Emory University students get an up-close tour of Freddie Gray's Baltimore, and its problems

A group of Atlanta college students got an intimate tour of Freddie Gray's Baltimore this weekend.

Justin McCarroll watched the unrest in Baltimore on the news in April. But to understand it, the Emory University junior had to see the city for himself.

On a four-day visit with 11 classmates from the school in Atlanta, McCarroll was struck by the stark transition from the glitz of the Inner Harbor to the poverty of West Baltimore. A meeting with a father distraught over the death of his son showed the gravity and the impact of trauma.

And while a visit to the spot where police arrested Freddie Gray in April — an encounter at the Gilmor Homes public housing complex in Sandtown-Winchester — wasn't emotional at first, a conversation with a man who said he heard Gray's cries that April morning changed that.

It wasn't just the man's words, McCarroll said, but also his face.

"It was a look of defeat," said McCarroll, 20. "He told us that was something he was never going to forget."

The students came to Baltimore from Atlanta as part of an introductory course in African-American studies that used the unrest as a lens for the problems confronting facing urban black communities.

Their professor, Baltimore native Lawrence Jackson, said the visit was intended to encourage the students to form strong ties to a neighborhood that demonstrates the consequences of generational poverty and systemic racism.

Presenting their research and lessons to members of St. James' Episcopal Church in Sandtown on Sunday, the students said the visit showed them what textbooks and the media could not.

"On the news, they aren't explaining foreclosure rates or educational disparities. All they're talking about is the violence," said 18-year-old Morgan Mitchell. "That definitely affects how people see things and how they try to address things."

The students spent the semester studying four intractable problems facing Sandtown and similar communities: mass incarceration, housing segregation, and disparities in health care and education. Those challenges are new to many students at schools such as Emory, a private institution that costs upwards of $40,000 a year to attend.

One group explored the effects of imprisoning so many of West Baltimore's young black men and produced brochures for Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a political advocacy group, to use in lobbying efforts.

Others helped research grant opportunities for a new community center, and offered research that suggested it might be most effective if it provides not just afterschool activities for kids but also resources for adults, such as job training.

The visitors also met with officials at Renaissance Academy High School to present lessons on the consequences of school closures and suspension, both of which the students found encourage students to drop out.

They suggested that Renaissance, which could be closed after a student was critically injured in a classroom stabbing last month, broaden its mentoring program to include girls and use student juries to carry out discipline.

Amir Adem, an 18-year-old freshman, said the most striking lesson he took from the tour of Baltimore was that the problems surrounding people who live in places such as Sandtown contribute to their choices to turn to violence and drugs.

"In the structure they grow up in, this is OK," he said. "It causes you to think this is OK."

Marilyn Harris-Davis, a member of the vestry at St. James' in Sandtown, said she was impressed by the students' ability to see the realities of the community.

"I thought their perspectives showed so much insight," she said. "It's kind of like we can't see the forest for the trees sometimes."

For Jackson, who grew up as a parishioner of St. James', the trip was a unique and "dramatic" teaching opportunity.

African-American studies "is an activist discipline," he said.

His class isn't the first to study Gray's death in police custody, and the protests and riots it set off.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore offered a course called "Divided Baltimore: How Did We Get Here, Where Do We Go?" to law and social work students this fall. A version of the course is to be offered this spring at the University of Maryland, College Park.

And as the trial of William Porter, one of six officers charged in Gray's death, began last week, a dozen students and their criminal law teacher from the Park School of Baltimore were among those watching the proceedings.

The Rev. Melvin Truitt, of St. James, said he was glad to see young people from outside the community tackling the problems his congregation faces.

Once they see the challenges for themselves, he said, they can share the experience with others who otherwise would never be exposed.

"I'm so glad they're getting that kind of knowledge," Truitt said. "I just hope they don't forget it."

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