Twenty-four Macon County eleventh grade students are part of a mentoring program with Auburn University students and graduate assistant Raven Conwell. The project is funded in part by the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the work these students do together revolves around workplace and college readiness.
With thanks to Dr. Melvin Lowe and the Macon Board of Education for help arranging this field trip, all twenty-four of our students arrived at the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center on Wednesday, April 4 for a unique experience in local history. The Center’s exhibits tell the stories of the three cultures—native American, European American, and African American–that shaped Macon County and Tuskegee over time. Many of the exhibits are interactive, using video, audio, maps, and historic photographs. A timeline that includes notable events from around the world reminds visitors of the larger context for local material. The museum is a living monument to the survivors of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, and the names of the study participants are arranged in the center of the first floor, underneath the light of a beautiful chandelier.
Upon arrival, Center director Deborah Gray greeted students and asked them to share what they are learning through their part-time jobs as part of the program. Being able to articulate to someone an experience’s impact is important, and the impromptu discussion with Ms. Gray reminded students that they should always be ready to speak when called upon.
The Center is housed in a former bank building, making it an example of revitalization and adaptation of a community’s existing resource. We began the program upstairs in the second floor meeting room, where paintings of Tuskegee Airmen by artist Stan Stokes grace the walls.
We divided students into five work groups, put a clipboard with 6 pages of questions related to exhibits into each student’s hands, and turned them loose. Most of the questions relate to historical facts, but some questions ask students to apply an aspect of an exhibit to the lives of young people today.
After ninety minutes of searching and writing, we directed students upstairs where they were greeted by four members of the Tuskegee community: Lanice Middleton, Andy Hornsby, Rev. William C. Lennard and Bettye Hunter Swanson. These kind citizens (who volunteered their time to speak with students) have countless memories of a number of aspects of Tuskegee’s past. Ms. Middleton brought historic bricks from Tuskegee University and some wonderful photos. Mr. Hornsby told stories of growing up as the son of the county sheriff (later a judge), and students marveled at the fact that his family lived in the jail’s living accommodations for a time. Rev. Lennard quizzed students on George Washington Carver and other facts, and he shared stories regarding the famous scientist many had never heard. Ms. Swanson shared her story and poetry, reminding students that they each have creativity that needs to be expressed. Students spent ten minutes with each our guests and rotated from table to table.
After lunch, each group had to choose a person, place, or thing from the museum’s exhibits that they think every young person in 4th grade (when students learn Alabama history) ought to know about Macon County. Then the group had to determine a way to present the information through a video presentation. The choices of topics was interesting: prehistoric Macon County; voting rights; death of Sammy Younge Jr. We probably need more time to make videos that can be used by teachers in classrooms, but the creativity of our students and willingness to explain material to younger students is evident.
Local history is important, and it can become the gateway for young people to develop a variety of skills and interests. The Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center is an excellent classroom for students of all ages. We hope our students will always remember that this sparsely populated, rural county has people and stories that are an important part of Alabama and United States history.