Teacher Celebrates Black History Month By Dressing Up Every Day as African American Historical Figures

LaToya McGriff as Henrietta Lacks
LaToya McGriff/Facebook

As a first grade teacher at Creekside Elementary School, LaToya McGriff (or "Ms. McGriff," as she's affectionately known), has a passion for teaching that's undeniable. And this February, the educator in Suffolk, Virginia, took things to new heights with an extra-special project. Each day, for the entire month, Ms. McGriff dressed up as a different African American figure from history -- all in celebration of Black History Month.

  • Speaking with 'Good Morning America,' McGriff shared that for her students, representation of black culture is huge. 

    After all, Creekside is made up of predominantly black students who deserve to know the stories of the barrier-breaking men and women who paved the way. 

    "I decided to dress up for Black History Month so that the kids are actually seeing a live person from history," McGriff told the outlet. "I just wanted to bring history alive for the kids."

    And boy, did she.

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  • On Wednesday, the dedicated teacher dressed up as Maggie L. Walker.

    And just in case you didn't know who that is, Ms. McGriff is here to educate the masses.

    "She's an African American woman and from Richmond, VA," McGriff wrote in a Facebook post, alongside a photo of herself in a red and black floral dress. "She was the first woman bank president in America. She advocated for women's rights."

  • Each day, McGriff comes into school wearing a new "costume," and holds up a sheet with a photo of the person she's portraying.

    There's also a paragraph or so about the incredible life each person led, which she often reads off to her students when they inevitably wander up to her and ask her who she is today.

    "It is important for the children to see that people who look like them have made contributions because it reassures them that they can, too," she told GMA. "It's hard to believe in something you don't see."

    That it is.

  • Black representation in movies, books, and TV was sorely lacking for decades, but we're finally inching closer towards bringing it into the light.

    In the last decade alone, we've started to see black historical figures celebrated on screen in films like Hidden Figures, and we've even seen black superheroes take center stage in blockbusters like Black Panther.

    In fact, McGriff portrayed one of the women featured in Hidden Figures -- Mary Jackson -- in a recent costume, which paid homage to the former NASA engineer. (If you caught the 2016 film, Jackson was played by Janelle Monáe.)

    "Mary Jackson personally influenced me because of her struggle," said McGriff. "She was known as a human computer, yet she wasn't even allowed in meetings because of the color of her skin and because she was a woman. Yet, she prevailed."

  • This year, McGriff also decided to portray black historical figures who were from Virginia -- just like her first graders.

    On February 20, Ms. McGriff walked into school as Henrietta Lacks -- a native of Roanoke, Virginia, whose cancer cells (known as the HeLa cell) led to many important breakthroughs in biomedical research -- including the creation of the polio vaccine. However, her place in history wasn't exactly of her own doing. Lacks had a tumor biopsied during treatment for cervical cancer in 1951, and the cells were used for research without her consent. Her family wasn't even informed that a line of cells had been created from her own to create the vaccine until 1975.

  • Of course, with a month of school days to dress up for, McGriff also portrayed other more well-known celebs, like Ella Fitzgerald and Barack Obama.

    There were also some that the students already knew a lot about -- like Misty Copeland, the first African American principal dancer at American Ballet Theater\. 

    But she also wanted to give a nod to those who aren't always talked about in the history books. People like James Lafayette, a former slave who became a spy during the Revolutionary War and
    Dr. L.D. Britt, the first African American doctor to have an endowed chair in surgery.

  • With each new school day came a new lesson in history from Ms. McGriff, who says she's grateful to pass on these stories to the next generation.

    "I hope that [the students] learn, no matter the circumstances, they can make a difference in this world," McGriff told GMA. "No matter where they come from, how they look, they can make a difference."

    She also hopes other educators, parents, and community leaders feel inspired to honor the black voices from our past in similar ways each February.

    "I hope that [people who see the story] will implement some type of Black History Month program in their school," McGriff added. "They don't have to dress up like I did … but, I just want people to incorporate black history so that other students of color can see themselves represented in history."