© 2023 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Hamilton Education Program Inspires High School Students To Retell History Through Art

Jenee Darden
The musical Hamilton ran at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco.

"Hamilton" has found new fans now that it’s streaming on Disney+. Before the pandemic, high school students attended a special matinee of the musical. They performed their own work on stage and told stories of some people left out of history books.

It’s an early Wednesday morning. The sidewalks on Market Street in San Francisco are damp. A line of teenagers and teachers wraps around the Orpheum Theater. About 2,000 people are here. The students appear both excited and tired. Some of these kids are from the Bay Area. Others traveled from as far as Fresno and Sacramento. "Hamilton" tickets can easily run around $100. But today they are $10 max. Many of these kids are from Title I schools, which have large populations of low-income students. For some, this is their first Broadway musical. But today is no ordinary show. 

The Opening Acts

Inside the theater hip-hop beats drop and actor Darnell Abraham walks on stage. He plays George Washington, but for now is wearing a ballcap and jeans. Abraham gets the crowd even more hyped and shouts, “Make some noise! Get up on your feet!”

This is EduHam. All of the "Hamilton" companies in the U.S. do this. But today’s event in San Francisco happens to be the 100th EduHam.

Before this big day, students spend upwards of two weeks studying a special history curriculum from "Hamilton." Then, they interpret what they learn through art. Any minute now, some will perform their history-inspired pieces on the Orpheum stage in front of other high school students. They’re like the opening act before the show.

The crowd of teens nod their heads along to an original rap song by Tyrique Stewart, a student from John Muir Charter School in Sacramento. 

Heads sway to a sweet serenade about the wives of the Founding Fathers by students from Heritage Peak Charter School in Sacramento. 

And then a spoken word piece from a couple of students rocks our collective minds. 

“Sallie Hemings!” the poets announce almost like a declaration. 

They catch me off guard. Did they say Sally Hemings? 

That is my name,” the poets resume. “Seem to be the only thing that’s mine. Funny how your life can be shadowed under someone else’s name. Can you imagine? Imagine being overpowered. Overpowered by a man…”

I’m surprised. When I was in high school back in the late 90s, teachers seemed to avoid discussing Sally Hemings because she was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. 

One of the poets you heard, Arayana Marin, is a senior at Envision Academy of Arts and Technology in Oakland. She learned a lot about Hemings from the EduHam curriculum. 

Arayana says, “The thing that shocked me the most was that she did have a relationship with Thomas Jefferson, but nobody knew if it was consensual or if she wanted it. And the fact that she had children with him as well, and six children, which was a lot-- that's crazy. 

What’s really crazy is Hemings was 16 during her first pregnancy and Thomas Jefferson was about 46 years old. So Hemmings was both underage by today’s standards and his property.

Arayana’s classmate and co-performer Cassandra Rubio explains why she wanted to do a piece on Hemmings.

I'm all about women empowerment,” says Cassandra. “So whenever there's a chance where I could speak on behalf of a woman who was dehumanized...I definitely wanted to take that chance to write a piece and [perform] in front of schools where her name would come to life.” 

Organizers say Sally Hemings is one of the most popular figures in the curriculum for students. But what else is in this curriculum? 

The EduHam Curriculum

Amy DiChristina is manager of the Hamilton Education Program a.k.a. EduHam. 

“We really truly believe that the best way to learn about history is to actually read the words of the people who are living at that time,” says Amy. 

The curriculum was developed in partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Amy says the curriculum provides students access to more than 300 primary sources online--such as letters from George Washington, Phylis Wheatley poems and news articles from that era. There are voices from Native Americans and African Americans too. 

Amy says, We wanted to make sure that the curriculum we were offering to these students, who are mostly students of color and from Title I schools, [are] seeing themselves reflected in history.” 

The curriculum’s study guide explains how "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda took history, analyzed it and wrote songs that spoke to him. 

A Different Look At History

Nathan Martinez is a student and musician at Tulare Western High, which is south of Fresno. He says that he usually doesn’t retain as much history from his classes. History lessons took on a different meaning for him after listening to the "Hamilton" soundtrack. 

“The story was told through music and for me music is memorable,” says Nathan. "Music is a story in itself. You don't even need words to like feel it. And so it was almost revolutionary, the idea of learning history through music.”

Students are learning how history is messy and complex--like people. And historians don’t always get it right. This inspired Nathan and his classmate Christina Venegas to explore the often untold story of Hamilton’s mistress Maria Reynolds. Nathan is playing the keyboard as Christina recites her own Maria Reynolds monologue. 

Christina says emotionally, “Then I found you. Alexander Hamilton. Seductress, homewrecker, harlot. Call me what you will. My love for you burns still. No one knows of that thrill. One that only your love can fulfill."

Hamilton eventually admitted the affair publicly. Christina appreciates learning about the imperfections of historical figures.

“We see these figures as really amazing people,” says Christina. “And it's shocking to me that we never get that other side of the story in a normal classroom. I think that the exposure to it now [is] good for younger generations to see and to know every part of the story.”

These days, Confederate flags and statues of historical figures are coming down while some people are demanding they be protected. In this era of racial protests, a pandemic and the Trump presidency, I wonder how future playwrights and composers will tell this story.

In light of COVID-19 the EduHam program is now available for families to access at home. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website has more information.

BroadwaySF shows will return in 2021. 

And watch the Where Is East Oakland documentary to learn some history about Oakland.

Jeneé Darden is an award-winning journalist, author, public speaker and proud Oakland native. She is the executive producer and host of the weekly arts segment Sights & Sounds as well as the series Sights + Sounds Magazine. Jeneé also covers East Oakland for KALW. Jeneé has reported for NPR, Marketplace, KQED, KPCC, The Los Angeles Times, Ebony magazine, Refinery29 and other outlets. In 2005, she reported on the London transit bombings for Time magazine. Prior to coming to KALW, she hosted the podcast Mental Health and Wellness Radio.