“I learned that history never ends.”
“I never knew that so many places I pass by every day are historical.”
Twenty two students spent a week (July 22-26) learning about the history of Freedom Schools in Mississippi as they launched the 2013-2014 school year with McComb Legacies. The theme for the 2013-14 school-year is “Education and Freedom Schools” in light of interest in improving schools today and the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Schools in 2014.
The students learned about each other, explored the history of Freedom Schools in the context of the voting rights struggle, critiqued their textbooks, wrote poems, talked with organizers, and ended the week with a poetry slam. The institute was facilitated by McComb Legacies alumni member Dominque Taylor, McComb Legacies coordinator/school district counselor Karman Butler, and Teaching for Change executive director Deborah Menkart. Funding for the institute was provided by a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant to Teaching for Change.
Here are a few highlights of the week.
Every day included activities for students to learn about each other’s life experiences, knowledge, and interests. These included People Bingo, Step Into the Circle If…, Concentric Circles, and more. The Step in the Circle exercise invited students to step forward if the prompt was true for them. The prompts included:
The focus of the institute was learning about the untold history of Freedom Schools, a process that will continue all year. The exploration of history began as they hopped on a school bus for a tour of Civil Rights Movement landmarks in McComb, professionally facilitated by high school students Noah Martin and Diamond Isaac.
Using a role play activity, students then stepped into the shoes of people who had interacted with voting rights activist Medgar Evers throughout his life. These included his family, people he had an impact on through his organizing, and those who opposed him such as the Sovereignty Commission. In role, they interviewed each other. Their task was to find someone who Evers had known as a child, someone he had learned from, someone he had helped, someone who opposed him, and more. Once the interviews were complete, the students met in small groups to discuss what type of leader Evers was, the obstacles he and others faced in the voting rights struggle, and their sources of strength. The lesson is online here.
The next stage of history exploration was research. Drawing on the practice of asking questions promoted by the 1960s Freedom Schools, the McComb Legacies participants brainstormed all the questions they could think of about Freedom Schools, using the Question Formulation Technique. The questions they developed included:
They then put on their researcher hat, searching books, websites, and primary documents for the answers to their own questions. Some were easy to answer, others will take all school year and longer.
The most memorable activity of the week was an oral history interview. High school teacher Vickie Malone provided a mini-lesson on how to develop questions and conduct an interview. This was put to good use by the students with McComb resident Tommy Tatum, 1965 graduate of Burglund High School. Tatum began by describing life on Summit Street (the Black side of town) as a child. The street had everything to offer from stores to barber shops to night clubs with national performers of note. He then described a chilling experience when he was arrested for “criminal syndicalism.”
While a high school senior, the house of Aylene Quinn had been bombed. Ms. Quinn fed and supported the Civil Rights Movement workers in McComb. Tatum was one of the many members of the community who ran to her house when they heard the loud explosion. Two weeks later the police arrested Tatum and other African Americans who had gathered at the sight of the bombing.
They did not arrest the actual bombers. Tatum explained to the students that he had no idea how long he would be in jail and charges were never pressed. His family brought him his school work so that he could keep up with his studies and graduate with the rest of his class. With the help of a civil rights lawyer from Washington, DC, he was released 35 days later. He was never charged with a crime, nor was an apology offered for the arrest and detention of a high school student.
With all this knowledge under their belts, the students assessed their textbooks, the city and county websites, and more to see how Freedom Schools were described. They found a total absence of information. The U.S. history textbook, the Pike County website, and the City of McComb website had no information at all. The one book that should have had the most information, the Mississippi Studies textbook, had no reference to Freedom Schools in the index. Searching inside the book, students found there was a portion of a sentence about Freedom Schools. One of the students, Tra’Kevious Thompson, plans to challenge this omission. He will begin by researching the history of bias in Mississippi textbooks (including the Loewen, et al. vs. Turnipseed, et al. case) and advocate for this and other omissions to be addressed.
During the week students started to plan how to share the history they are learning. They also selected the specific stories to study in depth. Some chose to create National History Day projects, others plan to teach their peers at their middle and high school.
