Most of them were strangers when they met, and they were only together for three days in October, but when the University of Mary Washington students and Fredericksburg community members who went on last month’s Social Justice Fall Break Trip gathered Thursday night, it was like a family reunion.
“When we came together [before the trip] we were cordial,” said Alda White, a community member who went on the trip, which followed in the footsteps of the 1961 Freedom Riders. “We went from strangers to people who shared something transformative.”
The trip commemorated the upcoming 100th anniversary of James Farmer, the UMW professor, civil rights leader and organizer of the original Freedom Rides, who was born in January of 1920, as well as the 30th anniversary of UMW’s James Farmer Multicultural Center.
Chris Williams, the assistant director of the center, had the idea for the first Social Justice Fall Break trip last year.
About 20 people went on that first trip last October, which visited notable Civil Rights sites such as the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala., which is built on the site of what was one of the largest slave auction spaces in the country, and the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Ala., site of the March 7, 1965, clash between voting rights marchers and law enforcement that became known as Bloody Sunday.
This year, Williams said, he has been researching the Freedom Riders, the group of white and black civil rights activists led by Farmer who rode interstate buses through the segregated southern states to protest segregation laws in 1961.
Williams, who has organized both trips along with Marion Sanford, director of the James Farmer Center, said he wanted this year’s trip to follow in the footsteps of the first Freedom Riders.
“I wanted to travel the same route as them, stopping exactly where they stopped,” he said.
After leaving Fredericksburg, which was the first stop for the 1961 Freedom Riders, Williams said, the UMW group stopped in Greensboro, N.C., where the Freedom Riders attended meetings at Shiloh Baptist Church and Bennett College and then spent the night in Atlanta.
The following day, the group visited Anniston, Ala., where in May 1961 the Ku Klux Klan firebombed the Freedom Riders’ bus and attacked the activists while local police turned a blind eye.
The trip continued to Birmingham, where the group visited 16th Street Baptist Church—site of a 1963 bombing that killed six children—and Dynamite Hills, a neighborhood that was bombed repeatedly between 1947 and 1965 to intimidate African Americans from moving into the area, Williams said.
The trip ended in Atlanta, with stops at the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace and Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King met with Freedom Riders.
UMW’s Office of the President, Office of Student Affairs, Office of Alumni Relations and Office of Equity and Access supported the trip, along with Erin Devlin, assistant professor of History and American studies and anonymous donors who provided scholarships for students to go on the trip.
This year, the Social Justice Fall Break trip was also opened to community members. In all, 21 community members and 46 students went on the trip.
When they gathered Thursday, the first thing they did was pass around tissues.
Lynda Allen, a community member, said she kept hearing the phrase “that broke me” over and over, as people experienced the different stops on the trip.
“To me, there’s a hopefulness in things breaking open, because that’s when the light or the healing can get in,” she said.
Student Destiny Jordan said the most powerful stop for her was Dynamite Hills in Birmingham.
“Passing these busted-down houses and the schools with busted-in windows ... nobody should live like that,” she said.
Andrew Schneidawind said that since returning from the trip, he’s been able to educate some of his peers about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was lynched in Mississippi after being accused of offending a white woman.
Schneidawind said he knew some aspects of Till’s story, but learned more—such as that the woman later admitted to fabricating her story—at one of the museums the group visited on the trip.
“That museum gave me the knowledge to pass on,” he said. “It made me realize how powerful education is.”
Another student, Alex Ohene-Okae, said the experience showed him how much he has yet to learn about the civil rights movement.
“It made me realize, I know nothing about our history, and I will never know enough,” he said. “And it’s still happening.”
On at least three occasions this fall, stickers and flyers promoting white supremacist groups were discovered on UMW’s Fredericksburg and Stafford campuses.
The university is organizing a gathering to discuss how the community can “stand against hate and in recognition of the values for which Dr. Farmer stood,” a Nov. 8 email to faculty, staff and students from Public Safety and the Office of Student Affairs reads.
“That’s why trips like this are important,” Williams said.
He said the Social Justice Fall Break trip has inspired students to become active in campus leadership and racial justice.
Students who went on the trip last year started the university’s first NAACP chapter, which was chartered by the national organization this spring, Williams said.
After students on this year’s trip discovered there is no historical marker at the site of the bus bombing in Anniston, Ala., they made phone calls to local government officials to ask that one be erected.
Ohene-Okae said he wants to talk with Fredericksburg city government about ways to commemorate a civil rights sit-in that occurred at Goolrick’s Pharmacy downtown.
He also wants City Council to re-think its decision to move the slave auction block from its present site on William Street into the Fredericksburg Area Museum.
“That’s the only thing that is out there in the open to talk about our history,” he said. “It’s important for the city to see the struggle and know we are moving forward.”
Sanford, the James Farmer Center director, said the center needs donations in order to fund future Social Justice trips.
Information can be found at students.umw.edu/multicultural.