The Butterfly Effect Project step-dancers. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The Riverhead school district’s Black History Month celebration packed the house last night at Riverhead High School, where children and elders came together to celebrate African-American heritage, culture and achievements.

The two-hour program of music, song, dance and the spoken word performed by students and community members entertained and educated.

The performances were punctuated by the Riverhead High School Council for Unity’s slide presentations saluting African-American trailblazers — from Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Barack Obama, from the first black students at previously segregated schools to the first African-American astronaut, from trailblazers in athletics to Americans who broke racial barriers in science, arts and letters.

“Let this evening be a challenge to all of us,” NAACP Eastern Long Island Branch president Lucius Ware told the crowd.

We are all, each in our own way, eyewitnesses to history, said Ware, 85, who was a young soldier in Montgomery, Alabama when the historic bus boycott was taking place in 1956. That knowledge should energize us, he said.

“Let us all begin to explore our families in Riverhead, on Eastern Long Island and the places we came here from, to achieve more knowledge of our family histories and the history of our communities and record it for future generations,” he said.

Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr., the first African-American elected to the post in Suffolk County history, took the podium and urged everyone to “reach out and shake the hand of someone different from ourselves.”

Toulon presented the Council for Unity’s MLK Jr. Humanitarian Award to Tech. Sgt. Dashan Briggs. A Riverhead High School graduate and member of the N.Y. Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing, Briggs was one of seven airmen who perished last March 15 in the crash of a military helicopter during a search and rescue mission in Iraq. His widow Rebecca received the posthumous honor from the sheriff and representatives of the RHS Council for Unity.

Robert “Bubbie” Brown gave a rousing performance of his poem, “It’s Time,” a call to action to people of all races to cast aside stereotypes, to fulfill their potential as human beings and work together for a better world.

Brown also recognized the winners of the PFC Garfield M. Langhorn Jr. essay contest Zuleika Herrera Rodriguez, Dean Redmond, Christopher Rodriguez and Brooke Andresen. Excerpts of their essays were read aloud and certificates were presented to the winners who were present, Zuleika and Brooke.

Musical entertainment came in the form of performances by choruses from each of the district’s elementary schools and the Pulaski Street School, the middle school jazz band, the Pulaski Street School orchestra, and dance performances by the First Baptist Church Liturgical Dance Ministry and the Butterfly Effect Project.

Members of BEP, led by the group’s founder Tijuana Fulford, commanded the stage with energizing percussive step-dancing.

“The butterflies are the epitome of ‘the dream’ spoken of by Martin Luther King,” a somewhat breathless Fulford told the crowd after the performance. “BEP shows that children of all races and ages can come together, step together and play together,” she said.

“Be the change you want to see,” she said. “Don’t let Facebook be your outlet. Embrace others who are different from you.”

The event, organized by coordinator Lauren Lewonka, the district’s director of fine arts, was emceed by Riverhead High School mathematics teacher Alethia Ford. Ford, an accomplished vocalist who is no stranger to the stage and spotlight, led the audience in an impromptu performance of “This Little Light of Mine,” when the Riverhead Middle School Jazz Band needed more set-up time than was allocated.

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