Clinton, TN (Alex Haley Farm)

We feel privileged to draw our sojourn to a close on the beautiful 157-acre farm that once belonged to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alex Haley.

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Since 1994 the Children’s Defense Fund has called the Haley Farm home.  Nestled in the foothills of the Tennessee mountains near Knoxville, this complex now serves to connect young leaders and activists with the heritage of the struggle for freedom, and hosts policymakers and community builders alike in its quiet, retreat facilities.

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The grounds of CDF Haley Farm include a main meeting lodge, guest cottages, the Langston Hughes Library and the Riggio-Lynch Chapel. The Riggio-Lynch Chapel and Langston Hughes Library were both designed by award-winning Vietnam Veterans Memorial designer Maya Lin.

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We receive an informative tour of the grounds by Mr. Ken Libby.  He brings to life the history of the place, of Alex Haley himself, and illuminates through this narrative the many connections that the work of Mr. Haley and the Children’s Defense Fund has with the people and struggles we have spent the last two weeks learning about.  A special treat was the pan-African collection of art, artifacts, and textiles, donated by Maria Nhambu in 2014, which now is distributed throughout the property, including this amazing piece called “Mother Africa.”

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Haley Farm

Two nights at the Alex Haley Farm was exactly what we all needed after a long two weeks on the road. The slight rolling hills, charming cottages, and thoughtful architecture of Maya Lin helped set my mind at ease, and the many references to the Civil Rights movement inspired thoughtful reflection. Weary and deeply moved by the trip, Alex Haley’s former residence was the perfect location to recharge and reflect on all that we had experienced and learned.

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On the farm, you will find rocking chairs scattered about the compound dedicated to civil rights activists. Names that had become all too familiar over the trip – Medgar Evers, Benjamin Mays, Rosa Parks, and of course Martin Luther King to name a few – reminded me of the necessary role sacrifice played in not only the Civil Rights movement, but in all movements for social justice. I found an evening spent in one of these chairs to be relaxing, yet I couldn’t help but be filled with self-doubt. Rocking back and forth, the relaxing sounds of the country evening soothed me, yet the presence of all those who had risked so much in their efforts for justice brought me, inevitably, to question my own commitment.

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Had I not gone on the HBCU trip, I do not know if I would have ever truly taken to heart Dr. King’s words: “Injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere.” But I wonder if I have ever truly embraced this ideal and how I must exercise my renewed commitment to it. I am not sure I have the answer yet, but because of this trip I am better off regardless as an answer can never come without a question.  

–Steven Cederquist, master’s student

Atlanta, GA (Morehouse Medical School, Spelman and Morehouse College, East Lake Foundation)

We spend several days in Atlanta in the good care of our friends at Morehouse and Spelman.

Dr. Henrie Treadwell arranged a panel discussion with her colleagues at the Morehouse School of Medicine.

Morehouse Medical School: Community Voices

Morehouse School of Medicine (MSM) was our first campus visit in Atlanta Georgia. By that time, we were more accustomed to southern hospitality, but I was still blown away by this institutions welcome. After a great tour of the campus that included health research facilities and a library with recently updated group study technology, we returned to a panel discussion. Sitting on the panel was Starla Hairston Blanks, Director of Community Voices, Dr. Nerimiah L. Emmet, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physiology, Dr. Natalie Hernandez, Assistant Professor in the Department of Community Health and Preventative Medicine, and Marla D. Thompson, Manager of Employee Relations in the Department of Human Resources. Blanks started us off with a video that I thought was going to give us a broad view of MSM. However, it turned out to be a pre-recorded, personal welcome of top-notch production quality from Dr. Henrie M. Treadwell who was unable to attend in person. She welcomed us, University of Michigan students, praised Dr. Betty Overton (an old friend), and introduced us to the work of Community Voices.

