Courage Okungbowa may be just 17 years old, but he has long felt the influence of the late tennis great, Arthur Ashe.
"Even though he died before I was born, I knew who he was because my dad always talked about him and tried to raise us the same way as his dad did," Courage said. He told how the elder Ashe timed his son's walk to and from school to precisely 12 minutes and expected the boy to arrive home each day right on schedule — no excuses. "I was raised like that — in a strict home just like he was," Courage said. "I was taught to work hard just as his dad taught him."
Like his role model, Courage went on to discover a dedication for the game of tennis. The son of Nigerian immigrants has earned success on the national circuit with the U.S. Tennis Association and recently signed to play at Florida A&M University.
So it was not a stretch for the Wiregrass Ranch High senior to don white tennis duds and slip on a bookish pair of horned-rimmed glasses and into the persona of Ashe while reciting a brief life history for students and faculty at the Wesley Chapel school.
Courage performed during the Let Freedom Ring Living Museum Thursday in the school gymnasium. The collaborative presentation featured about 40 students in roles of historical and contemporary blacks who have made a mark.
"It's very professional," said Briana Swain, 16, portraying singer Anna Mae Bullock (Tina Turner) while dressed in a black sequin dress, tall shoes and a choppy wig she borrowed from her mom.
"I am a singer and I really like her song, Proud Mary, she said. "But I also appreciate her overall strength and how she overcame the domestic abuse she went through."
Presenters were required to stand still as statues in roped-off exhibits, waiting for visitors to push a simulated, red button that would bring them to life. Then they recited their monologues against a backdrop of posters featuring the people they were depicting.
Historical figures included Harriet Tubman, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and George Washington Carver and "The Firsts" — baseball legend Jackie Robinson, President Barack Obama. Entertainers such as Bill Cosby, Alicia Keys and the Jackson 5 were highlighted as well as sports greats Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods and Dwayne Wade.
Students volunteered in researching their subjects and writing and memorizing their monologues, said assistant principal and event organizer, Shauntee Butcher. They were not graded.
"They are students from all different (academic) levels," Butcher said. "All of our students add to each other's experience in high school and we're just making sure we're celebrating diversity in general. I think highlighting African-Americans inspires all students in general."
"I think it's good for everyone here to represent out school," said Kevin Mouton, 15, sporting a pair of borrowed boxing gloves for his stint as Muhammad Ali. "I take pride in our culture and what our ancestors did for us. They showed us that you can set your goals and achieve things."
"I like it a lot," said Taylor Jenniges, 16, who volunteered as a museum tour guide, shuttling students from one exhibit to another. "I think it's important that we embrace the influences of other cultures."
The living museum was just one of many activities held throughout February to celebrate Black History and diversity in general, said technology specialist Yonique Hacker-Waller. She helped coordinate the monthlong celebration with the help of faculty and members of the school's Black History Month committee.
There have been trivia and poster contests, guest speakers and dress-up days where student celebrated their own roots by donning the colors of their country's flag.
One of the favored highlights has been "Music Fridays" with African-American music spanning past decades played over the loudspeakers during passing periods. "The feedback has been very positive," said Hacker-Waller. "I've been hearing that the kids have been coming to class singing and cheerful and ready to work."
Michele Miller can be reached at [email protected]