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Civil rights tour opened students' eyes to Black history, encouraged thoughts of college
Over 40 Minneapolis Public Schools’ (MPS) Black high school students, instead of spending spring break on a sunny beach, traveled down south by bus on a “Civil Rights Research Tour.” The five-day tour (March 31-April 5) took the students to Montgomery, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia and stopped at several historic sites, including the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young Black girls died in 1964. For some students, the trip also included stops at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Four of the participants spoke to the MSR last week about their experience.
“It helped me learn more about my history,” said Edison junior Nailah Heard.
“I never heard of the 16th Street Church at all,” added Edison’s classmate Jasmine Valentine. “We should’ve been taught that all through elementary school and middle school. Our history books and our lessons are taught from a European point of view. That fact that we weren’t [taught this in school] makes you mad. We are not taught our true history. I don’t understand why.”
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“[Teachers] are not teaching you about history,” noted Edison junior Jasmine Lynn. “I did [some] prior research on the Birmingham bombing, not through the school but because of my own curiosity. To have to learn on my own versus being taught in history [class] about actual history beats you down a little bit and makes you think [of] what I really don’t know.”
Right: Yasin Chaffe (Photos by Charles Hallman)
Roosevelt sophomore Yasin Chaffe said he was surprised to learn that Jim Crow laws were not named after an individual. Going on the tour “helped me to think about college more,” he said.
The students are part of a Social Justice Fellows cohort at the University of Minnesota’s Roy Wilkins Center for Social Change, explained MPS Equity and Diversity Director Lawrencina Oramalu. “When we were thinking about this project, there were several goals. One of them was to help our students develop a stronger sense of identity and political and social consciousness. If students understand their history and some of the people that have gone before them and the struggles they went through, that would help them become more engaged in their education.
“The reason why we started [the cohort] this year was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act,” said Oramalu.
U of M professors Dr. Samuel Myers, Jr. and Keith Mayes, head of the school’s African American and African Studies program, are among the speakers for the “Race, Law and Public Policy: Then and Now” class, said Oramalu. Myers gave an overview of Roy Wilkins and discussed current topics such as affirmative action, and Mayes discussed civil rights and voting rights issues.
“We’re excited about the partnership with the university,” added Oramalu.
“The goal for me is not only to help the students understand the history but then [for them to] be committed to further education,” she said. “Part of the goal also is to get them thinking about college, see people who are in college and also professors who look like them teaching the courses.
Left: Lawrencina Oramalu (Photo courtesy of Minneapolis Public Schools)
“Even though this program has 40 students, we don’t want the program to only affect them,” stated Oramalu. “What can they do to create change back at their schools and in their community? What can I do to help solve problems? We hope they will develop the confidence as well as the tools to be able to work on those issues.”
“We are sharing our knowledge with others inside of school, and share with our community,” said Heard.
“Knowing what we didn’t know before, we can even teach the teacher a little bit that he didn’t [know about Black history] when he was in school,” said Lynn. “There is so much we still don’t know that we didn’t learn on that spring break trip.”
Valentine said hopefully the district will include Black history in the curriculum. Lynn, Heard and Valentine all admitted that the spring tour helped convinced them to look seriously at an HBCU for college.
“I want to say at first I didn’t think about going to any HBCUs, or even a women’s college,” said Lynn. “But going down and touring Spelman, I’m definitely going to apply now. It opened my eyes that it wasn’t just a school for girls. It gave me a different perspective… If not there, I want to go somewhere down south where they embrace the African American culture.”
“I am considering going to an HBCU college,” added Heard. “It’s a different environment from being here in Minnesota.”
Valentine also is looking at a Black college or university: “When they talk about diversity — I’ve been on a lot of tours of campuses in Minnesota, and you don’t see many Black kids or you don’t see if they have any Black history classes at the university,” she observed. “We were just walking around [the U of M] campus and you didn’t see any Black people. But when we went down south, I got to see young African American women actually doing something with their lives. I want to be around people that are like me.”
Finally, the MPS director says the program is designed “to create a pipeline to start in high school, and then eventually, hopefully, come to the University of Minnesota and major in African American Studies.” Oramalu concluded that plans are to have “a whole semester” of social justice courses next school year under the “College in the School” program.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman [at] spokesman-recorder [dot] com (challman @ spokesman-recorder.com )
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