Black history comes to life for children through recreation photo shoots – Poughkeepsie Journal

Black history comes to life for children through recreation photo shoots – Poughkeepsie Journal


Ondie James, of Majesty 6:33 Productions, collaborates with photographer Myles Pinkney in an educational project that brings Black History to life. Barbara Gallo Farrell/Poughkeepsie Journal, Wochit

Last February, Ondie James came up with a creative way to engage two of her grandchildren while they were in her care due to a snow day from school.

As it was Black History Month, James decided to have the girls, Saniyah, 6, and Oriana, 4, dress up like African-American figures from history.

They pulled a dress here, a hat there and other assorted clothing and accessories from James’ closet, assembling and donning outfits to make the girls look like activists Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks, first lady Michelle Obama, and singers Lena Horne and Billie Holiday.

James snapped 20 or so pictures of the costumed kids on her iPhone, then posed the images on Facebook. Each was accompanied by a photo of the iconic person after whom the child’s pose was modeled and tagged with a caption that talked about the person.

“They caught on very quickly about the people we were talking about,” James said of her granddaughters. “Whatever they didn’t know, that was an opportunity for them to be educated and learn in a fun way.”

So fun, it turned out, that they continued day-after-day with James posting the photos on social media. And, it’s taken off since then.

The legendary dress-up sessions have evolved into a photo project James calls Legacy Makers: Past, Present & Future, which has incorporated more area children to create larger-scale photos in public settings.

The scope has grown with the help of a volunteer professional photographer, and the contributions of area organizations and officials.

The project is aimed at inspiring young people to learn about, emulate and walk in the footsteps of great leaders and continue their rich legacy. From kids dressed and photographed as iconic African Americans in entertainment, political, civil rights, sports and other industries, to more expansive expressions, the project now brings together kids and adults for photographed reenactments of historic civil rights events, with many of the children costumed as adults of the day.

The next shoot is scheduled for Oct. 20 at Hudson Valley Regional Airport in Wappingers Falls. It will feature the Tuskegee Airmen, a skilled unit of African-American fighter pilots of the U.S. Army Air Force that fought during World War II.

James, a City of Poughkeepsie native, said she was “blown away” by the response to her initial photos of her grandchildren, noting she “couldn’t even keep track of how many people were sharing it, commenting.”

They posed as singer Smokey Robinson, former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, activist Dorothy Height and singer/pianist Jill Scott, the latter photographed at a piano studio in Poughkeepsie. For another photo, they secured a school bus for pictures of the girls dressed as Parks and Scott King. They brought in a young boy who posed as human rights activist Malcolm X.

To her grandchildren, “I told them that this was their culture,” she said. “That this was black history and a lot of these people contributed to American history. Black history is American history — our culture and our heritage.”

Growing scope

James is the founder and president of Majesty 6:33 Productions in Poughkeepsie, a business/ministry that empowers others through the arts and youth mentorship, which now hosts the shoots.

The first was held in May and based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, a three-day civil rights event in Alabama that centered on black people’s voter rights. James studied photos and videos of the historic march, recruited children and adults, amassed dollar-store clothing and accessories, connected with photographer Myles Pinkney of Myles Studio Photography in Highland, and secured the photo shoot location near the pedestrian bridge at Marist College.

In all, some 20 kids and adults participated in the event, including youngsters from about 5-16 years old. Then James posted the photos on Facebook.

“Same thing,” she said of the reaction. “It took off.”

In August, the project completed its second photo shoot, a small staging at College Hill Park in Poughkeepsie of the 1963 March on Washington, where tens of thousands of people gathered in support of civil rights.

In addition to the costumed children and adults that modeled for the pictures, the event also featured Newburgh Mayor Torrance Harvey as guest speaker, and was attended by clergy, youth mentors and other community members, including Poughkeepsie Mayor Rob Rolison, Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro and Poughkeepsie Councilwoman Yvonne Flowers. Prior to the event, Rolison and Flowers toured the park’s grounds and ensured the Poughkeepsie Department of Public Works attended to its maintenance before the photo shoot. City workers also provided a podium adorned with the seal of the City of Poughkeepsie for the occasion.

Support from the community has been broad, James said. Other groups that have participated in the photo shoots include the Upsilon Tau Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Community Matters 2, Nubian Directions, Brothers at Bard at Bard College and Readers Are Leaders, among others.

“This is a wonderful way to expand on kids’ education outside of the class and playing the part where you can really feel and then express (it),” James said. “It goes beyond education and becomes an experience that they don’t forget.”

Seventh-grader Janessa Thomas, 12, who goes to Poughkeepsie Middle School, participated in both of the project’s photo shoots and said they gave her a deeper understanding of the importance of fairness for all. She said she also felt that Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders helped open opportunities for all people.

“I learned that everybody should be treated equally,” she said, where different people doing the same thing should receive equal treatment by others, whether the acts are good or bad.

“More people should be able to do more things,” said Thomas, whose favorite school subject is math but wants to be a dance choreographer when she gets older.

‘Reenactment helps them understand’

Pinkney donated his services for the photo shoots.

“I see it as an awesome idea, especially the part of working with youth and working with a time of African-American history, and reenacting history,” he said. “I thought it was a cool way of doing it.”

Pinkney and James shared ideas and processes for the photo shoots to ensure the resulting images were accurate to the historic events and true to James’ vision. Not only were the finished photos more powerful than he’d imagined they’d be, but the kids were great, he said. 

“You can tell, when the children dressed up in the outfits, they’d take on the persona of the outfit,” Pinkney said. “We talked about the impact. I think they listened more — in school, it goes right over their head — in this situation because reenactment helps them understand a little bit better.”

During the photo shoot he and James talked with the kids about what everything represented.

“So many things are happening now, today, in regard to race issues,” Pinkney said. “A lot of kids don’t understand. This helps them understand better. All the things we had to go through to get to where we’re at. They understand why they marched and what they had to go through to march.”

And now, he and James are talking about creating a children’s book from the photos or possibly featuring them in a gallery or museum show to reach and connect with more people.

“If anything, especially with the younger (kids), I think they realized this was something big,” Pinkney said.

Jah’man Blades, 9, of Poughkeepsie, learned about King in school so he knew who the civil rights activist was when he dressed and acted like him for the Selma March and participated in the March on Washington photo shoots. Playing King didn’t make Blades feel differently about himself, but he liked acting the part and would like to do other photo projects with the group. 

“He created rights for black and white people to do everything together,” said Blades, who enjoys computer games and wants to be a police officer when he grows up. “He helped people to be good people.”

Blades’s grandfather, Keith Blades, said he’s proud of his grandson.

“He got more out of it than I really thought he did,” said Keith Blades, adding that his grandson loves to learn. “He’s very bright.” 

More photo shoots are in the works. Already, James has set her sights on photos that replicate an image of 34 black female cadets from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s Class of 2019. Others include costumed kids as tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, and basketball greats Stephen Curry and Michael Jordan.

Ultimately, James would like for the kids to have a moment with those they’ve portrayed, as possible, for a genuine learning experience.

“I can take it further, so much further,” she said, “where we are actually going to meet these people that we’re talking about.”

Karen Maserjian Shan is a freelance writer:

If you go

What: Legacy Makers: Past, Present & Future, Tuskegee Airmen Youth Photoshoot, ages 6-18

When: Noon-2:30 p.m., Oct. 20

Where: Hudson Valley Regional Airport, 263 New Hackensack Road, Wappingers Falls

Information: For more on the shoot, including how to volunteer to model, visit

On the Web

Majesty 6:33 Productions:

Myles Studio Photography:

African American History Month:

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