Second Graders Celebrate the Apollo and Black History Month

As part of their study of the history of New York and Black History Month, the second grade boys traveled uptown to Harlem to visit the Apollo Theater. This landmark music hall rose to prominence during the end of the Harlem Renaissance years, when black entertainment (poetry, music, etc.) was becoming popular in the neighborhood. The Apollo has launched the careers of such music legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, who made her singing debut at 17 at the Apollo, November 21, 1934.

While the Apollo is notable as a springboard for African-American entertainment, the boys learned that this was not always the case. Complementing their studies of the Dutch settlers in New York when it was known as New Amsterdam, the boys learned how Harlem was a white Dutch neighborhood when the Apollo debuted in 1934 as a whites-only venue. (Even "Harlem" is a Dutch word.) Acts of all races and musical genres have graced the stage since.

The second graders were given a tour by resident historian Billy Mitchell a.k.a. "Mr. Apollo," who began working at the legendary stage as a 15-year-old gofer in 1965. He noted that the theater is named after the Greek god of sun and music. Over the decades he has seen and heard such celebrities as the Temptations, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and James Brown. Mitchell struck up a lifelong friendship with Brown, the "Godfather of Soul," who paid for his college education. Mr. Apollo was impressed with the Browning boys’ breadth of historical knowledge while he made references to events and people of yesteryear during his stories. He urged our boys, "Don't be afraid to raise your hand in class and ask [your] wonderful educators to explain something to you!”

After he finished telling the history of the theater, Mr. Apollo gave our boys the opportunity to perform on the legendary stage. Before they performed they were told to rub the “Tree of Hope” stump on stage, the Apollo’s perennial talisman for good luck. The boys told knock-knock jokes, performed impressions and even the latest dance trends, the whip and the nae nae. After rousing applause from the other visiting school groups in the theater, the Browning boys traveled backstage where they were shown the wall of signatures and dressing rooms of all the performers who have visited there.