Header image: Shi’Terriona Straham of Albion (in sweatshirt that reads “Michigan”) poses with other Explorers on the Friends Good Will sailing ship in South Haven, MI. Program leader Sonya Bernard-Hollins is in the middle of the photo. (Courtesy photo)
Shi’Terriona Straham makes a presentation at the Albion District Library about her upcoming writers’ group trip abroad. (Photo by Michelle Mueller)
By MICHELLE MUELLER
Copyright 2017, the Recorder
ALBION (MICH.)-Shi’Terriona Straham, 16, is a shining star, representing Albion youth at their best, much the way Jontaj Wallace (selected as a Build Albion Scholar, he is currently a freshman at Albion College) did while he, too, was a student at Marshall High School. Both are examples of local youth making Black history.
Straham, an eleventh-grader, is a busy young lady: she’s dual-enrolled at the district’s Eastern Calhoun Early College, is president of the Albion Junior Optimist International chapter; until recently served as vice-mayor of the Mayor’s Youth Council; a talented poet, she is a member of the Albion District Library’s Word Journey writers’ group; and was recently a co-recipient of the 2017 Substance Abuse Prevention Services’ Across Age Mentoring Program “Coretta Scott King Outstanding Youth Leadership Award.” She is also a member of Sisters Influencing Society (SIS), an Albion group founded and overseen by Joyce Spicer, and of ASCEND (Achievement, Self-Awareness, Communication, Engagement, Networking and Developmental Skills), a group that Alpha Kappa Alpha members from the Calhoun County area coordinates.
Today, Straham is filled with excitement anticipating a July European trip that she has been selected to be a part of: along with Bernard-Hollins and five other members of the Merze Tate Explorers, she will have the opportunity to visit Paris, Versailles, Rome, Venice, Florence, Pisa, and the Vatican this summer.
Sonya Bernard-Hollins, formerly a writer for the Battle Creek Enquirer and now a Kalamazoo resident, founded the Merze Tate Explorers in 2008 to “inspire young girls through travel and media.” Bernard-Hollins, a 1993 graduate of Western Michigan University, learned of Tate in the university’s archives while researching African American Firsts of Western Michigan Univ. for a story for the Kalamazoo Gazette, and became enamored.
She relates this information about Tate on her Merze Tate Explorers website: “Vernie Merze Tate was born on February 6, 1905 in Blanchard, Mich. The grandchild of the first Negro settlers in Mecosta County, Mich., she lived a country life, however, longed to see the world outside the pine trees and dirt roads which surrounded her. In 1927 the Blanchard, Mich. native graduated from Western State Teacher’s College (later Western Michigan University) with the school’s highest academic record at that time—all A’s and 3 B’s.
“Despite her stellar academic record, Colored teachers were not hired to teach secondary education. With the assistance of the college’s administration, she would go on to teach at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis, Ind. The school, founded by the city’s Klu Klux Klan, was an effort to segregate races. Merze Tate, along with others, was hired by the school’s African American principal with the intent to teaching Colored students to excel beyond the founders’ intentions… As a history teacher at Crispus…from 1927-32, Merze Tate wanted her students to see the world they learned about. Her determination led to her founding the school Explorers which went to such places as Washington D.C., Niagara Falls, and Pennsylvania. One news article criticized her efforts of taking these students into the world, as they were not expected to be more than domestics. Merze Tate proved them wrong. All of the members of the club were honor roll students and many went on to college.”
Merze Tate ended up traveling the world twice: as an international reporter for the Afro American Newspaper in Baltimore, and, working as a photographer, filmmaker and researcher for the U.S. State Department, all while being a college professor and eventually a dean for Barber-Scotia College, Bennett College, Morgan State College, and Howard University where she worked from 1942-1977.
Bernard-Hollins , who has curated a traveling exhibit of the photos Tate took on her travels, says that although the amazing woman “died in 1996 at the age of 91, … her legacy lives on. She has left millions to institutes of higher learning who looked beyond her race and gender to provide her with a stellar education. Western Michigan University, Radcliffe College-Harvard University, and Howard University received everything from million-dollar contributions, to archival documents upon her death.”
Inspired by this ground-breaking African-American woman from history, Bernard-Hollins founded the Merze Tate Explorers in Kalamazoo, starting out with twelve girls interested in traveling around their community and world “to discover other women who have left an impact on the world.” The girls also learn communications skills in journalism and film, and even created a documentary of Merze Tate’s life as one of their projects. The documentary can be viewed at merzetate.com. Bernard-Hollins estimates she’s had about 100 fourth through twelfth-grade racially-diverse girls in her club over the years.
At 16, Straham is one of the older girls, and, according to Bernard-Hollins, has played a key role in mentoring the younger ones during the three years she’s been in the group.
“Shi’Terriona is one of those girls who you meet, and know she’s going to be a winner,” says Bernard-Hollins. “I’ve been excited that she’s been so open and gone above and beyond in our Explorers program.”
For the past four years, the Merze Tate Explorers has held a summer Travel Writers Academy. During a week on the Kalamazoo College campus, the students not only experienced college life, but also travelled throughout the city, region, state, and internationally (a visit to Niagara Falls), to learn of various careers. “Through their travel writing adventures, they met amazing women who share their careers, how they got there, and what it takes to make in their industry,” Bernard-Hollins explains.
“We talk to them about what they do for a living and how we, as young women growing up, can have any career that we want to,” Straham recounts. “We make ‘reports’ on what we see and learned from organizations that we visit, take pictures, notes, video recordings and make articles about the different organizations in our ‘Merze Tate Explorers Magazine’.”
Straham, one of three children of Albion single mom Shymetha Wilson (who diligently gets her daughter to Kalamazoo for the group’s activities as she can), has a big challenge to be met before she can make the trip this summer: funding. She needs to raise $4,600 for her portion of the expenses.
“I have always wanted to visit France and I hope to gather enough money to attend this trip,” says Shi’Terriona, who became connected with Bernard-Hollins through her mentor, Harry Bonner, Sr.
Tax-deductible donations towards Straham’s trip abroad with her Merze Tate cohorts can be made by sending a check made out to “Merze Tate Explorers” (with Straham’s) name in the memo line to Merze Tate Explorers, 841 Gibson Street, Kalamazoo, MI 49001. Or, donors can contribute in Straham’s name through the website. Donations over $25 will receive a receipt letter for their tax records.