On May 24 and May 25th a delegation of Clarke County advocates, educators and researchers set out to Montgomery Alabama to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the site founded by the Equal Justice Initiative of Bryan Stevenson. Among our delegation was three Middle School teachers from the East Side (Two Social Studies teacher from Coile and one Social Studies teacher from Hilsman) the head of Counseling from Cedar Shoals High School, two delegates from Athens for Everyone, a delegate from the Athens Anti-Discrimination League, one high school Literature teacher (myself), three Graduate Students and three Doctoral professors of Social Studies Education, two from the University of Georgia and one from Kennesaw State University.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice seeks to honor and memorialize the lives of over 4,400 Black Americans who were lynched during the days of Racial Terror after the Reconstruction. There is a steel box with the name of every Black woman or man who was lynched in all the counties of the Confederacy. After you leave the memorial there is a duplicate copy of every steel box. The goal of the Equal Justice Initiative is to lead every County in the South to claim their memorial or piece in the atrocities that happened in the days of Racial Terror. Athens Clarke County has a memorial there for the one known black man who was lynched on Whitehall Road near Simonton Bridge, Rufus Moncrieff, who was lynched on September 18, 1917. Our delegation is currently communication with our local leaders in order to bring back our memorial to Athens.
After touring the museum and memorial on Thursday, our group, led by Dr Jim Garrett and Dr. Sonia Janis, sought to reflect on the experience on Friday morning. As an interracial group, we had a dialogue when many of our emotions and reactions were still raw. We reflected on the transition in America from open hate crimes to the mass incarceration of Black Americans today. As Educators, we had to reflect on the school to prison to pipeline and how the culture and structure of the school system continue to lead to the astounding statistic that 1 in 3 black men will be incarcerated in their lifetime. The museum reveals how hate crimes are still being committed against black men, but it is behind prison walls against “convict” who our county deems as not worthy of human dignity.
One of the Black Educators named Kiondre Dunnam explained how important it was for us “to check our biases” in the classroom. Another black delegate named Alexandra Zimmerman shared how important it was to “not pity” Black students but also not to shield them from the reality of the world they are going to face. She explained that black students start to figure out that the world is harder on them by three years old and realize that most Collaborative and Special Education classes are filled with Black students by the time they are in Middle School. Another Black delegate explained how he got the “talk” about what it meant to be a “black men” in America when he was around seven years old.
The Black members of our delegation remarked how none of the information at the museum or memorial was startling to them, as they have heard this history from their family members and churches since their childhood. What was remarkable to one Black female in our group, is that she was seeing White people face their part in the history of Black America and take ownership of these atrocities. The fact ten members of our group were White Americans was both uncomfortable and healing for her, as her grandparent’s generations still harbor bitterness to White Americans. In a moment of vulnerability, she shared that when she took pictures of the memorial to send to her grandmother, she didn’t want to capture the faces of our white group in the pictures she sent home.
I shared a personal testimonial of how I led a group of newer Educators to the Coile and Hilsman Middle Schools this year. At the “Book Drop” where students get to pick out their summer reading book, I asked him to stand behind the Advance table and place the books in front of him that he would want his students to read. He instinctively grabbed titles like Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit, 1984 and Kite Runner. However, some of the higher lexile books with a Black Protagonist like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, he didn’t place on the table. I tried to subtly move them over to the Advance table, but I noticed he moved them back again. I don’t think he consciously or intentionally meant to exclude Black gifted students. These were just the books he loved and had read in high school and so, he is passionate about teaching those books.
However, I couldn’t help but to think when I passed out the Hate You Give as a choice for Summer reading for the 10th grade students this year, one of my students read the first page and exclaimed in class, “They talk and think like us!” His joy reflected the years he has been forced to read books with White protagonist who think white thoughts who make Black students feel out of place in traditional American classrooms. It took me a long while of being a student of my students culture to adjust my teaching to fit their cultural identity. This year, another new 9th grade teacher taught “Forged by Fire” by Sharon Draper as her last unit after the End of Course Test. She was stunned these students “who can’t read” and “don’t’ care about school” and “don’t have the grit” devoured a piece of fiction that reflected their culture.
