Derrick Alridge has crisscrossed the South to interview teachers who participated in and taught during the civil rights movement.
This week, though, he invited three Charlottesville-area black educators who lived and worked through the civil rights era to discuss experiences with local teachers. While none considered themselves activists, the educators described their role in the decades surrounding the movement as “influencers” with enormous power to help children see each other as equals.
“These teachers taught through a time that experienced major upheaval,” said Alridge, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. “In many ways, what we’re experiencing today is similar to what the country was facing from the 1950s to 1980s.”
Black educators Patricia Edwards, Deloris Campbell and John Gaines worked at local schools for decades. They talked with teachers about the importance of supporting coworkers and empowering children.
“I truly believe that if you are willing to step out of the box to meet children where they are, you will be a successful teacher,” Campbell said in an interview. “And if you are willing to be mentored, you will be a successful teacher.”
And while not necessarily part of the marches and protests during the civil rights and Massive Resistance eras, the educators were well aware of the various tensions of integration, segregation and racism in local schools.
“I did not consider myself part of the movement to a big degree, but I knew I was working at a school where I was the only African-American and I didn’t always have people to talk to,” Campbell said.
During interviews for Alridge’s “Teachers in the Movement” project, educators in Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina consistently expressed similar views about their purpose in the classroom, he said.
“They felt they were preparing their students for a better world,” Alridge said. “A world where all students would be treated equally and fairly.”
Recent efforts by local leaders also have asked teachers to learn more about local and state history during slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow. A daylong training by the Equal Justice Initiative earlier this month tried to give teachers a deeper understanding of local Ku Klux Klan, pro-slavery and white supremacist movements.
A teacher in the room said he wasn’t taught civil rights history during his own education; Alridge wasn’t shocked.
“You’d be surprised that lots of local teachers know very little about local history,” Alridge said. “I think it’s good for local teachers to hear the history of the area and learn how to teach it.”
The educators also spoke about pushing through everyday trials and stresses in the classroom and praised the support of church and family during those times. Campbell couldn’t stay out of the classroom, either — after a brief retirement in 1999, she returned to substitute teach in Charlottesville public schools.
“I just know that children perform differently when someone helps them and gives them encouragement,” Campbell said, of working with a group of boys in a special-education class on her first day as a substitute.
Other discussions throughout the week included talks on civil rights in Alabama and Georgia, using oral history in the classroom and a lecture on hip-hop. The weeklong institute was hosted by UVa’s Center on Race, Education and the South, which Alridge directs. Alridge said he hopes to hold the program each summer.