Stacey Owens is reading a story to her fourth graders at Bywood Elementary. Some are rapt, some are yawning, and others have succumbed to late-afternoon torpor, as they eagerly await the dismissal bell on a day that seduces with the promise of spring.
Suddenly, a man with a gun rushes through the door.
"The Redcoats are coming!" he shouts. "Everybody down!"
Some kids jump and scream. Others squeal in surprise and delight. The intruder is dressed in stockings and breeches, waistcoat and cocked hat. By what weird alchemy of time and physics has this refugee from the 18th century been delivered to Upper Darby?
"Pray, tell me. Where am I? And who are you? Are you Patriots or Loyalists?" the intruder asks the class.
The intruder turns out to be a gentleman of meticulous manners. He introduces himself as Edward Hector, of the Third Pennsylvania Artillery Company. One moment he was fighting the British, and then he was engulfed in a cloud of smoke and noise and the chaos of battle, and now, weirdly, he is here. . . .
He resumes his story in more detail. He is known by friends as Ned Hector. He is "a man of color." Not a slave but a freeman, one of many black men and women who fought for freedom in the American Revolution. He is a wagoneer or teamster by trade and lives in a log cabin near the village of Conshohocken.
In 1777, as the British were advancing north, intent on capturing Philadelphia, Ned was part of an artillery regiment that tried to keep the Redcoats from crossing the Brandywine. On a hill overlooking Chadds Ford, he and his fellow patriots found themselves surrounded. As British soldiers attacked, brandishing muskets with gleaming bayonets, Hector refused to surrender his wagon and team of horses.
"Never! I'll save my horses or die myself!"
Heedless of the peril, he scrambled around the battlefield, gathering dropped guns and other dearly needed weapons, which he tossed into his wagon and eventually delivered to a grateful General Washington. Later, he would be cited for valor, and today a street in his hometown recalls his heroism by bearing his name.
Back in Upper Darby, the children are spellbound. Hector is a terrific storyteller, and this "teachable moment" lasts 15 minutes. Perhaps Hector is especially motivated. One of the students is, in fact, his daughter, 10-year-old Emily-Hope Lewis.
Ned Hector is really Noah Lewis of Upper Darby. His vocation is repairing electronic equipment, such as corporate sound systems and biomedical devices. But his avocation is teaching and preaching, about history and freedom, about equality and the unsung contributions of African Americans. He does this most effectively through the person of Ned Hector.
Hard to say what prompted this pursuit. Lewis, 47, a personable man with a warm, touch-your-arm manner, credits his father for having the guts to leave the farm in North Carolina and join the Army in search of a better life. "If it weren't for him, I'd probably still be picking cotton," Lewis says.
He was an "Army brat" who spent the first years of his life in Germany, then Fort Knox, Ky. When he was 12, his family moved to West Philadelphia (his father, a barber, got a job at the Navy Yard), then a year later to Aldan. "That led to some adventures," Lewis notes wryly. The Lewises were among the first to integrate the white Delaware County suburb, and if Noah Lewis was not acutely aware of his race before, he was now.
In high school, he was "a bit of a jock," a star in track and field, but a less-than-stellar scholar. "I was never much for facts and figures," he admits. It wasn't until halfway through Harding College in Searcy, Ark., that Lewis caught fire intellectually. A charismatic professor taught him a lesson: History is not just a random procession of dates and events but a fascinating tapestry of cause and effect. There's a reason it's called history; at its best, it's an evolving narrative of compelling stories.
His race, his rootless childhood, his newfound interest in history and storytelling, all combined to spur an interest in genealogy. As he began tracing his own lineage, Lewis was struck by the numerous black names he encountered in veterans' records, by how many African Americans fought and died in the nation's early wars. He began researching the lives of some of these obscure patriots, an effort that led to the discovery of Ned Hector.
Honoring bloodlines, keeping memories alive, paying tribute to the dead - these are important to Lewis. For seven years, he has been a single parent. His wife died of pancreatic cancer shortly after the birth of the couple's fourth child. So Lewis has devoted himself to being father, mother and then some. "Then some" means playing an active role in his children's education.
He was always willing to come to school and talk about science or electricity. Five years ago, a teacher asked if he had anything interesting to tell students about colonial history and the Revolutionary War. "Not me," Lewis said. "But Ned Hector does."
Ned Hector's aim is "to put flesh and blood on the bare bones of history," and at that he's a natural. He doesn't just lecture but engages the students with plenty of questions ("Most of the militiamen ran away. Were they cowards?" Answer: "No, they were probably being smart. They were farmers and merchants, fighting against the best-trained army in the world. It was better for them to flee so they could fight again another day.")
He knows that the trick is to show, not tell. So the other day, he showed Owens' fourth graders how to load a Pennsylvania long rifle, and he explained the difference between a rifle and a musket, and he opened his haversack to display a spoon that astonished the class. It was made not of plastic but of ... eeeew! ... cow's horn.
On the blackboard, he drew a bayonet. "Do you know why it's shaped like a wedge?" he asked. "Bayonets are shaped that way to stretch the skin so the wound stays open. What happens when a wound stays open?"
"Germs get in," one student offered. "It gets infected," said another.
Lewis also told stories, and not just about Hector. He told about the all-black regiment from Rhode Island that refused to surrender the body of their slain white commander to a company of fierce Hessian mercenaries.
And he told the story of Phoebe Fraunces, daughter of an African American tavern owner, who saved the life of George Washington by snatching a dish of his favorite vegetable just before he was about to eat. The snow peas had been poisoned by an assassin.
"You can never tell who is important," Lewis told the fourth graders. "Maybe you'll be the one who saves your family or your neighborhood or your community. All of you are important."
Watching Lewis in action, you could be pardoned for disbelieving that as a youth he struggled with a speech impediment and was terrified of public speaking. Lewis has appeared as Hector at numerous local schools, and has participated in reenactments at the Brandywine Battlefield, Fort Mifflin and Washington's Crossing. This month, Black History Month, he is booked solid.
What motivates Lewis? He relates a conversation he had with Joe Becton, an African American park ranger at Independence National Historical Park. "We get mad at the white man for not telling our story," Becton told Lewis. "But that's not productive. If we want our story told, we have to do it."
"I'm telling these stories not just for people of color," Lewis says. "Most white people have never heard of these black heroes. So maybe by telling these stories, I'm breaking some stereotypes, building some bridges, and creating some ties among people."
Back in Owens' class, Ned Hector is wrapping up his presentation.
"The price of freedom is paid in blood," he tells the students. "If it weren't for freedom, a lot of you wouldn't be in this classroom. In my time, people of color weren't allowed to go to school. Teaching slaves to read and write was forbidden, and girls were expected to stay home and learn housekeeping skills.
"Freedom gives us all an equal chance to learn and grow and make a good life for ourselves. So hold it dear, don't abuse it, and remember all of us who fought for it."
Art Carey's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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