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Isabel Wilkinson
Isabel Wilkinson signs copies of her book, "The Warmth of Other Suns."

USC institute brings Great Migration to life for educators

By Liz White, lwhite@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-2848

More than 6 million African-Americans in the early 20th century packed their belongings and left the South for Northern cities like Chicago or Detroit. Decades later, with a flux of African-Americans returning to the South, the Great Migration still resonates.

“I am a product of the Great Migration,” said Monica Nelson, a high school social studies teacher who attended the University of South Carolina’s “The Stories of the Great Migration” summer institute this month. “It’s affecting me.”

Nelson, whose grandparents left Georgia and South Carolina for New Jersey and California as part of the decades-long migration, joined 28 other primary and secondary teachers from across the country and plans to use what she learned during the institute when she returns to her Atlanta-area classroom.

The institute, hosted by the College of Arts and Sciences African-American Studies Program and funded with an $180,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), ran from July 16-27 and was intended to help educators bring the story of the Great Migration into America’s schools.

“It’s not looked upon as important to history to the nation as a whole. It’s a blurb in my history book,” Nelson said. “But you’re talking about 6 million people that left the South over a 50-year period. If those people hadn’t left you wouldn’t have jazz music, you wouldn’t have the Harlem Renaissance … . The movement of all these people is instrumental to the growth of this country.”

Between 1910 and 1920, more than 500,000 African-Americans moved away from the South and the oppressive laws of the Jim Crow era. They took with them their culture, music and ways of living.

“The Stories of the Great Migration” explored the movement across disciplines so that teachers can bring these stories to life for their students in a variety of disciplines. The scholars discussed history, art, drama, music, literature and even food during the two-week program.

They created art collages to reflect their own experiences and to reflect the fears and challenges faced during the migration, said Minuette Floyd, associate professor in art education who taught art at the institute. The program also included a study of Jacob Lawrence's “Migration Series” in conjunction with the Phillips Collection, the modern art museum based in Washington, D.C., and its director of education Suzanne Wright.

With the help of Marvin McAllister, assistant professor of English and African-American studies, the group performed a reading of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson, who wrote a series of plays about Southern migrants.

They spent a day in Cheraw, S.C., interviewing migrants on their experiences. These interviews will be transcribed and used as a part of teaching materials on a Great Migration website that the African-American Studies Program will create with additional funding from NEH. The website will also include several PowerPoint presentations that participants created and other primary documents for educators to use.

The teachers, who came from all over the country, said the interdisciplinary approach of the program made it rewarding and unlike other institutes of its kind.

“I’ve been so impressed with the caliber of the presenters and the quality of the resources,” said Cara VanGorder-Lasof, a middle school humanities teacher from Portland, Ore. “It’s everything I hoped it would be.”

Rose Mary Brown, an Atlanta high school history teacher, said she wanted to expand how she taught the Great Migration and learn about her own connection to her family history. Compared to other NEH workshops she has attended in the past, she said she was impressed with the scholarly information and the personal interaction USC had to offer.

Brown and VanGorder-Lasof most enjoyed the time spent with Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the “The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of the Great Migration.” Wilkerson’s book chronicles the stories of over 1,200 people who lived under Jim Crow laws and were a part of the Great Migration.

“Her book was just so powerful, and it was such a smart way to get us into the mindset of the institute,” VanGorder-Lasof said. “Hearing her come and talk about her process was riveting to me.”

Valinda Littlefield, director of the African-American Studies program, said she hopes the teachers will take what they have learned back to their classrooms to share the Great Migration with students.

Nelson said the institute has inspired her to create a staff development program at her school to get other teachers to expand their lessons on the migration. Brown and VanGorder-Lasof said they will incorporate the materials into their teaching across a variety of areas.

“This has given us enough material to go into any aspect,” Brown said.

The institute showed what the African-American Studies Program does well, Littlefield said. In addition to producing excellent scholarship, faculty are equally involved in outreach, she said.

“For our program, it means that we are recognized by a national institution like the [NEH] as a program that’s capable of hosting such a program,” she said. “It’s an honor.”

The institute also will help USC build better relationships with primary and secondary schools to prepare students to become knowledgeable citizens. And, hopefully some of them will attend USC, she said.

“We’re helping make teachers better teachers, so it’s a nice circle,” Littlefield said.

Littlefield said she will apply for another NEH grant in the next few years to recreate this year’s institute, bring in more teachers and continue to spread the stories of the Great Migration.

News and Internal Communications

Posted: 07/26/12 @ 1:55 PM | Updated: 08/21/12 @ 4:29 PM | Permalink

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