Virginia teacher dresses up as famous figures for Black History Month

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SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A Suffolk teacher is getting creative to educate students about famous figures in black history.

McGriff dressed up as Col. Fred Cherry. Cherry was an Air Force pilot and Vietnam War POW.

LaToya McGriff is a first grade teacher at Creekside Elementary School. She’s taught there for six years, but has been an educator for 12.

She’s part of the school’s Black History Month committee and says every day they announce a new figure for students to learn about.

But, McGriff wanted to do a little more and decided to dress up every day for the month.

“It’s kind of bringing history alive for the kids and it sparks curioistity. Once they’re curious about something, that sparks learning. So, they can ask me stuff throughout the day or see me in the hall walking because I’ll stay dressed up all day. They’ll say ‘Oh, you’re the teacher that’s dressed up.’ And they may tell me some facts that I didn’t know about that person or they may ask me something about that person,” she said.

McGriff dressed as Mack Benn,Jr. Benn was the first African-American superintendent in Suffolk Public Schools.

McGriff says she also wanted to do it because of the school’s population.

“I work at a majority-black school, so with having so many children of color, I wanted them to see that people who look like them contribute. They made contributions to the world,” she said.

On Tuesday, McGriff dressed up as Dr. L.D. Britt, a local doctor and Suffolk native who was the first African American in the country to be awarded an endowed chair in surgery at a major American medical school.

Like Britt, she chose many other Virginians to show students that people from our own community can make a difference.

The seeds to make this all possible were planted long ago.

McGriff dressed as Arthur Ashe. Ashe was the first African-American to win titles at Wimbledon,the Australian Open, and the U.S. Open.

McGriff’s inspiration to dress up came from her own teachers.

“That’s what I remember, having a teacher come dressed as a storybook character. Well, I could dress up as a different figure, an African American figure past or present so they can see themselves represented,” McGriff said.

While dressing up for the whole month took a lot of effort, McGriff says its worth it.

“Just seeing them (students) look at me in the hallway and smile and asking me questions, my students will want to know who will be tomorrow. Today, they just said ‘Are you going to be Barack Obama? Are you going to be so-and-so?’ Because they want to know and kind of prepare themselves for it so they can tell me something they know about that person,” she said.

McGriff is 18 days into the month with 18 different costumes, but she says the hardest to dress up as was singer Ella Fitzgerald, who was born in Newport News.

McGriff dressed as Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was the most popular Jazz singer for half of the 20th century. She won 13 Grammy awards and sold over 40 million albums.

“I had to wear a gown all day and it was a sequin gown and I had makeup on, so I was dressed up head-to-toe all day in pretty much a full length gown,” she said.

Lessons don’t just stop in her classroom. The hallways are covered in displays of other significant black Americans as well as displays for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and the Divine Nine.

McGriff represents both: she graduated from Hampton University and is a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc. sorority.

She hopes that her students not only learn more about those in history, but about themselves.

“I’m hoping they have more confidence in themselves that I, too, can be great, that I can contribute to the world. That’s the biggest takeaway for me,” she said.

McGriff dressed as Florence Bowser. Bowser was an educator and community activist in Suffolk during the 19th and 20th century.

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