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MSM is a prime example of the diversity of institutions that exist within the HBCU umbrella. I now regret not asking the representatives present where they got the resources to produce the welcome video so quickly. But the welcome video was only one indication that MSM might be in a different position than Fisk University, or even an Alabama State University in terms of organization and resources. When you think of an HBCU, a medical school is not the first thing to come to mind. The MSM campus is different than Morehouse College— the original HBCU college campus from which it had to separate to ensure the sustainability of both campuses. MSM offers only graduate and professional degrees, is a selective institution (accepting only 1.6% of applicants in 2013, and is private.

However, MSM’s distinctions do not exonerate the institution from the issues relevant to other types of HBCUs. MSM has a much smaller endowment than other medical schools, is very dependent on tuition revenue, and cannot offer as much financial aid as the average medical school. Despite these challenges, MSM continues to provide a quality educational experience for its students, making MSM another example of how HBCUs are able to do more with less.

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In 2010, a study ranked MSM number one in social mission. The panel participants made it clear why this is the case. Director Blanks and Dr. Hernandez spoke about the close connection of the medical school to the urban community in Atlanta and rural communities throughout Georgia. Community Voices focuses on preventative care for these communities, hoping to improve health equity by understanding the social determinants of health. Dr. Hernandez engages in participatory action research with community members to produce answers to questions in a more equitable and inclusive fashion, earning the trust of the community along the way and forming lasting relationships with their community partners. The students that are accepted into the program are admitted because their goals align with MSMs mission to improve health in urban and rural communities with a particular emphasis on people of color and underserved communities in Georgia. Many alumni choose to go into primary care in these communities. This is work that is undervalued in the world of medicine. When I asked whether this disadvantages their students, the panelists made it clear that primary care physicians perform the most valuable work, and pointed out two MSM alumni who were primary care physicians that went on to become surgeon general for the United States.

Another relationship that is important is the relationship between and among the faculty and their students. Similar to other HBCUs we visited, mentorship is a top priority at MSM. Panelists described the environment as nurturing and secure. New faculty are expected to be nurturers for their students and can count on the mentorship and guidance of other faculty who want to see them succeed. Despite being an institution that does not offer tenure (they work on 5-year contracts), many faculty stay at the institution over 10 years. This gave me the sense that faculty had a positive working climate at MSM.

MSM has a lot to teach other institutions of higher education. MSM manages to maintain excellent learning conditions for its students and faculty despite fewer resources. The fact that MSM continues to produce excellent doctors of color is a testament to the institutional commitment to teaching and mentorship. MSM has also maintained a sustainable research and partnership presence in urban and rural communities of Georgia through programs like Community Voices. Professors like Dr. Hernandez and Dr. Emmet have chosen an arduous research perspective where it is likely they invest more time building relationships than gathering data. However they have managed to break down barriers between institutions and communities that ultimately will lead to better answers to the health questions that are critical to underserved populations in these communities.

–Esmeralda A. Hernandez-Hamed, doctoral candidate

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We tour the campuses of Spelman and Morehouse, and enjoy a special greeting from CSHPE alumna Tiffany (Pryor) Nelson (MA ’03) who now serves as Spelman’s director of admissions.

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We also hear from a panel of colleagues from both Spelman and Morehouse about the undergraduate experience.

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A trip to East Lake provides the group with an overview of the Promise Neighborhood program, supported by the East Lake Foundation.

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East Lake Foundation Visit

 Despite some navigating issues driving to Charles R. Drew Charter School, we are all astonished by our initial glimpse of Atlanta’s first charter school. The building is massive and fashioned in modern materials. Taking it in, I can’t help but draw parallels between it and the last high school we visited. In many respects, Drew is this century’s Central High School. Its large imposing structure and finely manicured lawn far surpasses what other public schools in the area can afford their students. It is, no doubt, meant to make a statement — we are great, join us. And with that, I remember the words of our tour guide at Central when she stated that Atlanta clearly beat Little Rock on the claim of being the South’s capitol. Yes. Looking at Drew, I can’t deny Atlanta won, but at what cost?

