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By Julie Moulton, Keene Community Education
There are only two Americans remembered in Canterbury Cathedral’s Chapel of Saints and Martyrs in England. You can easily guess one of them: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The other might very well be a name you’ve never heard before: Jonathan Daniels. And you’ll likely be very surprised to know that Jonathan Daniels was born right here in New Hampshire. Daniels was a young civil rights worker who went to Alabama in the 1950s to work for equal rights for African Americans. While there, he was shot and killed by a local sheriff as he walked into a village store to buy a soda. Keene Community Education is located in the former Jonathan Daniels School in Keene, the town where Daniels was born.
This past October, English as a Second Language students who attend classes there went on an enlightening and fascinating journey through the brief but powerful life of Jonathan Daniels. Book discussion facilitator Bill Badgley used the short novel Decency and Nobility: The Life of Jonathan Myrick Daniels by Ivy Jeanne Merrill provided by the Connections program at New Hampshire Humanities, to guide these discussions. Through documents, photos and timelines, Bill brought students through American history, starting with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in North America, through emancipation, segregation and integration. This historical context, which was returned to regularly as we read Daniel’s biography, helped students appreciate the magnitude of Jonathan’s dedication to equality for African Americans, even as he knew his life was in great danger for the justice work he was doing and the values that guided his work.
There were many moments during the Connections series when the impact of the book and the conversations we were having were clear. One activity Bill created had students work in small groups to decide which of Dr. King’s six Principles of Nonviolence was most important. This activity required students to very closely evaluate the meaning of each principle, decide how important it was, and then “convince” their group members why it was the most important principle. One student, a young man from Haiti, chose the principle, “Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate. Nonviolence resists violence of the spirit as well as the body” as the most important. He argued, “If we use violence to fight violence, we are not strong. You must be strong to not fight.” The language, social, and team-building skills this activity required helped strengthen students’ confidence in English, but also their connection to each other.
In addition to the powerful and insightful Connections and conversations Bill expertly facilitated in the classroom, we also had the privilege of going on a tour of many of the sites in downtown Keene that are also connected to Jonathan Daniels. These sites included his childhood home, the church he joined, and the beautiful mural which portrays Jonathan and a child he was teaching to read in Alabama. The tour was led by Jenna Carroll, Education Director at the Historical Society of Cheshire County, and it created an even stronger connection for our students and staff to Jonathan.
Our Connections series gave all of us, staff and students alike, a whole new appreciation of and connection with our country’s and our town’s history. Best of all, it gave our students a powerfully positive experience that will be long-lasting, as demonstrated by the words of a young woman from India. When asked, “Does Daniels’ story fill you mostly with hope or with sadness?” she answered, “I feel like after reading this book, I’m getting my hope back and I want to fight for justice like I did when I was in school.”
To learn more about the New Hampshire Humanities Connections program, please visit www.nhhumanities.org/Connections.
New Hampshire Humanities programs are made possible in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this these programs do not necessarily represent those of the NEH or New Hampshire Humanities.