Four Winters High Students went on a trip of a lifetime as they explored the history of the Civil Rights movement through the Sojourn Project, from Feb. 16 to 24.
The Sojourn Project is a seven-day/six-night social justice education and outreach program that immerses students in history through visits to a variety of landmarks. They have a chance to meet with family members of leaders and other individuals who made notable points of history during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
This year, WHS history educator Jessica Williams brought seniors John Rominger and Jaedyn Liss, and juniors Kenneth Matheson and Mikenzi Hapworth-Eldridge, on the trip.
When asked what some of their trip takeaways were, eye-opening revelations, a sense of community, and a new perspective were the top themes.
Rominger said the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama displayed a lot of the violence that people faced during the time. He said something that made an impact was the injustice of how a Black person would be lynched for the most minor of offenses.
“There were newspaper headlines with reasons why people were lynched. There were some really trivial reasons,” Rominger said. “Three were because they couldn’t find the one they were looking for and another was because someone didn’t say ‘Mr.’“
Liss said the experience was an emotional experience on multiple levels.
She said the trip started as groups of students from different schools and ended with them seeing each other as a community of people. Liss said at the beginning of their interactions they all focused on what schools everyone was from but after the first few experiences, they were a unified group.
Liss said the interactive exhibits of the different museums and landmarks, combined with meeting family members gave her a new way of looking at how she approaches the definition of community.
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee provided a walking tour of the stories and voices of the Civil Rights movement from the Birmingham Children’s March (Crusade) to the Montgomery bus boycott. Liss said the museum “really walked you through the Civil Rights movement” and they got to view videos of speeches and a model of the bus Rosa Parks rode. The exhibits “put into perspective the points on the timeline” of the movement events.
“You could listen to hours of speeches. You got to hear what the people were saying and what it was they were fighting for,” Liss said.
Williams said students were able to go inside the bus, but it was set up to trigger a voice that yelled at them to get to the back of the bus, followed by the warning that if they hadn’t moved from the spot they would have been arrested. She said the museum also recreated one of the burned Freedom Riders buses from Anniston, Alabama.
Matheson said visiting the home of civil rights activist Medgar Evers was one of the moments of the trip that hit him the hardest because it was one of the first times they were in the spot where someone was killed for standing up for injustice. On June 12, 1963, Evers was shot in the back of his front yard as he arrived home for the evening after attending a series of NAACP functions.
“They’re just ordinary people doing extraordinary things,” Matheson said noting it was emotional “being at (Ever’s) home where he does normal, everyday things with his family.”
Matheson and Liss said listening to Ever’s daughter Reena Evers-Everette was emotional for the entire group.
“You’re sitting on the driveway where her father was shot. (Reena) said ‘Just feel the wind. When I’m here and I feel the wind, I know my father is here.’ This is a place of memories — it was a big thing. That one hit the entire group very hard.” Liss said.
Hapworth-Eldridge said one of the highlights of the trip for her was meeting Dennis Dahmer, the son of Vernon Dahmer who was a civil rights activist and a community leader in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Members of the Ku Klux Klan shot bullets and firebombed his home and his family’s store in the early morning hours on Jan. 10, 1966. Vernon later died due to injuries he sustained while defending his family in the attack.
According to Hapworth-Eldridge, the group visited the historic Bay Springs School building in Hattiesburg, which served as a center for civil rights activism after the school was closed. She said the minute they got off the bus Dennis opened the door and he looked “so happy for us to be there.”
She said they learned about Vernon’s legacy and the influential history he brought to Hattiesburg in working to ensure black children had a school to attend, that all of the community members — Black or White — were taken care of, and even offered to pay the poll tax for anyone who could not afford to register to vote to help make change happen.
“What touched me was something so horrible happened to their family, but they themselves were so warm and welcoming to us,” Hapworth-Eldridge said.
Hapworth-Eldridge also shared that Dennis’ wife Ellie Dahmer told them that they have multiple groups from other states come to learn about the history of the area, but only have had two groups from their local church ever come.
“I think that opened my eyes that there are so many people who live in that area and (they) don’t know their own histories,” Hapworth-Eldridge said.
Williams said in addition to the experience, students who attend also have an opportunity to earn college credits by completing a project. The trip guidelines state that the project needs to be community and school-based as it is presented to community members as well as their peers. Students not only experience the path of the civil rights movement and its key leaders but also gain the experience of important skills of organizing and writing a research project and a public speaking opportunity.
Jeff Steinberg, the Sojourn Project Founder and Executive Director, strives for attendees to walk in the footsteps of civil rights leaders and then return home with the knowledge to be a leader and make an impact in their communities.