Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Sheri Gilreath-Watts, a high school English teacher from Grand Rapids, Michigan, traveled to Richmond this summer to gain an in-depth, firsthand understanding of the struggle to desegregate schools in Virginia, as well as in the rest of the United States.
“This has reminded me that I can’t take my education for granted and I will be passing that on to the kids so they don’t take their education for granted as well,” said Gilreath-Watts while attending a lecture in New Kent County, the community out of which arose the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1968 landmark ruling in Green v. School Board of New Kent County that required localities to desegregate their schools.
Gilreath-Watts is among roughly 70 teachers from across the country taking part in one of two sessions of a seminar at Virginia Commonwealth University this summer titled “The Long Road from Brown: School Desegregation in Virginia.”
The program is sponsored by VCU and Old Dominion University and is supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
As part of the workshop, the teachers interact with leading scholars, visit historic sites and archives, and develop lesson plans related to school desegregation in Virginia following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that found segregated schools to be unconstitutional.
We must recognize that the same struggles took place in Virginia and indeed in virtually every Southern community.
“When most people think of the civil rights era, they tend to think about the Deep South — Mississippi or Alabama, for instance — but we must recognize that the same struggles took place in Virginia and indeed in virtually every Southern community,” said seminar co-director Brian Daugherity, Ph.D., an assistant professor in VCU’s Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Understanding this is important because it sheds light on the continuing challenges we face in Virginia, in terms of civil and human rights, and because Virginia’s role in the civil rights movement was in fact much greater than most people recognize.”
Along with New Kent County, the teachers visit sites such as the Robert Russa Moton Museum in Farmville, which honors the 1951 Moton High School student strike that produced three-fourths of the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education and led to Prince Edward County’s decision to close its public school system to avoid integration. The group will also visit related historic sites in Richmond, as well as Virginia State University.
“As a former schoolteacher myself, I believe it’s critically important that academics and scholars share their research and understanding with the general public, and with schoolteachers in particular,” Daugherity said. “This allows us, and the institutions that support us, to have a greater impact on the society in which we live. It is my hope that the teachers who participate in these NEH workshops will find the experience enjoyable and enlightening, and also find the information useful in their own teaching.”
I’ve already got a lesson plan in mind for how I’m going to integrate this into my AP language and composition class.
Guy Hill, an English teacher from Harnett County, North Carolina, said he is looking forward to bringing the story of Virginia’s experience with school desegregation into his classroom.
“I’ve already got a lesson plan in mind for how I’m going to integrate this into my AP language and composition class,” he said. “I’m going to tie it into Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech because some of the wording that he used directly speaks to what we’re learning about here. And I didn’t realize that until we came [to Virginia].”
Hill added that the workshop has given him insight into desegregation in his own state, as well.
“Most Southern states have some commonalities, though they also have some differences. But I think that learning about school desegregation and how it happened in Virginia, it helps me understand how North Carolina handled desegregation — and how it has repercussions and ramifications for the students that I currently teach,” he said.
Yonghee Suh, Ph.D., co-director of the workshop and an associate professor of social studies/history education at ODU, said the first session was well-received by the teachers. The second session is underway this week.
“They truly enjoyed interacting with civil rights historians, grassroots civil rights activists and archivists and appreciated the fact that our program focuses on civil rights evolution and broadening U.S. history for students beyond the ‘classical period,’” she said.
Wilma Champion, who teaches seventh-grade language arts and social studies in Seattle, said the seminar gave her a new understanding of civil rights history.
“I had never been to the state of Virginia. I knew nothing about it. And I was wondering, well I, know about Brown v. Board of Education. Why did that originate in Virginia?” she said. “I had no idea that so much had taken place here in Virginia.”
The schools were closed for five years. To me, that’s unreal. And I know my kids will think the same thing.
Champion said the workshop’s visit to Prince Edward County, where the public schools were shuttered from 1959 to 1964 to avoid integration, was particularly eye-opening.
“The schools were closed for five years. To me, that’s unreal. And I know my kids will think the same thing,” she said. “Because Seattle has such a diverse population, I think I will introduce it to my kids as being not black versus white, but think of you in that situation — it might be Asian versus white, Hispanic versus white, Muslim versus white. Apply yourself as the minority in that situation
and see how you think things would go for you.”
Featured image up top : Brian Daugherity, Ph.D., assistant professor of history at VCU, speaks to schoolteachers taking part in “The Long Road from Brown: School Desegregation in Virginia.”
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