Youths expand civil rights perspective with trip to national memorials

| April 17, 2019 | 0 Comments

Two high schoolers from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, names withheld, view a statue during a tour of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice April 1 in Montgomery, Ala., organized by St. Peter Claver in St. Paul. Debi Green / For The Catholic Spirit

St. Thomas Academy senior Sean Hubbard understood the story of Rosa Parks in a new light when he saw the bus stop in Montgomery, Alabama, where she boarded a bus Dec. 1, 1955, the day she refused to give up her seat because of her skin color.

“It’s a completely different thing because you actually get the feeling of being there where actual history took place, so you actually have more of a feel for it, and you don’t take it as something light,” said Hubbard, 17, a member of St. Peter Claver in St. Paul.

He joined 19 other local high school students plus their chaperones for a civil rights field trip in Alabama March 31 to April 3. They came from the parishes of St. Peter Claver and St. Cecilia in St. Paul, Guardian Angels in Oakdale and St. Rita in Cottage Grove. The group visited civil rights museums and memorials in Montgomery and Selma that told the stories of slavery to modern-day racism.

“It was a very eye-opening experience for me,” Hubbard said. He previously attended St. Peter Claver Catholic School, where black and African history were part of the curriculum, but he said experiencing the trip taught him more about that history.

Everlyn Wentzlaff, 67, a member of St. Peter Claver, organized the youth trip after seeing the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery when it opened last year. While sharing her experience with fellow members of St. Peter Claver, the idea came up to bring youths to see the memorials.

The St. Peter Claver social justice committee and Guardian Angels social justice outreach sponsored the trip. Wentzlaff also received a grant through the National Black Catholic Conference.

Wentzlaff, chairperson of the St. Peter Claver social justice committee, said a lot of African-American history isn’t taught regularly in public schools. She said the trip deepened the students’ understanding of civil rights and blacks in the Catholic Church.

“They were amazing on the trip,” Wentzlaff said. “I think it was a good experience and life lesson for them.”

As part of the trip’s application process, the students responded to essay questions about why they wanted to go. Before leaving they read the 2010 book “Racial Justice and the Catholic Church” by Father Bryan Massingale, a professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University in New York.

“It really made me think about our history,” said Elise Carroll, 15, a member of St. Cecilia and a sophomore at Central High School in St. Paul, regarding the trip. “I definitely learned a lot of new things.”

Seeing exhibits of people’s struggles for civil rights and hearing stories told by tour guides made things come alive for her, she said.

Hubbard said the sites helped him understand “the deeper context of the civil rights movement.”

Liza Pirjevec, 17, a member of St. Peter Claver in St. Paul, said she was particularly impacted by letters on display written by incarcerated African-Americans. She added that some were from people as young as 15.

Montgomery sites the group visited included the National Civil Rights Memorial, the Freedom Riders Museum and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. first served. In Selma, they visited the Slavery and Civil War Museum, the National Voting Rights Museum and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of brutal beatings during a 1965 civil rights march that came to be known as Bloody Sunday.

“It’s important to know this information and to be able to share it with other people,” Carroll said.

Wentzlaff said she hasn’t planned another youth trip yet, but interest grew in the St. Peter Claver community after the group returned.

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