Leah Mann was sitting in history class at Baltimore City College last year when she had an epiphany about her knowledge of the fight for civil rights in this country.
“We started to discuss the Civil Rights Movement and I started to tune it out. I asked myself why was I tuning this out. This was important information I needed to know,” said Mann, 17. “I knew about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but I felt like that was all there was to know. I realized I need to know more about my culture and people.”
That’s why the senior jumped at the opportunity to participate in an annual civil rights history trip through the South organized by the Park School of Baltimore, a progressive private school in Pikesville.
“I think I will have more of a history behind why people act the way they do. I will have more empathy and respect for where they come from,” Mann said. “From a cultural perspective, whether I’m dealing with Black people and people of color, I will know [how] the Civil Rights Movement has affected them and affected systems and all of that.”
Since 2004, more than 1,000 Baltimore-area high school students have taken the trip to various Southern states with the hopes of getting a better appreciation for the Civil Rights Movement. The weeklong trips are capped at about 36 students with six chaperones.
Started by Park and eventually expanded to include public school students from Baltimore City College, the trips encourage exchanges between the youths — from getting a better understanding of students from different backgrounds to having firsthand educational opportunities by visiting Civil Rights museums and meeting with historians and activists.
Leading up to the trip, students rake leaves to raise money. They also regularly meet. Some have even started group chats to keep in touch.
“I’ve had a great time. They seem like very nice kids,” Mann said. “It’s nice to relate to someone my own age.”
This type of interaction is exactly what Traci Wright envisioned when she dreamed up the trip.
The upper school principal at Park was inspired to do the annual trip after a former student was positively affected by a visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama.
“When we conceived of the trip, we knew that we wanted to do it with a public school. We know the value of addressing cross-racial, cross-ethnic, cross-socioeconomic divides,” Wright said. “That was the power of the Civil Right Movement. This trip lets them recognize that some time ago, they could not do many of the things they have the ability to do today.”
This year’s trip will run from Jan. 13 to Jan. 19. A second trip, for another set of students, will happen in April.
During the trip, the group will travel to Southern cities such as Birmingham and Montgomery in Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Greensboro, North Carolina. During the journey, students will attend church services at Ebenezer Baptist Church, MLK’s spiritual home in Atlanta; visit his birth home and tomb in the same city, and stop to see the Southern Poverty Law Center and Civil Rights Memorial there.
Students will also walk the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where civil rights marchers were beaten in 1965, and visit the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, both in Jackson, Mississippi. Medgar Evers, a 37-year-old civil rights activist, was fatally shot outside his home in 1963 after attending a NAACP meeting.
“This is something that is so powerful, and they need to be exposed to it,” Wright said.
According to Wright, one of the most moving parts of the trip is when the group meets with Sybil Jordan Hampton in Little Rock. Hampton, now 79, was part of the second class of Black students to attend Little Rock Central High School, which was desegregated in 1957 after a landmark Supreme Court ruling
“Our kids are saddened, disheartened. She centers her pain and allows them to sit with what they are dealing with, and they realize that the human spirit is unflappable,” Wright said.
Zara Cheek can’t wait to learn more about the experiences of Civil Rights leaders and figures like Hampton.
“I know the facts and the history and speeches. But physically going to these places puts us almost in their shoes. I‘m excited to know about how they were able to do this advocacy within their daily lives,” said the 17-year-old Park senior.
Cheek, who is multiracial, said the trip holds additional importance because it allows her to fill in historical gaps.
“My mom, who is Black, is excited that I’m exposed to more history that hits a little closer to home,” she said. “I definitely think it is going to put it in perspective to me. We all know that that segregation and discrimination is still impacting society. But people forget that there are still people alive who experienced it. This will give me a better connection with the world and get me out of my bubble.”
Andrew Makarevich, who is white, went on the trip last year and calls it a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The 17-year-old senior at Park School said lessons from the trip have stayed with him.
“I think that I don’t judge people by my first glance at them,” he said. “I don’t know what people have been through.”
He added: “All around the country, there are people who have really lived through history and have these amazing stories to tell and act as reminders that not that long ago, there were people who experienced these horrid parts of history. They serve as reminders for us to keep pushing forward despite the progress that we have made.”
Nathaniel Larimore, who teaches African American studies at Baltimore City College, calls each trip an “adventure” that “has its own unusual, exciting experience.”
Larimore, who will chaperone in January, has done so three times before.
“We get a chance to ask questions and have dialogue with individuals that can give a firsthand account of the events that took place during the Civil Rights Movement,” Larimore said. “I wish every student could experience this trip.”
Mann is glad that she is one of the fortunate students taking a journey through history in January, when the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.
“I’m overjoyed and extremely grateful,” she said. “I want to leave the trip knowing more than I did before, but also building relations, whether that be students from my school, Park School or some of the elders from the Civil Rights Movement.”