Our meeting here is short, yet informative. A staff member wearing a green polo greets us at the door, a First Tee logo barely visible as she rushes us inside the stately structure. Inside, we sidestep students in school uniforms and athletic gear and pass a well-stocked music room to meet with the Chief Operating Officer for the East Lake Foundation, Rhonda Fischer. As COO, Rhonda runs the foundation’s operations, finances, programs, and partnerships. She recounts how the foundation (and community it serves) is the brainchild of Tom Cousins, a local real estate developer and philanthropist, who is committed to revitalizing the neighborhood that houses legendary golfer Bobby Jones’ home course. Cousins used his own finances and connections with others like Warren Buffet to remake what was once East Lake Meadows, a 650-unit housing project with a crime rate 18 times higher than the national crime rate, an employment rate average of 13.5 percent, and where only five percent of 5th graders met state math standards.

Today, the Villages at East Lake boasts a crime rate reduced by 95 percent, 100 percent employment among community members, and a 98 percent pass rate on math state exams for students in grades 3-8. Cousins three-prong, holistic approach to revitalization — provide 1) high quality, mixed-income housing, 2) a cradle-to-college education pipeline, and 3) strong community wellness programs, all guided by a community nonprofit leadership group — has now been recreated 13 times in 11 different states by the group Purpose Built Communities.

The success of East Lake, much like the stateliness of Drew, is undeniable. However, Rhonda also shares how less than a quarter of the original residents currently reside in the neighborhood. What happened to the others? She tells us that housing is in such high demand the gap between the low and market price units grows daily. What happens to those in the middle? She confesses that spots in their early childhood program are limited and currently only held by children from high-income households. What will happen to their low-income peers? Revitalization efforts like those at East Lake are vital when we consider the benefits they bring to their communities. Similarly, I think some of the HBCUs we traveled to could do with their own kind of revitalization. Yet, as necessary as these changes may seem, it is equally important for us to remember who is ultimately served by such efforts and what is essential to these spaces.

–Christian A. Martell, doctoral student

We spend time the following morning visiting the Martin Luther King, Jr. Historic Site.

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The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site

The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site gives visitors a better sense of King’s early life.  There are great videos and artifacts from his childhood, detailing the community and family that incubated his vision and leadership.  While there, we walked over to Ebenezer Baptist Church.  Sitting in the pews, you can hear tapes of King’s sermons.  While there King was preaching on Black dignity and excellence, saying “Black is Beautiful.”  King’s legacy is so focused on the integration message that we forget he believed in the greatness of Black people and ministered to all Black communities.  We also saw Dr. King’s family home, where he was born.  The home and the church, mere blocks from each other.  It was powerful to see the institutions that formed Dr. King.   

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The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Historic site was the only location on our tour I had previously visited.  As a senior in high school, I went with four of my classmates and three staff members to march in the School of the Americas protest at Fort Benning, GA, to memorialize the dead and terrorized in Latin America by US policy and counter-communist efforts. Driving back to Chicago, we stopped in Atlanta to visit Dr. King’s grave and historic site.  Back then, there was only one tomb on that still water.  I felt then, we had tapped into a piece of the long tradition of non-violent civil disobedience during our trip.  I used that inspiration and continued to engage in civil disobedience, attending and organizing demonstrations, rallies, and teach-ins against the Iraq War, labor rights, and securing a living wage on my college campus.  Returning to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Historic site, I felt more distant from that legacy than I did in 2001.  My days now are filled with meetings, reading alone, and talking with people who agree with me.  There’s a kind of moratorium required in graduate school, but I’m wondering if being too long separated from direct action for social justice, deadens the spark?  How can we prepare ourselves within graduate programs for the work ahead?  What of our courses, professional development, and community building actually forges leaders for social justice like Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Auburn community did for King? As one of our last stops, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site left me with questions and a desire to get back to where I started.   

–Kamaria Porter, doctoral student

MLK Jr. Historic Site (Atlanta)
 
“It takes a whole village to raise a child.”
 
The African proverb best describes what the MLK Jr. Historic Site is about. The MLK Jr. Historic Site in Atlanta is at the very center of the community that saw Martin Luther King Jr. grow and thrive. One can just wonder about what events and family values molded MLK’s character, transforming him from a spiritual leader into a civil rights movement leader.
 
