Baltimore public and private school students team up to explore the local civil rights movement

Lydia Wilkins was 11 years old when she helped integrate the formerly whites-only Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Baltimore County.

“Was your mother ready for you to take that step in the civil rights movement?” Anisa Haughton, a sophomore at City Neighbors High School, asked Wilkins at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture.

Students from City Neighbors and the Park School of Baltimore are exploring the ways the civil rights era unfolded locally. They are interviewing civil rights veterans and visiting the places in their own neighborhoods where history happened. The five-week project launched on April 4 — the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“When people think of the civil rights movement, they concentrate on the deep South,” said City Neighbors math teacher Rodney Wallace, one of the project organizers. “But there was activism everywhere, including here in our back yard. This is about giving kids the chance to make connections to history and to home.”

The program is in its first year, and intentionally a collaboration between a public charter school in the city and a private school in Baltimore County. School officials say it’s important to bring students from different backgrounds together to learn about the circumstances that shaped their lives. The majority of City Neighbors students are black. The majority at the Park School are white.

“For this project, we all integrated,” Haughton said.

The lessons are taking place over a succession of Wednesdays, to culminate in a presentation of student-produced documentaries about the experience. Ten students spent a day last week at the Lewis museum and recorded interviews with Wilkins and others who integrated local schools, joined Freedom Rides and marched on Washington.

Their teachers hope the students come away feeling that the civil rights movement isn’t just a moment in history, but rather a continuing struggle for equality.

Leo Burroughs Jr., 76, organized Freedom Riders — groups that integrated segregated buses — on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

“I am not pessimistic or cynical to the extent that I believe America is beyond redemption or change,” he said. “But I am saying to you, young people, we have to be persistent. We can and will overcome, with your determined help.”

Charles Mason, another activist during the civil rights era, said young people have historically been drivers of social change. He pointed to Emma González — the survivor of the school shootings in Parkland, Fla., who has emerged as a powerful advocate of gun control.

“During the civil rights movement, most of us were young,” Mason, 79, said. “And of course, the adults told us we were wrong, that it was the wrong time, that we’d get ourselves killed. So we disobeyed and just kept doing what we were doing.”

The Baltimore Civil Rights Experience was designed in part to complement another program in which the two schools participate: an annual civil rights trip. For years, a joint group of students has traveled across the South during the week of King’s birthday. They visit the sites of lynchings, speak with icons of the era and walk through historic sites of unrest.

“I’ve never met a student who doesn’t come back from the trip profoundly changed,” City Neighbors English teacher Sean Martin said. “We wanted to create something here that could also be a profound experience but might not require quite that funding level and could involve more students.”

Rachael Devecka, a junior at Park, went on the civil rights trip this winter, and is now part of the five-week program. She said she wanted to continue building on the lessons she learned in January.

Before the weeklong journey through history, the 17-year-old said, she was complacent about some social justice issues.

She says she didn’t participate in the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, and missed the Women’s March in Washington last year.

“I was so caught up in doing schoolwork and my little spectrum of activities that I didn’t make time for other things,” she said.

But that’s changed since she returned to school from the January trip. She participated in the March for Our Lives in Washington and the nationwide school walkout last month to protest gun violence. She serves on the Park School’s committee for diversity and inclusion.

“The civil rights movement was a youth-fueled movement,” she said. “I’m not putting activism on hold and waiting for my life to start.”

While on the civil rights trip, Devecka talked with civil rights icons such as Rep. John Lewis. During the five-week session, the students are talking with less-known local figures, whose stories often aren’t told in history books.

“We want to give them the sense that it doesn’t just take charismatic leaders to make movements happen,” Martin said. “Ordinary people play some of the most important roles.”

While wandering through the museum, students recorded themselves talking in front of exhibits that resonated with them. They were encouraged to find personal connections with artifacts and stories displayed on large wooden plaques.

Haughton paused in front of the uniform that belonged to Maryland’s first black fire chief. It made her think of her aunt, an African-American fire marshal in the city.

Lance Rombro, a Park junior, was moved by the exhibit on African-American writers who used their craft to tell stories of the struggle for change.

“We, in taking on this documentary project, are kind of doing the same thing,” he said. “We’re exploring the civil rights era and how it relates to each of us.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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