All Magnus Hunter knew about Uncle Joseph was his name and that he was a prince.
When Robert Frost Elementary English Learners teacher Breanne Reamsnider wanted to profile his ancestor in the school’s Black History Month program this year, Hunter discovered that Uncle Joseph was Joseph Hannibal Caulker — the third Black student to attend Otterbein University. He traveled from Sierra Leone to attend Otterbein in 1896.
As part of Robert Frost’s program, Hunter and his father, Mark, created a video about their forefather, sharing details of his life in the U.S. and tracing his steps at Otterbein.
“It was a learning experience,” said Hunter, a sixth-grade student at Walnut Springs Middle School. “I didn’t know much about him before.”
Robert Frost has taken a new approach to their Black History Month program, partnering with the Westerville History Center and Museum to develop videos for students about important individuals in Westerville Black history.
“I want students to understand that Black history didn’t happen in some faraway place,” said Reamsnider, who organized the school’s program. “It didn’t happen in a different state. There are local connections, people who walked in the same streets we’re walking, lived in the buildings that are standing, went to schools that are still standing. There are landmarks we pass every day that are important in our community.”
In addition to Caulker, the school and the history center and museum created videos about educator and school principal William Fouse, the first black graduate at Westerville High School and Otterbein; Fouse’s parents, Sally and Squire, who were formerly enslaved and lived in Hanby House; Minerva France, a Westerville City Schools graduate, librarian and English teacher at Wilberforce University; Mary Alston, an art teacher and World War I nurse, who with her formerly-enslaved parents were connected to the naming of “Africa Road”; and William Thomas, who was the first Black student at Otterbein University and also a Civil War veteran and author.
Reamsnider worked with the museum in identifying local figures to highlight for each grade level. She considered the complexity of each individual when mapping out which grade to introduce them. For instance, Fouse was the focus for kindergarten students as he was a principal and one of the district’s schools is named after him — concepts students at that age could grasp.
She earmarked the video on Thomas, the first black student admitted to Otterbein in 1859 and faced racism throughout his life, for fifth-graders because his story is more complicated and would require more emotional depth.
Reamsnider worked with the history center and museum to develop scripts, which were narrated by Robert Frost staff. History center staff completed the videos by adding photographs and primary sources.
Nina Thomas, manager at the history center and museum, said their staff was excited to partner with Robert Frost on the project and were particularly impressed with Reamsnider’s vision.
“Often people amplify stories about hardship and trauma,” she said. “While that is part of the story, it's not the whole story. She wanted to highlight the amazing achievements of Black people from Westerville, not just the hardships they overcame.”
Thomas said the history center and museum are excited for future partnerships with the district to amplify stories that students may not have heard yet.
“It is a powerful experience, learning about people who lived where you live, achieving great things and creating lasting legacies for their families and communities,” she said. “We hope that students are inspired by these stories.”
Throughout February, students will watch the videos in class and discuss how the individual fits Robert Frost’s “Falcon Five” (I'm Safe, I'm Responsible, I'm Respectful, I'm Proud, I'm Ready to Learn!). Reamsnider developed extension activities for students that help deepen their understanding and connection with the person they learned about.
If students complete the optional extension activities each year, they will receive a Black BELT in Westerville Black History in fifth grade. BELT stands for a Book about diversity/Black history, Extra recess, Lunch (with a friend) and a Treat. This year's book, “Finding Langston,” was funded by the Westerville Education Foundation’s Many Voices project. Students will be invited to join a virtual book club to work through and discuss the book.
Reamsnider said she plans to have the video series become a permanent part of Robert Frost’s Black History Month program, providing a cohesive approach so students have a fuller picture of the local Black History.
For Magnus Hunter and his father, Mark, the project gave them an opportunity to reconnect with family history.
To prepare for the project, Mark Hunter reached out to family members to learn more about Caulker, who attended Otterbein in hopes of bringing what he learned back home to Sierra Leone. He took to campus life, becoming president of the Christian Endeavor Society, a member of the glee club and volunteer band. He also set the school record in the 100-yard dash. He died in a dorm fire several months before graduation in 1900. Otterbein awarded Caulker a posthumous degree in 1995.
Mark Hunter shared all that he learned with Hunter while they recorded the video, capturing his reactions to Caulker’s story in real-time.
“He had a huge opportunity to go to school where many people (like him) did not,” Hunter said. “I learned that if you try hard enough and dedicate your life to what you want to do, you can do anything.”
Mark Hunter recalled a comment from his aunt, who serves as his link to Caulker:
“She said it’s always important to have a relationship with our ancestors. When this project came up, I figured this was Uncle Joseph’s doing in some sort of way.”