Not only do we need to check our biases and learn from our student’s community before we teach them, sometimes we have to call out other White people’s biases that are intentionally or unintentionally damaging Black Athenians who have lived under the weight of, not only Black racial terror, but also generational poverty that goes back to the Civil War. White supremacy and black poverty is systemic and goes back hundreds of years.
America loves individualism and thus we often feel angry when we are told we have the collective responsibility to take from the sins of our forefathers. Unfortunately, to confront and change this system we have to sometimes enter into an awkward confrontation with colleagues and family members or else the system will remain intact. As the head counselor from Cedar Shoals stated, “White supremacy is slick” and so often occurs without White people noticing it’s happening. This memorial and museum force a confrontation with systemic injustices, and now our group seeks to figure out what to do next to confront these injustices and systematic tragedies locally.
Pierre Oulevay, an 8th grade Georgia history teacher at Hilsman, stated during the circle, “In order to be a successful human being you must be self- critical. A successful nation also must be self -critical.” I would also like to add that in order for the Clarke County School District to be successful, it must become self-critical. The majority of our teacher force does not understand the botched order of Integration in this County and the evident toll it still takes on our Black student body. First, Clarke County didn’t integrate into the 1970s. At this time, two private schools were founded, Athens Academy and Athens Christian School. For this reason today, the majority of Clarke County is white residents but the majority of the student body is Black or Hispanic. During the year that Athens High Industrial School or Burney Harris Lyons High School as it was renamed, was ended and Black students began to integrate Athens High School (now what is Clarke Central), over 30,000 black teachers and administrators in the South lost their jobs. Instead of the school board integrating first and then the teachers, we forced children to integrate first. The first black female student to attend Chase Street, Agnes Green, later decided to return to a black neighborhood school because of the psychological trauma that it caused her (Knight 2007).
During the conversation, Cedar Shoals head counselor remarked that we use to have a tour of most East Athens neighborhoods as a part of new teacher orientation. Last year, we brought this tour back as a piece of new teacher orientation. The Hilsman Social Studies teacher remarked that it’s not enough for new teachers to “peek” at the neighborhoods; they have to understand the recent history that has formed these neighborhoods. I agreed and brought up the three-part Flagpole Article which taught the history of the East Side.
Dr Janis, who led our trip to Montgomery, is the in-professor resident for the Clarke County School District. She wants to bring this type of new teacher training to all of Clarke County. Not only has she taught American government at Cedar Shoals for two years, but she also works tirelessly to place Social Studies student teachers with Clarke County mentors.
As a result of the discussion we had about Athens neighborhoods, history, and racial terror, some members committed to beginning a new teacher orientation that would no longer exclude black students from Advanced classes. We know that black males are overrepresented in Collaborative classes. Some of us committed that morning to engaging and creating a more multicultural inclusive program so that new teachers and Black students no longer feel uncomfortable in Advance, gifted and AP classes and instead seek to promote “borderline” on level Gifted students into the Advanced and AP track. Since gifted services are largely recommended by teachers, we need to show ways in which Black students both manifest gifted qualities but also resist the cultural oppression of Advance and AP classes.
Please see the attached slideshow for the collaborative efforts of these educators to bring a social justice and advocate lens to new teachers this year. Luckily, at Cedar Shoals, the teacher leading new teacher training is Jadzia Hutchins, has been welcoming and open to resources. I already shared this slideshow with her as wells as Dr Means, our superintendent, Pierre Oulevay and Ariel Gordon, who has helped lead the neighborhood tour in the past.
I agree with Dr Monica Knight when she stated in her dissertation, “These (re)envisioned community schools must have teachers who can build relationships with minority students. Teachers who feel unable to meet the educational needs of black and minority students because of differences in their cultural upbringing or beliefs must be provided with access to black and other minority teachers and community members who can model for them positive ways to “interact with, motivate and instruct” minority students. This can happen through culturally relevant educational philosophies, instructional strategies, and behavior management styles, but it must happen (Rong & Preissle, 1997). Community schools must also expect not only that teachers role model for their students, but that they also become liaisons to the community, “cultural conduits,” and activists who are fighting for an equalized education for all children (Knight 2007).”
That is the goal of our efforts here in Clarke County, to end not only the school to prison pipeline in Athens and the mass incarceration of Black men, but also to end Black generational poverty here in Clarke County. This is a small step, but a step none -the- less. I figure we have to start somewhere.