They connected directly with state and national organizers to assist with their planning. In a phone meeting with Cynthia Palmer, Executive Director of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, Inc., they described what they had been learning.
Ms. Palmer told them about some of the activities that are being planned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer in 2014 and encouraged the students to participate.
They Skyped with Mary Beth Tinker who is organizing a Tinker Tour to support youth activism across the country.
When the students told Tinker about the history of Freedom Schools missing from their textbooks, she pointed out another big omission. Her own court case, Tinker v. Des Moines is famous and featured in most U.S. history textbooks. However, it is based on a Mississippi court case (Burnside v. Byars) that is not in the textbooks, even though the Mississippi case set the precedent.
Throughout the week students reflected on what they had learned through poetry. Some had attended a Poetry Slam while in Washington, DC in June and were determined to bring the tradition to McComb.
They began by writing about their own experiences as a student and then wrote about the people and places of McComb’s Civil Rights Movement. On the final morning of the institute, poet and performer Michael “Quess?” Moore led a workshop where the students revised their poems and/or wrote new ones. Quess? was the ideal poet for the occasion since he writes about the politics of education and performs with Junebug Productions, a group that has its roots in the Free Southern Theater of the 1960s.
On Friday afternoon, special guests arrived including parents, administrators, and the Mayor of McComb. Courtney Coney MC’d as students shared photos and stories from the week.
Then Quess? described how a poetry slam works while Caleb Malone collected names from everyone who wanted to participate. Five “judges” were selected (four students and one parent). Quess? reminded everyone that “The points are not the point; the point is poetry.”
Each poet left the room in awe. Here are excerpts from just a few of the poems.
Freedom Schools by Tra’Kevious Thompson
The movement of the Freedom Schools
Were not held in vain.
No matter how severe
The surface of the safe places of the church were.
The classes that took place
Changed and rocked the danger
That was lurking in the atmosphere . . .
Silence by Calvin Dixon
Will the silence I feel ever become less overbearing
…I hear all about world wars, monarchies, Christopher Columbus, 1492.
That doesn’t float my boat but I won’t go too deep because it may be just right for you.
The common statement is “knowledge is power” and to which I say – why do I feel like a prisoner of my mind.
What exactly are you afraid for me to see? . . .
Small Town, Big History by Ashley Bonds
. . . A lot of bombings
And plenty beatings
A part of our youth is missing.
Did you really think
We didn’t fight for our rights?
They hide this from us
And they don’t care
And most of the youth
Are not even aware.
The way we had to fight for rights
Was just not fair.
Why is everything here…
STILL a mystery.
Alyene Quinn by Ronique Taylor
. . . She had a soul that was so fearless.
She was the arm when you needed to reach,
and the voice when you needed to speak.
A friend when you needed that hand,
DON’T be afraid to call on Mama QUINN!
she was everybody’s help and hero. . . .
Flowery Mount Baptist Church by Kiplyn Taylor
1870 was the date
When a group of people ran from slavery & hate
To meet in the woods & discuss something safe.
A safe haven for all who could appreciate
A church gave them hope
Underground barracks would keep them afloat . . .
You Have Failed Me by Diamond Isaac
. . . I have tried to learn more in this place that’s called “school”, but I have failed.
I’M A FAILURE! I’M A FAILURE, I AM A FAILURE!!!
I am a failure in own my education….
Well that’s what you tell me.
It’s my entire fault for not paying attention in class,
but instead letting my mind and creation go off into space
like a shooting rocket into this great galaxy. . . .
The scores were tallied and in a first for Quess?, three poets tied for first place and two tied for third place. And every poet who participated was applauded for their courage and creativity.
The event closed with words of appreciation and encouragement from the Mayor of McComb, Whitney Rawlings and the McComb School District Director of Teaching and Learning, Ms. Betty Wilson. Ms. Wilson invited some of the students to share their poetry the following week with teachers.
Students will begin to meet twice a week after school when the new school year begins in early August. Look forward to more updates from McComb Legacies as they explore the history of Freedom Schools and their education today.
Photos by Damion Jordan.