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East High Students Find Themselves Under the Watchful Eyes of History

Patti Singer

The eyes of Mayor Lovely Warren and Garth Fagan look out from the courtyard walls of East High School. The images are part of The Legacy Project: They Eyes of Our Ancestors,” unveiled Jan. 9, 2020. Provided by Dr. Jason B. Willis

For East High School students who gaze out their classroom window into the courtyard, the eyes of their heroes will be upon them.

Someone always is watching.

“It’s like your forefathers and foremothers are actually counting on you,” said artist Shawn Dunwoody, who painted the 29 images of The Legacy Project: The Eyes of Our Ancestors, that were unveiled Jan. 9. “It’s that kind of stare: If I can do this, you can accomplish something. They’re looking over, watching you and giving you guidance that you can do this.”

The 4-foot-high by 10-foot-wide weatherproof panels depict past and present, local and national activists from Pan-African, Latino and Island/Asian cultures. The images of national and world leaders include Barack and Michelle Obama, Harriet Tubman, Nelson Mandela, Frida Kahlo, Pedro Campos, Thje Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Roberto Clemente. Nine Rochester-area activists are represented, including Frederick and Anna Murray Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, David Anderson, Garth Fagan and Mayor Lovely Warren.

The Legacy Project was funded by a grant from the University of Rochester, which since July 2015 has operated East High School under an educational partnership arrangement. The concept of The Legacy Project reflects the theme of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, about a woman’s journey to self-realization through the trials and tribulations of her life.

The project started when East High Superintendent Shaun Nelms approached Jason Willis, who holds a doctorate degree and is the director of African/African-American Studies for the Rochester City School District, about ways to make the East High building more culturally responsive.

Willis thought about ways to pay homage to elders. He posed a question, in English and Spanish, to East High students and parents: Which revolutionary thinker or activist do you want to see?

“It was wide open,” Willis said.

He received about 300 responses, tallied the nominations and came up with two dozen names. Dunwoody, using his prerogative as the artist, added others. The main stipulation was there had to be an accurate graphic depiction that Dunwoody could use as the basis for his art.

Dunwoody, whose work can be seen throughout Rochester, wanted to give the students a sense of vision. His own vision for the project was to focus on the eyes.

Shawn Dunwoody. Provided photo

“The eyes tell you a lot and they can actually tell you a lot about how you’re feeling, about yourself at that moment,” Dunwoody said.

He showed the students full-face portraits and asked them to react to looking at facial cues such as a smile and then to react to honing in on the eyes. “It told a different story to them when you look into someone’s eyes. It’s a reflection back at who you might be or who you are.”

Looking into the eyes of history is haunting. When the buildings crew that was installing the panels and some other staff saw the images, they described them as spooky.

“Some people’s eyes are scary,” Dunwoody said. “Some people’s eyes make you want to laugh. It’s about how you interact with the reflection of yourself. … It really depends on how you feel at the moment and what those eyes are trying to tell us, I tried to find the right amount of openness in their eyes and yet some sort of direction.”

Willis said The Legacy Project is more than an art installation. Two screens at East High will constantly scroll through the biographies of the individuals depicted, and the people behind the images are being woven into the curriculum.

The local people portrayed in The Legacy Project:

  • Dr. David Anderson
  • Susan B. Anthony
  • Dr. Walter Cooper
  • Fredrick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass
  • Garth Fagan
  • Constance Mitchell
  • Mayor Lovely Warren
  • Dr. Alice Young

The national/international people portrayed:

  • Muhammad Ali
  • Maya Angelou
  • James Baldwin
  • Pedro Campos
  • Roberto Clemente
  • U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
  • Celia Cruz
  • Gandhi
  • Marcus Garvey
  • Katherine Johnson
  • Frida Kahlo
  • The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Nelson Mandela
  • Barack and Michelle Obama
  • U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar
  • Rosa Parks
  • Harriet Tubman
  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Malcolm X