In Atlanta, a humble Black neighborhood was able to thrive through faith and commitment to civil rights. To raise their children in an environment of dignity and respect. 
 
MLK pointed out a particular event in his early childhood that made him realize of the contrast between his community and the segregated system outside; when he went with his father to buy some shoes at a white store and the white attendant instructed his father to go to the back of the store to be serve. A suggestion that his father refused. MLK grew up in a family committed to the community with individuals determined to live by their words and intentions.
 
The exhibition Courage to Lead presents the personal and family challenges and the determination to serve society and a higher purpose. Some pictures are particularly moving and give clues about the temperance not only of MLK but also Coretta and their followers. One of them is when MLK is arrested in Montgomery. Police officers are using force against MLK; he has a calm face even though he is trying to hold himself at the reception board. Coretta King is at a side looking at MLK also with a smooth face and a dignified posture. They seemed out of place as if they already know the outcome and this event is only a fragment of a bigger picture. They are ordinary people called to do extraordinary things.

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Caption at the exhibition: “In a series of reprisals for King’s ongoing protest activities in the late 1950’s, Montgomery city authorities sought opportunities to arrest him. Here, he was accused of “loitering” at the courthouse when he tried to attend a friend’s hearing” Photo credit Charles Moore.

–Ruben Urbieta, master’s student

 

Montgomery, AL (Alabama State University, MKL Jr. home)

The poignant drive from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, is now designated as a National Historic Trail and takes us past the Lowndes Interpretive Center in White Hall.

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Upon arriving in Montgomery, we meet with colleagues at Alabama State University to learn about hot topics on campus.

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We also receive a first-hand history lesson from Dr. Valda Montgomery, who can recall as a child when her parents sheltered Freedom Riders in their home … two doors down from the residence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  She recommended we drive by the former King home on our way to the State Capitol to see the proximity of these buildings to one another.

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When we arrive, who else do we discover than Dr. Montgomery sitting with her mother on the front porch swing.  The group gets to share time with this brave lady who placed her family in very real danger in the struggle for social justice.

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Selma, AL (Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail)

Following the February 1965 death of voting rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, a series of marches from Selma to Montgomery brought the conflicts of the voting rights movement into homes across the country and focused the nation’s attention on the ways segregated policies continued to divide society.

In early 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) made Selma the focus of its efforts to register black voters in the South. Protesters attempting to march from Selma to Montgomery were met with violent resistance by state and local authorities. The protesters (under the protection of federalized National Guard troops) finally achieved their goal, walking around the clock for three days to reach the state capital. This 54-mile march, and King’s participation in it, greatly helped raise awareness of the difficulty faced by black voters in the South, and the need for a Voting Rights Act, passed later that year.

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Today, the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail commemorates the events, people, and route of the 1965 Voting Rights March in Alabama.

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A culminating moment for the group is our walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Racism, discrimination and segregation in the South were enabled by the manipulation of political power at the ballot box.

- Exhibit caption from the Selma Interpretive Center

 The value of the vote in American society was amplified during our time in Selma and subsequent trip to Montgomery.

On March 7, 1965, a group of American citizens, most of whom were Black, headed south across the Edmund Pettus Bridge towards Montgomery for the first time. Their mission was equitable enfranchisement in a land of poll taxes, literacy and citizenship tests, and harassment. On May 18, 2016, our group followed the footsteps of these trailblazers to feel what it was like to cross this bridge, named for a Confederate general and Alabama KKK leader[1]. We walked together along the pedestrian path on the same side of the road used by the 1965 marchers. We walked together. Though our group was small, I felt our unity as we walked along this path.

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Below the bridge one finds the beautiful Alabama River. My mother poignantly commented on how she never knew what was below the bridge before I sent this picture. It could have been railroad tracks, a busy highway, or a bustling street with shops. Seeing that this bridge extends over a river demonstrates the importance of traveling and seeing the world for oneself. This trip was full of discovery that exceeds what one would find in a textbook, video, or oral history. This river is a metaphor for the flowing knowledge that came of this trip, and this bridge, consecrated by a troubling history, served as our link to the past.

