Renowned civil rights activist Cecil Williams told students about the importance of photography at his Orangeburg museum | Credit: Leslie Skardon

Living history

As conservative school boards and governments across the nation, particularly in the South, continue to push back against civil rights and Black history education, a week-long program launched in Charleston last week seeks to share the stories that others seem eager to erase.

The program was the culmination of years of collaboration and planning spearheaded by local nonprofit Charleston Civil Rights and Civics (C3) in partnership with Kids On Point and several community leaders across the state.

Leslie Skardon Headshot

C3 founder Leslie Skardon said she spoke with more than 300 people over the last two years to get a firm understanding of the landscape surrounding conversations about civics.

“People saw the need for a cohesive program that taught the story of our history that isn’t being taught anywhere else and, in a lot of places, is being covered up,” she told the Charleston City Paper.

Cecil Williams, an award-winning Orangeburg photographer and prominent figure during the civil rights movement, said sharing this history is vital, especially as it continues to be tamped down.

“Unfortunately, social studies in schools is being minimized and not being fully a part of the curriculum that students are being exposed to in their basic studies,” he told the City Paper in an exclusive interview. “I believe that’s a grave mistake. Our schools should include very heavily the history they themselves are the products of — it is a must.”

Charleston-area high school students kicked off a week of civil rights learning at the Avery Center and IAAM | Photo by Bella Natale

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, who gave students closing remarks Aug. 4 when the program ended, said initiatives like C3 are more important than ever.

“What you were able to learn here,” he told the group of 20 students getting C3 learning, “not a whole lot of that is in your books. That tells you something. It’s sad in our country today that there is a pushback against even telling these stories, just being truthful about them and saying what happened. There’s nothing wrong with telling the truth and knowing where we came from in order to inform us as to where we’re going to go.”

‘The crux of most movements’

C3 leaders said focusing on high school students was intentional.

Tamara Butler, executive director of the Avery Research Center | Credit: Provided

Tamara Butler, executive director of the Avery Research Center in Charleston, said it was powerful to focus on educating young people on the importance of civil rights history where they grew up.

“It’s a demographic that, if we’re honest, was probably at the crux of most movements,” she said. “It’s important to help people understand that the fight for civil rights and human rights has always been led by young people, and it’s really important for them to learn this history and to learn that Charleston is really at the center of some of that work.”

Students heard from Butler on their first day of the program when they visited the Avery Center where several speakers shared the idea of inspiring young people.

“One thing that’s important about history is that it helps to develop a value system in young minds,” said Williams, 85. “It helps them understand their legacy and heritage. In this current generation, we have heroes that developed from their own families — that did so much to change things in history. Their parents were a part of the revolution that changed the state and national constitutions.”

A focus on photography

The C3 program is tackling the conversation around these stories in innovative ways.

Students received Polaroid cameras on the first day to help them document their experiences and what they learned along the way. Several workshops delved deeper into photography and the role of art during the civil rights movement. They also worked to create self-portraits at the Gibbes Museum of Art.

On Aug. 2, students traveled to Williams’ South Carolina Civil Rights Museum in Orangeburg. There, they toured several exhibits and galleries in the 3,000 square-foot space zeroing in on the events and people “who were the movers and shakers of the movement,” Williams said.

Students toured the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park in Beaufort | Photo by Leslie Skardon | Credit: Leslie Skardon

“We of course have a sort of a prelude to Reconstruction, but our primary years start with Briggs v. Elliott [in 1952] and go all the way up to the Charleston hospital workers strike [in 1969],” he explained. “Charleston is well-represented. We have Septima Clark and the integration of Clemson University by Harvey Grant, and we color a little outside the lines with things like the Emanuel Nine” who died in 2015.

“It is so important that you are able to take a moment in time and freeze it for eternity. Images help to mimic life more than any other thing. Sure you can draw a picture, but a photograph is powerful. You’re seeing the real self, like looking in a mirror. So photography is one of the most important educational tools we have today.”

A busy schedule

The packed week started July 31 as the group of 20 students met at the College of Charleston’s Education Center. From there, they visited the Avery Center, the International African American Museum and took a bus tour of historical sites in downtown Charleston.

The next day, students traveled to Beaufort to tour the Penn Center Museum and learn more about Gullah Geechee culture. They also took a walking tour of the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park to learn about the impact of the late Robert Smalls.

Several students said learning about the Orangeburg Massacre while at Williams’ museum on Aug. 2, the third day of the program, was one of the most impactful moments of the program for them.

The Rev. DeMett Jenkins spoke about her grandfather, prominent civil rights activist Esau Jenkins | Photo by Leslie Skardon

“The connection between student protest and the violence we see today really resonated with them,” Skardon said. “Having these field trips included was really important to us as we designed the program. We thought, ‘If we can get them out of Charleston, expose them to real people and pieces of history, that would be really rewarding’ — and that proved true.”

They returned to Charleston Aug. 3 for a photography workshop at the Gibbes and roundtable discussions from several community leaders, including the Rev. DeMett Jenkins, granddaughter of civil rights activist Esau Jenkins.

Finally, the week ended on Aug. 4 with a poetry workshop and a graduation ceremony at the College of Charleston’s Rita Liddy Hollings Science Center.

A promising start

Skardon said the success of the program has only made her more excited for future installments in years to come. With tentative plans and ideas for multiple programs each summer, and potentially spring break programming, there’s a lot of moving parts.

“We are so excited for next year,” she said. “Every day, we made tweaks to the program based on feedback we were hearing, and we’ve already thought of things we can add or change for next time.”

But a big part of the success is keeping the program’s alumni engaged, she said. “Making sure we’re reaching out to previous classes and bringing them back as mentors and advisers is really important to us.”

This year’s graduates have free passes to the Gibbes to see self-portraits they made during the program, and the president of South Carolina State University offered them free football tickets, Skardon said. “So there are lots of opportunities to keep them engaged.”

Tecklenburg said he would want to be involved in future programming as well.

“If we want a humanity where people love and respect each other, doesn’t it inform us a little better to know where we came from and just how bad things were and could be?” he said. “Learning these stories is so vital to our future. This is exactly the thing we need to do, and if they’re not going to do it in schools, we’ll do it right here.”

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