‘So beautiful it was horrifying’: Local teachers travel South to learn about Civil Rights Movement
EducationClassrooms Without Borders

‘So beautiful it was horrifying’: Local teachers travel South to learn about Civil Rights Movement

“Marching Down Freedom’s Road”

Michael Naragon (left), scholar, with the group at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma (Photo courtesy of Classrooms Without Borders)
Michael Naragon (left), scholar, with the group at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma (Photo courtesy of Classrooms Without Borders)

When English teacher Daniela Buccilli next meets her class of 11th graders at Upper St. Clair High School, she will have more to discuss than the typical small talk about her summer.

Buccilli and more than a dozen other teachers traveled through the South earlier this month to learn about the Civil Rights Movement in an educational trip called “Marching Down Freedom’s Road” organized by Classrooms Without Borders. The trip took the educators to Birmingham, Alabama, and the site of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

The teachers spoke to the Rev. Carolyn McKinstry who was a child when she survived the bombings by Ku Klux Klan members. The bombing killed four girls – ages 11 to 14. According to the FBI, the attack was in support of white supremacy and out of fear of the Black church that was a rallying space for the Civil Rights Movement.

JoAnne Bland, who was 11 when she marched in Selma, Alabama, on what would become known as Bloody Sunday, spoke with the group about her numerous arrests as a child in the fight for civil rights. The teachers also met Charles Person, one of the two Freedom Riders alive today who made the trip from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans.

“He did talk about how hate was not what he felt for the people that hurt him and his friends, which was amazing to hear,” Buccilli said. “He doesn’t hold grudges. These are all things that seem impossible. I don’t know why. And so, we’re always struck by the gracious and wholeheartedness that these activists have.”

Among the museums the group visited was the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, where the teachers spoke with Michelle Browder, a contemporary artist and activist who created statues honoring the “Mothers of Gynecology,” slave women experimented on by the so-called “Father of Gynecology,” Dr. J. Marion Sims. There is a statue of Sims outside the Alabama State House in Montgomery.

“She did some research on the ‘Father of Gynecology’ and found the 10 or so enslaved women that he operated on. She found the names of three of them,” Buccilli said. “They didn’t have any anesthesia. Oh my gosh, I can’t even believe the horror.”

Buccilli said that visiting Selma left her shocked at the state of disrepair following a tornado that hit the city in January. But one well-preserved site stood out: a Confederate cemetery.

Photo of group with Charles Person, Freedom Rider, in Atlanta (Photo courtesy of Classrooms Without Borders)
“The houses were in such bad shape and there were despondent people, and we walked into the cemetery and it had those live oaks with the moss dripping down. It was so beautiful it was horrifying, actually,” she said.

Buccilli recalled the shock of seeing Confederate flags and bedsheets on sale while the group waited at a bus stop. The teachers “talked about it, and we supported each other and talked about how awful we felt inside and how we couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” she said.

Michele Russo, a 10th grade English teacher at Seneca Valley Intermediate High School, echoed the sentiments.

“Selma being such a place of history, it was very rundown,” she said. “Even Amelia Boynton, who was one of the women who started the entire idea for the Montgomery march, her house is totally fallen in. And there’s a big sign that says that it is a historical landmark, and there’s supposed to be federal money coming, but it is totally caved in.”

While the group was traveling, they followed the news about the synagogue shooting trial back home.

“During the trip, of course, we find out about the trial in Pittsburgh,” Buccilli said. “So everything just felt much graver than it did when it was just like, ‘Hey, we’re going to learn. We’re going to go to these sites. I’m going to learn this history.’ It’s very, very serious.”

Classrooms Without Borders Founder and Executive Director Zipora Gur wanted to “use the country as the textbook” when she created the organization in 2011 in association with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Classrooms Without Borders offers trips to teachers and other community members to places like Poland, Germany and Israel, and has a focus on the Holocaust and antisemitism.

“I’ve been an educator all my life and I believed always in the power of education and investing in teachers because when you invest in a teacher, you can change a generation,” Gur said.

The trip was guided by two scholars, Winchester Thurston history teacher Michael Naragon and Samuel Black, the director of African American programs at the Senator John Heinz History Center.

“We see racial injustice still happening in 2023,” said Kate Lukaszewicz, who organized the trip for Classrooms Without Borders. “And so, we want them to see how looking at the lessons of the past can prepare us for the present and the future so that they can communicate that to students.”
Buccilli hopes to contextualize the literature she teaches with the information she learned on the trip.

“Everything I teach in American literature is speaking to the movement towards freedom for more people, for all,” she said. “A hatred of different people is so antithetical to what America is and wants to be. I know someone’s going to say, ‘Well, there’s so much hate in America.’ Yes, boy, could I feel it when I went to that Confederate cemetery. Boy, did I feel it at that bus stop. But it’s not the only story.” PJC

Abigail Hakas can be reached at ahakas@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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