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The greenery that one sees on the right side of the picture is part of the Civil Rights Memorial Park. For me, this land served as a site for reflecting on our trip across the bridge. If our group had been with the marchers on March 7, 1965, we would not have made it to this land. Instead, our movement would have been destructed by the Alabama state troopers posted on the south side of the bridge.

Throughout our trip I reflected on the history of physical space. Slave v. free states. Segregated schools and public accommodations. Crossing the Suspension Bridge from Covington, Kentucky, a place of slavery, to Cincinnati, Ohio, a place of freedom. Our land, rivers, streets, other spaces have deep histories, all of which were dictated by human decisions. These decisions are what make our histories complex and worth studying.

As you watch this video, feel the air, feel the vibrations of the birds’ songs, to the birds, and take in the cool shade created by the tall trees. Imagine you are there. Imagine.

On the other side of the river we found a beautiful mural. This outdoor art exhibit was a favorite of our group – we loved taking pictures of and with these pieces. The statement, “Education is the Key to Control Our Destiny” was particularly powerful for us as educators who were learning about the value of HBCUs.

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– Katie Forsythe, master’s student


[1] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/who-was-edmund-pettus-180954501/?no-ist

Jackson, MS (Jackson State University, Children’s Defense Fund)

We spend three days in Jackson, Mississippi.  A day at rest includes a hike along the Natchez Trace Trail.

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A few of us even have our first Waffle House experience!

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And did we mention laundry?

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Our conversations the next morning with colleagues at Jackson State University focus on university partnerships and collaborations.  We learn more about JSU’s plans to serve as host to the only Confucius Institute in Mississippi–what that means to the institution, and how it will serve the interests of JSU students.

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JSU – Confucius Institute – Thomas Calhoun

After talking to anyone at Jackson State University, you get the impression that they will not be satisfied with the status quo. While already a regional leader in postsecondary education, the administration at Jackson State see their reach expanding not only nationally, but globally. But this of course means building their reputation and providing access to programming that is currently not available or in short supply. One such initiative is the plan to establish a Confucius Institute on the campus. Confucius Institutes are overseen by the Chinese government’s Office of Chinese Language Council International, and are organized within postsecondary institutions worldwide with the intention of promoting Chinese language instruction and culture with local communities.

Spearheading the initiative is Dr. Thomas Calhoun, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts. If Dr. Calhoun and his colleagues are successful, they would greatly increase the number of Chinese language instructors at Jackson State, making it possible for more Jackson State students to receive training in a highly sought after skill. Since Jackson State would be one of the few institutes in the region with a Confucius Institute it would no doubt make them more competitive and able to attract more students. 

Personally, I was very happy to hear that Jackson State is set on this goal. Student’s need exposure to difference. The opportunity to learn from and live with individuals from vastly different backgrounds will not only open professional opportunities, but it will also open their minds. Dr. Calhoun’s conviction is clear when listening to him talk about this project. Without a doubt I am certain they will succeed in this partnership and will continue to create opportunities for their students.

–Steven Cederquist, master’s student

After only a few minutes on campus, I began to see Jackson State University (JSU)’s depth of commitment to promoting the success of its students. Our group had the opportunity to speak with administrators, faculty, current students, and recent alumni, each of whom added nuance and depth to our understandings of the purpose and practice of higher education.

Faculty and administrators at JSU are personally invested in student success. Throughout our conversations, current students and alumni shared moments when they felt seen, challenged, and supported in their pursuit of their degrees. Faculty members, including Dr. Ron Walker, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Research, have encouraged them to pursue further study and then to complete their dissertations. Administrators such as Dr. Dorris Robinson-Gardner, Dean of Graduate Studies, have reached out at just the right time with encouragement. These anecdotes speak to JSU’s culture of proactively and personally championing students.

