Video by Tree Sturman, Junior High Guide
Last week marks the third time we have traveled to Georgia and Alabama for our “Civil War to Civil Rights” Workshop. Each visit is a unique, one-time experience that is shaped by geography, location hours, restaurant hours, and special events in the area, not to mention the personalities and interests of twenty-three young people. Since our trips are not curated by a travel company, we are able to linger longer when there is interest, or add a stop if we stumble upon something interesting or unexpected. We are also able to experience local fare, as opposed to visiting large chain restaurants (don’t worry, we call first!!). So with all of this latitude, what did we do? Well, here it goes!
The vans rolled out at 7:30. Not to jinx us, but this crew has been very punctual this year! After an uneventful drive to Grand Rapids, we boarded a flight for Atlanta. The plane had “screens,” so it was a nice quiet ride. If you’ve flown into Atlanta, you know it was a half-day journey from our gate to our rental vehicles. We stopped off and did some Kroger-ing for breakfast and lunch supplies and then continued on to our rental abode for the week. After settling in, we got to work on roasting chicken for wraps, and baking breakfast casseroles. Each night, we sit in circle to reflect on our day, as well as prepare for the next.
Tuesday - Atlanta
We started our day with wonder. The Georgia Aquarium is one of the top aquariums in the nation. They have tanks large enough to house not one, but two Whale Sharks, along with a couple of Manta Rays; both beautiful, graceful, and so peaceful, gliding through the water, paying no mind to the onlookers. The Beluga Whales and penguins, on the other hand, wanted to check out our faces and inspect these creatures on the other side of the plexiglass. After a peaceful morning at the aquarium, we enjoyed our first packed lunch in the shared space between the aquarium, Coca-Cola, and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Of course, we had to drop into Coca-Cola to check out the swag, and share a Coke.
The National Center for Civil and Human Rights is a museum designed to guide visitors through the time of segregation and Jim Crow up through the present. Visitors can hear stories from Freedom Riders, participants in the Lunch Counter Sit-ins, interviews with government officials and police officers from the time period, and students who were the first to desegregate the schools. One part of the exhibit is an interactive lunch counter sit-in, where visitors can sit at the lunch counter with headphones on, close their eyes, and hear what those student activists may have heard when they sat at the “whites only” counters. The exhibit ends with human rights offenders and defenders throughout history and around the globe.
After an afternoon of some pretty heavy experiences, we bookended the day with Hamilton, at the beautiful Fox Theater in downtown Atlanta. Ironically, the calls for freedom from the founding fathers were echoed in the stories of civil and human rights that we had been listening to all afternoon.
Wednesday - Atlanta
We started our day at the Atlanta History Center, the home to the “Battle of Atlanta” Cyclorama. Cycloramas were the “virtual reality” or “IMAX theaters” of their time. The cyclorama gave the visitor the feeling of standing in the middle of a battle. Originally created by Europeans to be displayed in Minnesota, it depicted the victory of the Union over the Confederate forces. It has been altered throughout its existence for marketing purposes- at one point the blue of the Union was painted red to show a Confederate victory!
After a packed lunch, we headed to Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, to see the backdrop of the battle for ourselves. Two students helped set the scene when they volunteered to dress up as soldiers to help us learn about the similarities and differences between infantrymen of the Union, and those of the Confederacy. We ended our visit by getting a glimpse of what those soldiers saw as they ran into battle: a large open field to cross, and a mountain to climb.
Our next stop was Marietta National Cemetery. After the war ended, the federal government sought soldiers buried at field hospitals, on battlefields, and near railway stations. Marietta was one of the first places those bodies were reinterned. We learned that Marietta holds only Union soldiers, as at the time, the animosity was still so high that the locals did not want their dead buried with “Yankees.” We finished our night enjoying various cuisines in downtown Marietta at the Marietta Square Market.
