Empowering the Next Generation to Reimagine Civic Engagement Through the Lens of African-American History

On this 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination and more than sixty years after the passage of Brown v. Board of Education, we celebrate the progress wrought by the Civil Rights Movement and by those who gave their lives to improve the lives of everyone in their communities. Stories of grit, resilience and determination remind us all that it is as important as ever to understand and learn from the past. Last week, executives from TIAA and students from Vance High School traveled to our nation’s capital for a field trip to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Our time at the exhibits underscored for all of us how history is instrumental in shaping tomorrow’s leaders.

The field trip served as a culminating event for select group of Vance High School students, from Charlotte, North Carolina, who participated in EVERFI’s 306: African-American History course. Throughout the personal tour from museum cultural historian John Franklin, students found themselves up close and personal with historical artifacts and stories of heroes they had just learned about in the digital course.

The museum featured a map that outlined events leading up to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. The students were particularly surprised and inspired to learn about how their home state helped pave the way. In 1951, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was ordered by federal courts to admit African Americans to its law, medical, and graduate schools. Though primary and secondary school systems remained segregated, the Pamlico County NAACP also filed a lawsuit for school equalization or integration in 1951. At the time, the national NAACP was readying the court challenge that would lead to the Brown decision.

We also learned that for many involved in fighting to end school segregation or supporting the civil rights movement of the 1950’s, their historical legacy was about deciding for themselves who they wanted to be as civically engaged Americans. “Maybe if we said, ‘this is American History, and this is what happened to people, instead of, this is African-American History and this only happened to them’,” said one Vance student, reflecting on the visit. “Then maybe students who don’t relate to this would realize it’s their history too and it’s about all people.”

Overall, the trip underscored the key takeaways of the 306 course and helped us to internalize how the past shaped today’s landscape. Our visit challenged us to think beyond our comfort levels and examine what we are trying to achieve for the greater social good. The legacies of the heroes and heroines covered in the course and at the museum provide the roadmap needed to guide this next generation of leaders on their journey of self and civic discovery.