First Lady Guides District Children Through a History Lesson
The Post's DeNeen L. Brown was the pool reporter today for a visit by District schoolchildren to the White House. Her report:
First lady Michelle Obama invited about 180 students from D.C. schools to the East Room of the White House today for a celebration of African American History Month and to hear a performance by the famous a cappella ensemble, "Sweet Honey in the Rock."
The pool was invited into the East Room about 4 p.m. (Also included in the audience were children of White House staff.)
The program began about 4:10 p.m. with an introduction by Chief Usher of the White House, Admiral Rochon.
Rochon, who the White House says always works behind the scenes, was invited by Mrs. Obama to share his personal story with the students. Rochon welcomed the students to the White House and gave a "special welcome to the first daughters, Malia and Sasha, and their wonderful grandmother," Marian Robinson, who sat in the front row. (Sasha wore red and had a silver head band. Malia was in yellow.)
Rochon told the students: "How exciting it is for me to come into the White House and greet the president and the first lady every day." He told the students a bit about the history of the White House -- that "the house was built by African-American slaves and freed men. I am the first African American to lead the staff."
Rochon acknowledged Bill Hamilton as the longest serving employee of the White House. Hamilton, who stood at the side of the East Room, has been working at the White House for 51 years. Hamilton waved as the audience applauded.
Rochon told the students: "If you wish to succeed in life, study hard and listen to your parents and to your teachers.... Do the right things for the right reasons.... Deep down inside, you know what is right and wrong.... Strive to do your best at whatever you do, but be humble."
Rochon introduced the first lady who came into the room to applause from the students.
Mrs. Obama told the students she hoped they were listening closely to the admiral's story, "Because this is a very wise man who is a very amazing professional in his own right. And he has made our transition to this place just fun and welcoming. He is our friend."
She told the students that Rochon's rise came from hard work. "Like Barack and I, the Admiral didn't rise to his position because of wealth or because he had a lot of material resources. See, we were all very much kids like you guys. We just figured out one day that our fate was in our own hands. We made decisions to listen to our parents and to our teachers, and to work very, very hard for everything in life. And then we worked harder any time anybody doubted us."
She invited the students to visit the White House often, because she said it should be a place of "learning and for sharing new and different ideas, sharing new forms of art and culture, and history and different perspectives."
Mrs. Obama added: "So many milestones in black history have touched this very house. Just to name a few, did you know that African-American slaves helped to build this house?"
"Yes!" the students responded.
Mrs. Obama stood on a stage in the East Room. On either side of the stage were huge oil paintings. On one side was a painting of the first first lady, Martha Washington, and on the other, a painting of President George Washington.
Mrs. Obama shared other moments in black history with the students. "Did you know that right upstairs in a bedroom called the Lincoln Bedroom, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that marked an important step forward in ending slavery? Did you know that happened right here?"
The children responded: yes. And she told them about former president Rutherford B. Hayes, who was president in 1878 when soprano Marie Seilka became "the first African-American artist to perform right here in the White House. That was in 1878. Did you know that? Because I didn't know that."
Mrs. Obama told the students about Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders who met here in the White House with presidents Kennedy and Johnson to talk about ending segregation.
"Pretty cool, huh?" Mrs. Obama said.
And she asked them whether they knew who lives in the White House now and why he was making history.
A girl in the audience answered: "He is the first African American president of the United States."
Mrs. Obama asked the girl to stand. "Very good," Mrs. Obama said. "So you guys know your history. That's a good thing. That means your parents and teachers are doing their jobs."
After Mrs. Obama spoke, the group Sweet Honey in the Rock took the stage, singing "This Little Light of mine. I'm going to let it shine." They too shared lessons of African American History with the students.
They sang a "Ballad of Harry T. Moore," a civil rights activist whose home was bombed.
They also sang: "All I have to do;" "Education is the Key;" "Do What the Spirit Says to Do;" "When I Grow up;" "Young and Positive" ; "I Like That Way."
Sweet Honey ended with "Civil Rights Medley/ Ella's Song."
Posted at 7:39 PM ET on Feb 18, 2009
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