A conversation with some of the students, staff, and parents who traveled to Alabama.
Bridget Dick ’19:
Our trip to Alabama showed me a part of America and its past I’d never seen in person before.
Andy Lipps, High School Teacher:
The trip began as an extension of the civil rights class that Paula Young Shelton and I teach at the High School.
Paula Young Shelton*, Lower School Teacher:
Andy and I took a bus trip to Selma on the 50th anniversary of the marches from Selma to Montgomery. He had brought a group of GDS students, and I brought a group from my church. While in conversation on the bus ride, Andy and I decided to co-teach a class on civil rights.
Joyce Yang ’19:
It was an incredible experience for me. It's one thing to learn about the Civil Rights Movement in a classroom, but it's a whole other experience to read about it while standing at the actual Greyhound bus stop where the Freedom Riders were attacked coming into Birmingham.
As a nation, we learn so little about the realities of slavery and even less about the way in which slavery has evolved and still haunts us. In addition to various museums, our visit also took us to many sites of the movement.
Nathaniel Wiener ’19:
What really stood out to me was the Alabama State Capitol. There were three statues outside of the Greek-columned building that honored three men. None of the short biographies beneath the statues mentioned negative aspects of the men, even though one was Jefferson Davis. This troubled me. Children across Montgomery see these people honored in such a positive light while in their time they brutally oppressed black people.
Rashida Holman-Jones (mother of Ziyah Holman ’20):
I overheard Nathaniel remark, "How could a state honor these people with a memorial in 2019?!" James Marion Sims and Jefferson Davis had prominent sculptures in the front of the capitol building and both men symbolize hate and inequity to people of color.
Seeing the statue of Jefferson Davis sitting right outside of the Alabama State House and learning that Alabama's Constitution still includes legally feasible provisions that allow for segregated classrooms... Each of these instances reminded me that the legacy of slavery isn't just an isolated piece of history but rather a living piece of our history whose repercussions continue to effect people today.
The Legacy Museum forced me to confront the harsh realities of American slavery, both in its past and its current form today: mass incarceration. I think the importance of this museum cannot be overstated.
The Legacy Museum and the Museum for Peace and Justice in Montgomery are particularly moving. Both museums were created by Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative
in remembrance and in honor of the victims of lynching in the South.
Ziyah Holman ’20
I thought it was great that Bryan Stevenson highlighted the connections and similarities between the realities of slavery and modern day. This allowed me to reflect on the subtle, yet clear phrases embedded in legislation that affect me as a Black female. After being confronted with the heart-wretching realities of our past, I was inspired to work harder in all areas of life and love unconditionally.
Elizabeth Westfall (mother of Nathaniel):
At the Legacy Museum, I was struck by the silence of the students as they engaged with wrenching materials, such as quotations from slaves recounting separation from their children, interactive maps showing the locations and telling the stories of lynchings, and videos of people wrongfully incarcerated for decades.
As I watched the students navigate the spaces, I noticed a mix of emotions ranging from curiosity, confusion, sadness, empathy, and anger. The Legacy Museum contained the emotionally heavy path through slavery to incarceration. I also listened to dialogue where students attempted to apply the reasoning and tactics that supported the Civil Rights Movement to the “Me Too” and modern gun control debates.
After reading all about the freedom rides and student’s march, I was amazed by the normalcy of places like 16th Street Baptist Church. To me, they highlighted that this movement was truly of the people, whose courage and faith give me hope for our current struggles against injustice.
Marlo Thomas, Director of Diversity and Inclusion:
While in the car travelling between sites, we prepared the students for what they might experience in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, in museums that tell the history of enslavement or of mass incarceration and the 4,400 lynchings that are represented. We visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery across from which Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “How long?” speech, and walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. We are working to develop ways that students can continue to have these meaningful experiences.
Sophia Bax-Wooten ’19:
Over four short days, we have bonded together in the face of a raw history that impacts us all. I am beyond grateful for this opportunity to meaningfully engage the Civil Rights Movement at its core.
The value of the trip, in explaining the genesis and continued vitality of GDS's racial justice mission, cannot be overstated. They stood on the ground where slaves were bought and sold and walked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge... And they experienced BBQ, fried fish, and banana pudding at a local gem of a diner off the beaten track in Selma. All told, it was an remarkable experience.
This trip was also a meaningful opportunity for the students to challenge their understanding of the Civil Rights Movement and engage with people with varying perspectives similar and different than their own. This dialogue is the key to critical analysis, the development of new perspectives, and the ability to have difficult conversations. As a parent, I was able to see my child within her social circle, actively engaging with other students around topics that concern her. GDS gives my daughter the tools to navigate this complex scene, and if all of that is encompassed by “Fine” when I ask “How was your day?” then I am one happy parent!
I hope many others in the GDS community will take the opportunity to visit these sites and share this transformative experience.
This was most definitely a moving experience that included unavoidable emotional points of personal connection. The opportunity for GDS students to stand on the very ground where some of America’s most painful and revolutionary historical events occurred will remain with them forever. It is my hope that after such an experience each of them is reminded of the moral courage it takes to win a victory for humanity, especially in the face of difficult and trying times.
*Paula did not travel with the group this time.