Mary Washington freshman Christopher Jesus wept when he read it. An African-American boy, barely a teen, sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit, pled for help to overturn his conviction. At the bottom of the white piece of paper, he’d drawn a picture of himself in black ink.
“It was powerful,” Jesus said of the letter. “It broke me.”
On view at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, it was among the sights that moved UMW students on a Social Justice Fall Break trip to explore the still-churning saga of civil rights in America. Being there – standing where “enslaved people were warehoused,” seeing the soil from where thousands of men, women and children were lynched – made an impact like no textbook could.
It made them mad. Made them sad. Made them sick, the students said. But in the end, it made them want to stand up and make a difference – in the world and at Mary Washington.
Participants – 19 students and three administrators – recapped their often “gut-wrenching” encounters during a private audience with Mary Washington President Troy Paino Monday. They’ll tell their stories again at the UMW Board of Visitors meeting on Friday.
“It’s important not only for me … ” Paino said, “but for the faculty and for the entire administration to hear about your experiences and your perspectives.”
The trek through Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, brought abrupt and painful truths about slavery, segregation, race and injustice to the students that went beyond what they’d been taught in their high school history classes. Its horrific brutality, pervasiveness beyond the American South, and persistence through poverty and mass incarceration reinforced their prior perceptions and often surprised them.
Freshman Brianna Reaves called the trip, sponsored in part by the James Farmer Multicultural Center (JFMC), a “revelation.” “There’s still work to do,” she said, vowing to help ensure her children won’t experience the world her ancestors did.
JFMC Assistant Director Chris Williams began planning the trek in May – an extension of Mary Washington’s second annual Social Justice and Leadership Summit in March – after watching Oprah Winfrey’s 60 Minutes report on the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened in April. The memorial and museum, both among last month’s stops, are administered by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a team of lawyers dedicated to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States.
The UMW group also visited the EJI office and Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, and crossed the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the brutal 1965 “Bloody Sunday” police attack against civil rights demonstrators.
“I tried my best not to cry,” said senior Sherronda Robinson. “It was such a powerful experience. I almost felt like the weight of my ancestors was on my shoulders.”
In addition to the JFMC, the trip was sponsored by the African, Black and Latino student associations, and the offices of the President and Student Involvement, as well as an anonymous donor.
“We wanted to really get them to see why social justice is still an issue in this country,” Williams said. “You can only do that by taking them on a tour of history that might be uncomfortable, but it’s necessary.”
JFMC Director of Multicultural Affairs Marion Sanford said they hope to offer this type of excursion annually to give UMW students an opportunity to travel, learn more about the aspects of history and social justice that affect our society, and become agents of social change.
The first annual event sparked conversation on the unequal treatment African-Americans faced in the past and still face today, but it went further. The students plan to take action, they said, from talking to parents and peers, and registering to vote, to joining and forming action groups, like the NAACP chapter on the horizon at Mary Washington.
“That wasn’t just our Fall Break trip to Alabama,” junior Kelsey Chavers said. “We’re still thinking of it as a movement, about what we can do to keep it going.”