‘Human library’ brings history to life

Dick Jones, 75, left, listens as Dat Duthinh, 70, speaks on the topic of "War Refugees: From Being One to Helping Others" during the Human Library event at the C. Burr Artz Public Library in Frederick, Md., on May 7, 2022. The event allowed for community members to have an open conversation with human "books" who have experienced prejudice and discrimination in their lives. (Katina Zentz/The Frederick News-Post via AP)

FREDERICK, Md. — Everyone knew each other on McKinstry’s Mill Road in the 1960s.

Black families lived in roughly 10 houses in the community outside Union Bridge, Barbara Thompson, 74, recalled.

Children addressed elders as Mr. or Mrs. as a sign of respect. Neighbors looked out for one another. If youngsters got into mischief, any parent on the block was liable to reprimand them.

Their little slice of Carroll County was close-knit, but reminders of racism were everywhere.

“I grew up seeing the signs ‘Whites Only,'” Thompson said.

Thompson, who now resides in Frederick, shared her story at the C. Burr Artz Public Library in Frederick recently. She was one of several “human books” available for checkout.

Instead of reading a book, library patrons sat down to hear the story straight from the sources’ mouths. Conversations about faith, aging, being gay, breaking glass ceilings and more filled the room.

“They’re like living audio books,” Mary Mannix said.

Mannix manages the Maryland Room at the library, which houses a collection of local history. She said it was their second Human Library event. The first was in 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily derailed plans for the second one.

Mannix pointed out the conversations flowing between the human books and their “readers.”

“They want to hear your side of the story,” Mannix said. “They want people to understand their experiences.”

For Thompson, it is important to share her experiences because she feels some people shy away from discussing systemic racism. “When you experience traumatic events in your childhood, it doesn’t go away,” she said.

Thompson was a little girl when the Brown v. Board of Education decision came out.

She was 10 when her mother told her she would leave her all-Black school. Thompson cried. “I knew how ugly it would be,” she said.

Thompson was a top student at the Robert Moton School, but when she switched to Elmer Wolfe, her grades plummeted.

“We were looked at as less than,” Thompson said, because of their skin color.

She stopped raising her hand in class because when she did, the teacher pretended she was not there. Students pushed her into lockers. They hurled racial slurs. It got so bad, Thompson pretended to be sick to get out of school. When she did attend class, she did not try as hard.

“I know that had I been in a different kind of environment … my success in life probably would have been greater than it is now,” Thompson said.

But like the title she gave her book in the Human Library, Thompson is “Still Standing.”

She went on to become a lover of history. She researched her family genealogy through the centuries and made sure her children learned it.

And the little girl who was scared to attend school grew up to work nearly 40 years for Frederick County Public Schools, retiring in 2012. Thompson served as an instructional assistant and administrative secretary. She said she wanted to make an impact and show she had the skills to do her job well.

Though she is retired, her work is far from done. Thompson serves on the board of directors of the African American Resources Cultural and Heritage Society. She looks forward to the opening of their Heritage Center, which will tell the story of African Americans in Frederick County.

Helping refugees

In another corner of the library, a young boy listened to a 70-year-old man tell the story of how he went from being a refugee to helping others like him.

Frederick resident Dat Duthinh hails from Vietnam. His first refugee experience came at 4 years old, when war forced him to move from the northern part of the country to the southern. What Duthinh calls the French War is also known as the First Indochina War, which ran from 1946 to 1954.

At the library, Duthinh showed 7-year-old Emmett Harris, of Frederick, a photo of the ship his family took to safety, the USS Marine Serpent. Emmett wanted to know what kind of food they ate on the ship.

“Was it good food?” he asked.

Duthinh laughed.

“It was food,” he replied.

Duthinh came to the U.S. years later for college. When the Vietnam War broke out, his family left their country in 1975 to join him in America.

Emmett asked if Duthinh had any fun stories. Duthinh thought for a moment. His first day in the U.S. was a strange but fun experience. He flew on a plane for the first time to New York. He asked how to get to Princeton, New Jersey, and was shocked by how long it took to get there by bus.

Emmett said he probably would have played his Nintendo Switch. Duthinh did not have such luxuries.

Illustrating the panic that came with war, Duthinh showed Emmett a photo of people climbing over the U.S. Embassy’s walls in Saigon in 1975. Duthinh searched for the right words to convey the story of refugees to a 7-year-old.

“War is a bad thing,” Duthinh said. “It causes a lot of suffering.”

Emmett seemed to walk away from the conversation with a little more knowledge.

“He was called a refugee,” Emmett said. “If their home isn’t safe anymore, they go somewhere.”

Duthinh said he hoped his participation in the Human Library would spread the word of refugee support efforts.

He works with the Refugee Welcoming Committee of Frederick to assist the refugees of today. The group has helped six Afghan families settle locally, Duthinh said, and Ukrainian families are soon expected. He said they need help finding housing, getting driver’s licenses and bettering their English. Something as simple as navigating the grocery store can be daunting, according to Duthinh. It is a trying time, adjusting to a foreign country.

He would know.


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