We Celebrate Black History Month 2009
Miles Dean: Literacy Cowboy
By Lisa K. Winkler
Every morning, Miles Dean stands in the second floor landing and shakes every child’s hand as they all climb up the stairs at Chancellor Avenue School in Newark, NJ. He pulls them in, wishing each good morning. Dean then enters his room, just inside the fire doors, where, as a literacy tutor of 3rd through 8th graders, he infuses his passion for horses and the Wild West into his lessons. Slogans like “Take A Ride with Me to Literacy” accompany assorted cowboy memorabilia—saddles, bridles, a bale of hay, horse nibbles, chaps, suspenders, and hats decorate the classroom; and photographs, many of Dean atop a horse, line the walls.
This time last year, Dean was in the midst of a five month, cross-country trail ride he organized to celebrate the contributions of African-Americans in settling the western frontier, using a horse for transportation. “I try to bring non-traditional, creative ways into the classroom. The artifacts generate questions from students. They can see who I am, and understand my dedication,” Dean said in an interview with Education Update.
Dean founded the Black Heritage Riders organization in 1994, and by 2000 had begun planning his coast-to-coast educational odyssey. Thanks to support from school administrators, he took a leave of absence last year, leaving in September from Manhattan’s African Burial Grounds, traveling through 13 states, and ending in California on April 1. Students followed the journey through his website, www.BlackHeritageRiders.com, and through podcasts produced by the Star-Ledger newspaper.
Dean, an actor, activist, playwright, and cowboy, said he spoke to thousands of people along the way—school groups, community organizations and penal institutions. He not only championed African American achievements from the early 1500s through the 1800s, but addressed topics not covered in most history books. He holds his goal as an example to his students. “I want them to see it’s possible to step outside the box. To complete this, I had to be focused, task-oriented. I want them to realize there’s nothing they can’t do if they set priorities and are determined,” he said.
To further promote the contributions of African-American horsemen, Dean is launching a new initiative: the National Day of the Black Jockey, set for Memorial Day weekend in Louisville, Kentucky. He’s made a promotional video that chronicles how black jockeys helped popularize horse racing, beginning in 1875, until they were pushed out by the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1900s. “I believe that if you teach a child culture, they can learn math, science, language arts, and history, and everything else,” he said.
The Black Heritage Riders Inc. is now a private foundation focusing on promoting enrichment in education. To learn more, contact Dean through his website, www.BlackHeritageRiders.com.#