Thursday - Birmingham
Road trip! Bright and early we headed for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. We had seen this place from the outside on previous trips, but this was our first opportunity to visit. We started our tour by meeting a “Foot Soldier” of the Children’s Crusade. Miss Ann was 16 years old when she skipped school to join a march to talk to the mayor about segregation. “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety at the time, sent the police force out with water cannons, hoses, and police dogs to end the march. He sent so many children to jail, they had to use school buses to transport them. The outcry from the nation who saw children being hosed and jailed led to the tipping point for President Lyndon B. Johnson, who soon signed the Civil Rights Act. Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from the museum, commemorates that day with sculptures of the events.
After our tour of BCRI, we met with Miss Dee, who works locally to bring resources into the community with the support of the Brookings Institute, which is investing in Birmingham specifically for its segregated communities and large African American population. She talked about how Birmingham is more segregated now than it was back then, because after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, Whites left the city center. Staying downtown, we headed over to Yo Mama’s Fried Chicken for lunch, and honestly, the best fried chicken and waffles I’ve ever had.
After lunch, we visited the 16th Street Baptist Church. There, our docent, a former Michigander and graduate of Wayne State, shared the history of the church, as a place of community, and Civil Rights work. This is where the Children’s Crusade was organized, and where four little girls were killed when a bomb was planted outside under the steps. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to the 16th Street Baptist Church to deliver the eulogy for those little girls. They are memorialized in Kelly Ingram Park with a statue depicting a vision the lone survivor had of the souls of her sister and friends who were murdered that day.
Friday - Further south to Montgomery
Before leaving for our trip, we read the book “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson. The book recounts his experience as a young lawyer working on death row in Alabama. The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice were started by Bryan Stevenson. He also founded EJI, the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery. EJI, the museum, and the memorial are all paths for justice. The museum and the memorial work toward justice by providing the history and identification of those who lost their lives unjustly, either from enslavement, lynching, or unjust incarceration. EJI works to “end mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the U.S..”
We spent “recess” along the Alabama River at Riverwalk Park, passing a statue of Hank Williams (not Junior!), a famous Montgomery native, along the walk. To close out the day, we visited the old Greyhound Bus station, the site where a busload of Freedom Riders stepped off to be met by an angry mob that proceeded to attack and injure the Riders. The station now serves as a museum, exhibiting information about the Freedom Riders initiative. As we strolled the area, we saw the Alabama Capitol building, with the First White House of the Confederacy just across the street. The Capitol has two prominent monuments, one to those who fought for the Confederacy, and one to Jefferson Davis.
Our last stop before home was Pannie-George’s Kitchen for hot soul food - catfish, creamed corn, cornbread, and more.
Saturday - Last day, Atlanta
We enjoyed sleeping in and having a leisurely breakfast. We loaded the vehicles and headed for the National Center for Puppetry Arts. Four performers, in conjunction with the puppets, told the story of an eight-year-old girl, traveling from Chicago to Alabama to see her Grandma - a Black family traveling south in 1952. “Ruth and the Green Book” detailed the challenges Black folks faced as they traveled across the country, especially in the “Jim Crow” South.
Wow! In a cozy theater, we were dazzled by the combination of singing, dancing, staging, set design, and of course, a multitude of puppetry! Puppets included tabletop puppets, shadow puppets, and marionettes.
After lunch in a park, we continued to Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park. We toured the visitor center and attended a history talk at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church where Dr. King grew up and where he eventually served as pastor, like his father and grandfather before him. The church lies just off of Auburn Avenue, also known as “Sweet Auburn,” which, before the Civil Rights movement, was the center for African American finance, entrepreneurialism, and culture. Our Park Ranger, Jake, told us the story of the King family as we sat in the pews, looking at the organ and the surrounding stained glass. The church was also the site of Dr. King’s funeral, where 200,000 people, including Robert F. Kennedy, waited outside to accompany the casket, being pulled in a cart by a team of mules, for a three-mile procession to Morehouse College. Being in the space and hearing the story was a profound moment for many in our group.
