The pupils laughed and danced in their seats in the A. Brian Merry Elementary School cafeteria Thursday as they waited for a family member of music royalty to join them.
All month long, the students have been reading about pioneers of black history, from the political and social achievements of President Obama to the abolitionist work of Harriet Tubman.
Now they got to see a link to history in person.
Deanna Brown-Thomas – a daughter of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown – spoke to third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Brian Merry Elementary about the importance of education. She used her father’s life story as a lesson to inspire pupils to take learning seriously.
“Education was important to him,” Brown-Thomas said. “My dad didn’t get a chance to go to high school or college. He stopped at the seventh grade because the family was poor, and he had to go to work … Even though he was not able to finish school and go to high school and college and get all those great degrees, he still applied hard work.”
Brown-Thomas’ voice was loud and enthusiastic as she spelled out the word ‘Education’ and used each letter to represent a different idea.
“E is for effort,” she began. “You got to put in an effort. You’ve got to at least try.”
Many of the students were star-struck with Brown-Thomas’ visit, including Karen McCuller, 8, who said, “I’ve never met no superstar before.”
Imani Bowen, 10, said meeting a legend’s daughter will add to the black history knowledge she has gained over the weeks of studying historic figures.
“I was really excited to meet James Brown’s daughter,” Bowen said. “I’ve like heard a lot about her and James Brown was a really good singer, but I never thought I’d get a chance to meet his daughter.”
Special education teacher Kim McNeal, an admitted James Brown mega-fan, said she coordinated Brown-Thomas’ visit by making a simple phone call.
McNeal asked whether she could speak to the children about her father and his legacy, and Brown-Thomas was happy to make an appearance.
“I really think a lot of these children this age, they’ve heard of James Brown, they know his music, but I don’t think they grasp at this age who he was,” McNeal said. “He did a lot for us, and we need to be proud of that.”
After her 30-minute presentation, Brown-Thomas said talking to the children is what her father would have wanted her to do. Although he never got a full education, Brown instilled the importance of school in his own children, she said.
He made himself a success by working hard and pulling himself out of poverty, she said. The virtue of hard work is what the Godfather of Soul wanted to see young people put into education.
Brown sent that message with songs such as Don’t be a Dropout and I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing, and now he’s sending that message through his daughter.
“If I can be a vessel to change what he strived for, I’m going to do that,” Brown-Thomas said. “It’s about impacting young children that need a positive image.”