Maggie Grether, Contributing Photographer

To make space for the dancing, the first row of chairs in the auditorium of the New Haven Museum had been pushed aside. At the front of the room, a dozen children watched as dancer and educator Hanan Hameen demonstrated moves to the West African dance Funga Alafia. Then it was their turn: together, to the beat of the drums behind them, they threw their arms into the air. 

On Sunday, the Yale Peabody Museum, the New Haven Museum and the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection joined forces to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day with an afternoon of storytelling, performing and educating. The event, paired with the Peabody’s Z Experience Poetry Slam the following day, marked the 27th annual MLK Day celebration coordinated by the Peabody. 

According to event coordinator Shannon Mitchell, the Peabody’s MLK Day programming would draw crowds of nearly six thousand visitors during pre-pandemic times. This year is the first in-person MLK Day event the Peabody has hosted since 2020. 

Maggie Grether, Contributing Photographer

“We’re starting up again, slowly but surely,” said Rohanna Delossantos, a New Haven educator who works as a liaison between the New Haven Museum and the Peabody. “I hope it brings some normalcy for our kids and builds the sense of community that’s impossible to build when you’re separated through a screen.”

Sunday’s event, which was MC’d and largely staffed by high school volunteers, featured storytelling from local educators and community leaders Waltrina Kirkland, Clifton Graves and Joy Donaldson. Kirkland, a former New Haven teacher, read poetry and picture books about racial segregation, weaving in stories from her own childhood growing up in 1950s Harlem. Throughout each story, Kirkland reiterated that “segregation wasn’t just down South” but pervaded all of the United States, including cities like New York and New Haven. 

Halfway through the program, Ms. Hanan’s Dance and Beyond performed dance and drumming styles from the African diaspora. The group encouraged the audience to sing, clap and dance along, inviting children onstage to play the drums. 

Maggie Grether, Contributing Photographer

In the rotunda below the performance hall, attendees explored tables that featured information on local organizations advocating for racial and environmental justice, educational activities related to MLK and specimens from the Peabody’s paleobotany collection. Kids walked away from the booths with various free goodies: fistfuls of crayons, green notebooks and colorful paper headbands with dinosaur cutouts on top. 

At one table, attendees could talk to members of the Amistad Committee Inc, an organization that promotes African American history in Connecticut and preserves the history of the Amistad Revolt, which was a mutiny led by enslaved people on a Spanish ship headed for Cuba. As kids talked with committee members, they also made buttons featuring images of Martin Luther King, Jr., Sengbe Pieh, who led the mutiny aboard La Amistad, and New Haven-raised Constance Baker Motley, the first African American woman to argue before the Supreme Court and serve as a federal judge. 

“I hope kids can learn that New Haven has a lot of history, right in your backyard, that they can share and be proud of,” said long-time Amistad Committee member Clint Robinson.  

Attendee Kayla Reid said she liked to celebrate MLK Day by attending events in the New Haven community. She planned to watch Peabody’s poetry slam the following day.

 “It’s nice to see the kids learning, and adults learning too,” she said. 

Maggie Grether, Contributing Photographer

Delossantos hoped that Sunday’s event would help guide parents when approaching the topic of segregation and civil rights with their children. 

“I’m a mom of a five-year-old and I know when introducing the idea of MLK to him, I get kind of lost in what I want to say,” Delossantos said. “I love that there are educators and community leaders here, because they’re well-practiced in how they want to introduce MLK’s legacy to kids.” 

Tomorrow, she added, she would show her son the YouTube recording of the event. 

The New Haven Museum is located at 114 Whitney Ave. 

MAGGIE GRETHER