Contrast? We’ve got it! Our next stop took us to Stone Mountain, referred to as the “Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy.” Stone Mountain is a pluton, an upwelling of magma, or in other words a big hunk of granite, a REALLY big hunk. From a distance, it looks like a huge stone (800 feet high) sitting on the ground. Up close, you see a carving of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and “Stonewall” Jackson, riding horses and surrounded by a theme park. Under Georgia law, it is protected as a monument to the Confederacy. This proved to be the most surreal moment of the trip; we walked through a closed theme park, past a group practicing a performance for the Lunar New Year, up to the face of the mountain that is flanked by statues commemorating the “Valor” and “Sacrifice” of the Confederacy in their “fight for freedom, in the footsteps of the founding fathers.”
How do you begin to process the ever-changing landscape and history of one area? We went for dinner. Sweet Potato Cafe, just a stone’s throw from the mountain, welcomed us with fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, sweet potato fries, and black bean and sweet potato hash. The restaurant is locally owned, and farm-to-table. The owner, who is Black, asked us, “Why Stone Mountain?” It is always a challenging question to answer. The Confederate carving was not completed until 1972. It has been the location of KKK rallies. Its funding was provided by the Daughters of the Confederacy. The shortest answer? Because it’s still here. Georgia altered its state flag in 2001, but this monument and theme park are still here. Why does it still remain? With the ideals of the Confederacy still in the landscape, what does that mean for the people of Georgia? What does it mean for the U.S.?
In processing our trip, over the course of this week, our group shared a range of adjectives, adverbs, and abstract nouns to describe the experience which covered the entire range of emotions: courage, forgiveness, hopeful, sad, activist, humble, wondrous, reliable, inspirational, resilient, dangerous, rebellious, equality, terrorism, grief, hatred, fearless, determined, passionate, honorable, charismatic, sorrowful, faith, persistent, and peace - just to name a few. We discussed the similarities and connections we saw and also noted the contrast. We look forward to further exploration as the students begin their independent research and final projects.
“Where words fail, music speaks”
- Hans Christian Andersen
Where we have been -
This has been a year like no other. While I was preparing to begin my 4th year teaching at The Children’s House, there was some reflection upon what had come before- different projects, programs, focuses, etc. One thing I noticed was the impact that Covid had on the curriculum choices. These were not necessarily second tier choices, but projects that I may not have been drawn to if health concerns did not exist. As it was, the Primary got to learn about and try a new percussion instrument every week in group time. Lower Elementary embraced the ukulele and Orff instruments. The Upper Elementary built violins, and the Junior High created instruments out of found objects in the woods. The students’ creativity and ability to make music and art, in the face of adversity, is something I am grateful for.
Where we are -
This brings us to what we are doing now, this year. We have studied and learned how to play several different instruments these last few years, but there was one thing that was left out, a focus on singing. Partially for the obvious reasons stated above (I am avoiding saying the dreaded C---- word again). But, because singing as a group can be a tricky thing. Not everyone is comfortable being so vulnerable and open, to what can feel like, a critical ear. Our school community needed to be able to embrace the sounds we could make together before we could think about growing them.
The students seemed “game for it” this year as we started to focus on learning to sing better on pitch by using tuned bells and the piano to train their ears. Through singing short, new songs and introducing Kodaly solfege the students have developed a strong sense of high and low pitches and matching their voice to a pitch played. One of the best comments I heard while preparing for the Seasonal Sing was, “This part is too high for me.” That was music to my ears because that demonstrated a clear understanding of their vocal range and ability, identifying the issue, and then feeling comfortable enough to voice it to me as their teacher. While it may sound strange, I was extremely proud at that moment- that student had just shown me how much they had grown as a young musician and that we can work together toward a solution! The sense of pride and accomplishment the students had after the Seasonal Sing was one of the best moments to be a part of.
What’s next –
So, what do we go to next? Do we follow the model of constantly striving for something bigger and better? Do we go back to basics and focus on strong foundational skills? Ask the students what they want to do?
I am inclined to a mixture of those three. Give the students an option to work on all three ideas, allowing them to have a sense of ownership over what they are focusing their time on. The idea of working on larger long-term projects gives everyone a goal to work towards and working on fundamentals is incredibly important too. Furthermore, having a performance or showcase at the end of the hard work provides closure, or satisfaction, of a job well done. Thus, allowing one’s music to “speak for them”.