This Black History Month, Strong School is hosting “Freedom Riders”, an exhibition created by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and PBS’ American Experience.
One of only 20 sites selected, the local community is indeed fortunate to have this museum-quality exhibit in town, and more fortunate to have talented and enthusiastic students to be the guides. Strong school students not only had the opportunity to learn this chapter of U.S. history, but have spoken before for the Board of Education to obtain permission to bring the exhibit to their school and have worked on publicity – flyers, posters, press releases, designing t-shirts, and some have been trained as “docents” or museum guides.
Emily Delgrego teaches U.S. history and humanities at Strong School. “I was very familiar with Gilder Lehrman as they have great resources for teachers,” she said. “I applied to be an affiliate school to receive special invitations, posters, and lesson plans,” Delgrego explained. She read about the traveling exhibit and wrote a grant to cover the fee to host the exhibit. Thanks to funding from the Coginchaug Valley Education Foundation, the exhibit is here for the community’s enjoyment.
I had the privilege to sit down with five Strong School students who have studied and prepared to be docents of the exhibit, which opens to the public Feb. 26 and 28 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
“The Freedom Riders took a head start on the civil rights movement,” explained eighth grader Rowan O’Connell. The exhibition combines photography and news coverage of the 1961 Freedom Rides as well as “QR codes” that can be scanned with a cell phone for audio interviews, offering different perspectives (the Riders, the Kennedy administration, and the international community) of the movement. “People had tremendous courage to get on those buses,” shared Brittany Hall.
From May until November 1961, 400 courageous Americans, black and white, men and women, from the North and South, risked their lives to challenge segregation by boarding buses and trains in small interracial groups, traveling through the deep south. This group of brave Americans became known as the Freedom Riders. Despite beatings, bitter racism and even imprisonment, their commitment to nonviolence laid the groundwork for some of the nation’s most important civil rights legislation.
Danielle Quinley wonders “how different America would be if the Freedom Rides did not happen.” The docents all expressed hope that people come out to see the exhibit. Brittany Hall would like everyone to learn more about the Freedom Riders, “and the struggle they went through to bring us freedom,” added Skyler Morris. Lizzie Whitacker stressed their nonviolence, “it was important that [the Riders] could not fight back. But, they made an impact.”
Quinley explained that the links in the exhibit, which provide great detail and “can help us better understand the civil rights movement,” “and the roles played by people like President Kennedy and Martin Luther King,” added Rowan O’Connell. “Today, most people are equal. Many people do not understand the struggle it took to get here,” explained Morris. “We take our freedom for granted and forget the heroic actions of others that helped make it possible,” O’Connell said. Whitacker explained the exhibit “is a timeline that explains how the movement started and moved, a chain reaction – one ride leading to another. This was a nonviolent movement – there was no fighting back, even if they were beaten.”
It was Delgrego’s intent that the event be student-centered, and proudly shared “the students’ participation is fantastic.” She said she hopes that people come out not only to enjoy the powerful exhibit, but to support these students who have worked so hard. “The 1961 Freedom Rides are an inspiring example of what ordinary individuals can accomplish. The actions and the bravery of the Freedom Riders provide invaluable lessons for our young people today, and for anyone who hopes to make a difference in our community, country, or world,” Delgrego said.
O’Connell added, “it would mean a lot if people could come out the exhibit. We’ve worked hard, and it’s really neat. We don’t see a lot of museum exhibits in Durham.”
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Freedom Riders come to Durham