 In our conversation, Dr. Darcie Bishop, Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor of Music, asked a question that caused me to think a bit more carefully about their challenges: “what would it take for you [University of Michigan students] to come to JSU?” My own answer to this question, at once deeply personal and indicative of system-level forces, again reminded me of the complexity of college access and choice. I thought immediately of the social and political climate of Mississippi and my identity as a queer cis-woman. Having recently undertaken the graduate school application process with my partner, sociopolitical climate was a constant consideration in our search and decision process. Thus, Dr. Bishop’s deceptively simple question offered insights into the experiences and challenges of attracting students, faculty, and staff to a given institution for reasons both within and outside of an institution’s control (for example, geographic location).

Another large part of our conversation centered around partnerships between institutions. An integral component of partnerships for JSU is mutual benefit. How do all partners ensure that all involved benefit from the relationship? We discussed the importance of building sustained relationships, fostering communication, and intentionally navigating power dynamics as ways of promoting mutual benefit.

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From this discussion, we brainstormed and created a list of ideas for possible partnerships between JSU and UM. For example, joint study trips (similar to our current trip) between institutions could enrich the academic conversations and expand the personal and professional networks of the participants. Another idea was to create synergy between faculty and graduate students based on research interests with the goal of advancing research agendas, publications, and presentations. Throughout this conversation, I was particularly struck by the great enthusiasm and potential for partnerships between institutions.

– Chelsea Noble, master’s student

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Natalie Collier, of the Children’s Defense Fund (CFD) – Southern Regional Office, provides our group with the opportunity to learn about that organization’s Young Women’s Leadership Institute.  We meet with participants and volunteers of the Women in Agriculture program and tour the agricultural extension campus of Alcorn State University.

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Valuing Our History

As a history buff, I find situating problems within a historical context incredibly informative when considering current realities.  It helps shed light upon how real people were thinking and feeling in the moment, as well as what combination of social, economic, political and environmental forces were at play.  Who gets to tell their stories, how those stories are told and preserved is also a curious thing.  The adage, “history is written by the victors” paints a very flat portrait of our past.   

An important part of this journey included contextualizing HBCUs within the larger struggle for social justice across the historical canvas of the U.S.  We took time to listen to the voices of multiple stakeholders, and tried to pay attention when voices seemed to be missing.

While on university campuses we discovered the significant contributions and sacrifices made by student activists.  For instance, the individuals we heard from while at Tennessee State University (Linda Wynn, Elizabeth McClain and Kwame Lilliard, Gloria McKissack, and Freedom Rider Ernest Rip Patton) described their decisions and involvement as students in the civil rights movement  during the 60s.

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Kyle Southern, Director of Policy and Research for the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (and CSHPE doctoral candidate) provided an overview of Nashville connections with the civil rights movement, including a tour of the timeline and displays located in Vanderbilt University’s John Seigenthaler Center. 

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Dr. Valda Montgomery, at Alabama State University, shared her childhood memories of sheltering Freedom Riders in her family’s home during the summer of 1961.

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In Jackson, we visited the former home of NAASP field secretary Medgar Evers, which is now a national historical landmark—a well-maintained property nestled within the landscape of a residential neighborhood that has seen better days.

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We also saw evidence of neglect along our way.  Neglect of the people and places that help round out the story of the civil rights movement and the ongoing struggle for social justice. 

While deep in the Mississippi Delta, CDF colleague Natalie Collier brought us to visit the home of Unita Blackwell in the small town of Mayersville.  Ms. Blackwell was the first African American woman, and the tenth African American, to be elected mayor in the state of Mississippi.  She was a project director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and helped organize voter drives for African Americans across Mississippi.  Behind her now abandoned and in severe disrepair home is an out building where SNCC members used to meet in secret.  The Blackwells took a huge chance by involving themselves in the movement this way. 

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In Selma, I found it startling to walk across the Edmund Pettus bridge to find boarded up store fronts and bars on the windows.

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Some of these places may soon be lost to us unless, as a society, we care enough about their lessons to preserve them for future generations to visit and learn from.  I hope we do!

–Melinda Richardson, CSHPE Assistant Director