scanning the timeline of historical events distributed at the group’s meetings, she was stunned by all she did not know.
“I thought, ‘Who is this? When did this happen? Does everybody in here know about this besides me?'” she said.
Hayward realized that her education had left out many important stories. “I was so angry,” she said. “And I didn’t want the children to miss all that like I did.”
She learned that a 2002 state law, the Amistad bill, requires New Jersey schools to incorporate African-American history into the social studies curriculum, but worried that it was being ignored.
Her sister, Nettina, coined the name for Hayward’s program: Popcorn Kidz (People’s Organization for Progress, Children of Right Now). Hayward chose the motto — “Teaching and Learning with Integrity” — and recruited a friend, Zayid Muhammad, who suggested that lessons mix important events with birthday celebrations of the living and dead.
The results are wide-ranging conversations, seeded with dozens of names and events that Muhammad asks those assembled to repeat, again and again, to make sure the stories linger long after the lesson is over.
On a Saturday in late March, 30 people packed the small room for an afternoon that would cover more than a hundred years of news: from Thomas Mundy Peterson, the first African-American to vote in the United States, to Linda Brown and school desegregation, to Stephon Clark, the man who was shot and killed in March by police officers in Sacramento, California.
The program now draws as many curious adults as children; the youngest attendee was 2, the oldest, Nat Williams, was an 86-year-old Korean War veteran from Montclair.
“I’ve learned so much since I’ve been here,” Williams said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Jaelyn Charles, an 8-year-old who lives in Irvington, has been a regular since she was 3.
“I think it’s very exciting learning about history,” she said. “I loved learning about — can I say them all?”
She took a breath.
“Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King. A lot of what they teach us here, we didn’t even learn in school yet.”
At each session, Hayward presides over a table covered with African cloth and topped with framed photos to match the monthly subjects. She seeks the youngest likenesses of each person she can find.
“I want the children to see them at the beginning of their story, to see they were young, too,” she said.
While the mood is often joyful — as when the group made birthday cards for Nelson Mandela — the subjects can be painful. Attendees have listened to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” to discuss lynching; seen images from Bloody Sunday, the assault by the police on Civil Rights marchers in Selma, Alabama; and heard about segregation firsthand.
Hayward invited Claudette Colvin to visit one of her programs. Colvin was just 15 when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, nine months before Rosa Parks.
“She told them she had Sojourner Truth on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman on the other,” Hayward said. “The children were enthralled. You could’ve heard a mouse run through that room.”
People have discovered Popcorn Kidz mostly through word-of-mouth. Nicole Ellis, a home-schooling mother from Newark, learned about it from a librarian last summer. She has brought her children, ages 11 and 12, each month since.
“Sandra gives the children free range to question and learn,” she said. “What the schools aren’t doing, she’s making up for.”
The way black history is taught — or not — in schools is a concern for many who visit the program. At the March program, a guest speaker, Stephanie James Harris, the executive director of the Amistad Commission at the state’s Department of Education, described the commission’s work monitoring progress in upholding the Amistad bill’s mandate.
While the commission has created a free, comprehensive online textbook to support schools’ efforts, Harris said challenges remain in a state whose schools are among the most segregated in the nation.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” she said.
She praised the program and Hayward for providing children with “narratives that make them proud.”
“It’s giving them vision,” she said. “Sandra is giving time and effort and love. Sixty-three Saturdays. You can’t envision anybody dedicating themselves to that without it being a calling.” (The sessions are held on Saturday, except during the summer when they are held on Friday.)
Around 5 p.m., three hours after the March program had begun, it was still going strong.
“This’ll be another day we close the place down,” Hayward said happily.
She had spotted several new children in the room and was pleased.
“That’s how I measure my success,” she said. “If I walk in one day and not one kid comes, then I’ll know I’m done. But if just one kid is sitting here, we’re going to sit and talk as long as they want to talk.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.