Originally created 04/10/98

Homefront: Program explores history



The antique mirror held Ashley Anhalt for a moment.

"That's a bull's-eye mirror," said Cherie Prickett as she stood with the group of pupils from The Art Factory in the dining room of the Ezekiel Harris House Museum. "Count the balls around the mirror."

"Thirteen," said Ashley, 10.

"That's right. That represents ..."

"The 13 colonies?" Ashley interjected.

"Very good," Ms. Prickett said, a little surprised.

In a way, the program that brought Ashley and a dozen other pupils to the historic house is intended to be a mirror itself, helping them to see not only themselves but also the community around them. The program, begun in December, is a combination of writing and art for children who live in the Harrisburg community. They will explore their own family histories as well as the history of Harrisburg and, by the end of May, compile a book of writing and artwork that illustrates that history. The project will ultimately culminate in a mural in Harrisburg.

Before they walked through its narrow doors, many of the children didn't even know the house existed.

"I was born in Augusta, and I still didn't know this was here," said Fredrick Nunnalley, 10.

"I'm surprised nobody tore it down yet," said Christopher Owens, 11.

And unbeknownst to most of them, they are standing at the origin of their community and its name. Looking out from a sweeping second-floor porch across Broad Street to the mills and the canal beyond, Ms. Prickett asked them to imagine they were back in the 1790s when the home was built.

"None of this would have been there," she said. "The What-A-Burger, no, would not have been here." In fact, Harris named the community after himself in hope it would one day grow up to honor him.

"He wanted the town to rival Augusta," Ms. Prickett said. But it never really flourished until the Augusta Canal was widened in the 1870s and the mills were built along the canal.

"Once those mills came, Harrisburg started to thrive," she said.

Most of the houses the children live in now were probably houses for mill workers, she said. The children listened and nodded quietly, looking down from the porch on the hill as if seeing the roofs of those houses for the first time.

If they are soaking in the history of their town, they also are delving into their own families, with more or less success. Earl Stewart can recite names back to his great-great-grandparents and can see their impact on himself.

"Way back along like in the 1800s, somebody on my daddy's side married, like, an Indian princess," he said, as his voice took on a scholarly tone.

"On my dad's side they had real pretty hair," long, black and flowing, he said. "I'm proud of my family history."

He pauses and rubs his hand across his flat, close-cropped hair.

"I have really good hair," he said. "My dad has real good hair. My mom, she has good hair and bad hair mixed together. She has middle hair."

The trip to the Harris house also has made him more conscious of what those ancestors endured.

"They lived more scarcely," he said solemnly. "They didn't have things like we have."

It wasn't until he started asking that Christopher found out his great-grandmother was 100 percent Cherokee and his grandmother was Italian, he said.

"All that stuff about my family, I didn't know about," he said. "It makes me see all the (types of people) I can mix with."

There are drawbacks to the program of self-discovery, of course.

"We had to do poems," Christopher said. "I don't like poems."

Victoria Johnson, who is helping the children with writing, laughs at that. Anytime she asks who wants to read a poem to the group, "half of them raise their hand immediately," she said.

She is still hoping to have the children do a poetry reading somewhere at the end of the program, and hoping they take away from it more than just the poems.

"I'm hoping it will boost their self-confidence," she said. The poetry revealed to her the first week what their lives are like, she said.

"All of it was about violence," she said.

Family also is hard subject for some. Ashley would rather not talk about it, though it has meant moving a lot lately.

"It's really confusing right now," she said. Having just arrived, she is the latest to join the group, and everything is new to her. She likes the history part.

"If you didn't know this (Ezekiel Harris), you wouldn't know anything about the town," she said.

More than that, it is a chance to meet every week with the kids in the program, the only ones in the neighborhood she knows. Sitting on a picnic table in a nearby lot, she watches them screaming and laughing as they kick around a basketball.

"It's really hard to get used to all the kids because once you get used to them, you have to move again," she said.

She pauses, watching them. She hasn't started yet on her family history. She is just beginning to learn her Harrisburg history. She is just starting to call the place home.