Frederick’s “Human Library” brings stories to life


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

Black families lived in about 10 homes in the community outside Union Bridge, recalls Barbara Thompson, 74.

The children addressed the elders by saying Mr. or Mrs. as a sign of respect. The neighbors watched over each other. If the youngsters got into trouble, any parent in the neighborhood was likely to scold them.

Their small slice of Carroll County was tight-knit, but reminders of racism were everywhere.

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

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

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

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

Mannix manages the library’s Maryland Room, which houses a local history collection. 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.

Mannix highlighted the conversations between 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’s important to share her experiences because she feels some people are reluctant to discuss systemic racism. “When you go through traumatic events in your childhood, it doesn’t go away,” she said.

Thompson was a little girl when Brown v. Board of Education is 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 one of the top students at the Robert Moton School, but when she switched to Elmer Wolfe her grades plummeted. “We were considered less than,” Thompson said, because of their skin color.

She stopped raising her hand in class because when she did, the teacher pretended she wasn’t there. The students pushed her into lockers. They hurled racial slurs. It got so bad that Thompson pretended to be sick to get out of school. When she attended the class, she didn’t try that hard.

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

But like the title she gave to her book in The Human Library, Thompson is “still standing.”

She became a history buff. She researched her family genealogy through the centuries and made sure her children learned about it.

And the little girl who was afraid to go to school grew up working nearly 40 years for Frederick County Public Schools, retiring in 2012. Thompson served as a teacher’s assistant and administrative secretary. She said she wanted to make an impact and show that she had the skills to do her job well.

Although she is retired, her work is far from over. Thompson sits on the board 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.

Help refugees

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

Frederick resident Dat Duthinh is originally from Vietnam. His first experience as a refugee was at the age of 4, when war forced him to move from the north of the country to the south. What Duthinh calls the French War is also known as the First Indochina War, which was fought 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 boat.

“Was it good food?” He asked.

Duthinh burst out laughing.

“It was food,” he replied.

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

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

Emmett said he probably would have played on his Nintendo Switch. Duthinh didn’t have that luxury.

Illustrating the panic that accompanied the war, Duthinh showed Emmett a photo of people scaling the walls of the US Embassy in Saigon in 1975. Duthinh searched for the right words to tell the refugee story to a child 7 years 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 treated as a refugee,” Emmett said. “If their house is no longer safe, they go somewhere.”

Duthinh said he hopes his participation in the Human Library will raise awareness of refugee support efforts.

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

He would know.


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