Thirty-six teachers from 22 states are spending a week traveling to different Civil Rights memorials in the state, including here in Birmingham, meeting individuals who experienced the movement firsthand.
In 2002 Dr. Martha Bouyer, a former educator who now serves on the Jefferson County Board of Education, founded the project Stony the Road We Trod: Alabama’s Role in the Modern Civil Rights Movement in order to help local Birmingham educators teach the Civil Rights Movement to their students. Bouyer took teachers to historical Civil Rights sites throughout Alabama and introduced them to foot soldiers who participated in the Civil Rights Movement.
Over the years Bouyer’s project has grown to include both national and international teachers and to receive funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Landmarks of American History and Culture through the Alabama Humanities Foundation.
This year, the $179,340 grant will fund two week-long sessions (June 26–July 2, July 10–July 16), each with 36 K-12 teachers in attendance. The teachers had to apply for the program and be selected to participate, according to a press release from the Alabama Humanities Foundation.
Lee Hayslip, one of the participants and a teacher at Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools-Middle, said that the group has visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park, and the archives in the Birmingham Public Library. The teachers also complete daily readings to gain background on the subjects before visiting a site or hearing a speaker.
Although Hayslip is from Alabama, he still feels that he can learn a lot from the workshops.
“I think as an Alabamian we should have a special level of understanding about what happened in Birmingham, what happened in Montgomery and Selma,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot of stuff that I can definitely take back to my room, to my kids, to the other teachers at school that really highlights the role that Birmingham and the local area played in national movements of civil rights.”
In the evenings the teachers attend sessions that allow them to build what they have learned in the sessions into their own curriculums.
Dionne Clark, a program director for the Alabama Humanities Foundation, hopes that all of the teachers will take the experiences from the workshop back to their schools.
“As a program director, I hope what they’ll take away is a deeper appreciation for the interdisciplinary role of the humanities,” Clark said. “They’re able to see not just history. They’re able to look at literature. They’re able to talk about art. They’re able to look at world history. They’re able to talk about jurisprudence, and they’re able to talk about law. So that’s one thing that I hope they will take away, is how to introduce an interdisciplinary approach into their classroom.”
Clark also said she wants the teachers to support the humanities councils in their own states because without adequate funding, projects such as Stony the Road We Trod wouldn’t be feasible. Funding for the project has decreased over time; the grant used to cover four sessions per summer with 50 teachers attending each session.
On Tuesday the 36 teachers spent the day at the Alabama Humanities Foundation where speakers including Janice Kelsey and Alvin Wesley, siblings who were Birmingham foot soldiers in the Civil Rights Movement, and Ruby Shuttlesworth-Bester, the daughter of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, shared their stories with the group. The teachers were able to interact with the speakers and ask them questions.
Kelsey and Wesley recounted what it was like to be teenagers in Birmingham during “D” day in 1963 when students from all around Birmingham marched together as part of the Civil Rights Movement. Kelsey went to jail, while her brother, Wesley, faced Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses.
Kelsey became emotional when she told the story of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing; she was good friends with Cynthia Wesley, one of the four girls who died that day.
After sharing her story, Kelsey said, “I talk about it now because those who paid the ultimate price cannot.”
Allison Helm, a fifth grade teacher from Kentucky, applied for the workshop because she felt like she didn’t know enough about the Civil Rights Movement to adequately teach it to her students.
Most of her students learn about the Civil Rights Movement from picture books, Helm said. “I want them to look around and say what happened in Kentucky during that time because that’s not something that’s really talked about. I want them to go out and look for those things, too,” she said.
Throughout the rest of the week, the teachers will leave Birmingham to visit Selma, Tuskegee and Montgomery, completing what Bouyer calls an “interactive field study.”
According to the project’s agenda, the group will go on tours of the cities and visit sites such as the Rosa Parks Museum, the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.
“In all of these cities they will get a chance to meet foot soldiers, people who lived the history, who made the history,” Bouyer said.
Both Bouyer and Clark said they want the teachers to turn around and impact their students in the same way they were impacted during the workshop. Clark said teachers will be able to tell their students, “I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I talked to a foot soldier from the Civil Rights Movement.”
“If our children realize that they, too, make a difference, that their America, the place that they’re inheriting from all of us, that if they get out there, if they become actively involved, they can make this a better place,” Bouyer said.
During her presentation on Tuesday, Shuttlesworth-Bester recounted seeing her father meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. and having her house bombed the day before Christmas Eve. She emphasized how important it is to teach children about the history of our nation. “They don’t know the struggle that our country had to do,” she said. “When you don’t know, you stay and take anything. So it’s up to us as educators.”
As the teachers move through the rest of the Stony the Road We Trod program they will have substantial opportunity to gather knowledge about a pivotal time in Alabama history and take it back to their own classrooms across the United States.
“I’ve got 36 teachers representing 22 states,” Bouyer said. “If they only stay in the classroom two or three years, if the average person in there… if they’ve got 140 to 150 kids a year, look at the impact. The real story gets told.”