As any historian would, Dr. Samuel Lemon worries there are not enough people interested in the rich history of America, especially the history of Blacks and Latinos.
“I do worry about that. I think people of color have so much more in common these days,” said Lemon soberly. “I see a general lack of leadership in our country to begin with, but particularly in these areas that have to deal with minority populations.”
Lemon, a Neumann University professor with a Ph.D., says one key reason for the absence of interest in history is how it’s presented.
“In general, people are not that interested in history. The way it’s taught is boring,” said Lemon.
He believes instructing kids to solely remember dates of historic events is not as important as getting them to understand what the story was behind the events happening in the first place.
“You’re asked, ‘What year were the Articles of the Confederation passed?’ That’s not important,” Lemon said, “what’s important is WHY (they) passed? What was happening? What was going on in society to make the Civil Rights movement or to (bring about) Brown vs. Board of Education,” said Lemon passionately through the phone.
“Tell the stories of people because I think history is best understood through the eyes of people,” he declared.
Lemon offers a clear example of how personal stories within historical accounts can spark a child’s interest and send them on a quest to learn more about their own family. Living in Media as a boy with his grandmother, Maud R. Ortega, he would hear stories about his great-grandparents and other ancestors in their family tree.
Lemon learned that his great-great-great grandparents were runaway slaves who later had a son named William Henry Ridley who became the first African-American lawyer in Delaware County.
“For us, having ancestors who escaped slavery, that was a real badge of honor. We really consider them heroes for what they had to endure,” said Lemon proudly. “I spent time with my grandmother, sitting at the table learning and, fortunately, she had a lot of photographs of these folks and it was in those sessions that I kind of followed up on them and I grew to admire them.”
Those sessions with his grandmother set him on a path to become a student of African-American history. His brother, Jack, is also a noted area historian and author.
“So that’s really where my interest began. I was really fortunate to have family and ancestors who kind of lived through really key times in American history and so because of that, history really became alive for me,” said Lemon.
When he travels through townships, boroughs and municipalities of Delaware County he sees not just American history, but a very personal one.
“My great-grandfather’s parents were slaves and then he becomes the first African-American attorney in Delaware County in one generation. That’s an astonishing accomplishment! I feel I have a lot to live up to,” Lemon reflects.
Lemon, in 2012, published a novel called, Go Stand Upon the Rock, a book inspired by stories from his grandparents who escaped slavery, beginning with his great-great-grandfather, Cornelius Ridley’s 300-mile walk to freedom. His grandfather’s escape to freedom is reminiscent of the largely celebrated movie, 12 Years a Slave, a story about Solomon Northup surviving the brutality of struggling to regain his freedom. Northup was born a free Black man who was forced into slavery.
“One of the things so remarkable about that case is Northup defied the odds, because when you were sold up the river like that and you got to a plantation in Louisiana or in the Deep South, your life expectancy was four years,” said Lemon. “For him to live 12 years in Louisiana being a slave is almost a superhuman accomplishment.”
Lemon, as so many other people do, sees American history as a very personal history and believes more must be done to educate young people about themselves through the lens of history in order to solve persistent social issues that challenge society.
“We have to understand that problems for our society today, didn’t begin yesterday and there is a reason why they continue and never get resolved,” said Lemon. “I think maybe we have to look to the universities and maybe to the communities. Getting young people into school and getting them educated and not just with a bachelor’s degree but with a master’s degree and a doctorate and to be in leadership positions so you can change the system from the inside because that’s the only way you can really change it.”