Students from Geneva High School and Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in collaboration with the Geneva Historical Society, decided to celebrate the 2008 Martin Luther King Week by expanding their understanding of the American Civil Rights Movement. Students from both the high school and the Colleges were invited to collect oral histories from elders from the African-American community in Geneva in order to develop a more powerful understanding of the way real people help make history.
“We wanted students to interview elders who also lived through the 1960s in order to hear and understand their memories of Civil Rights,” explains Geneva High School teacher, Phil Johnson, who remembers the first Civil Rights march held in Geneva. Students worked together on the interviews, compiled their written accounts of the astonishing lives of these Geneva citizens and produced an oral history book titled, “Writing to Remember: Partners in Memory Making.”
In the book, eight prominent community members opened their hearts and their homes to the nine students and shared powerful memories of racism and discrimination. While their initial reasons for coming to Geneva range from love, job opportunities, education, or to escape segregation, their final goal was the same: to work for social change and achieve true equality.
From various organizations in Geneva to the NAACP, Planned Parenthood to Freedom Riders, these activists worked on both a national and local level in order to carry on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. They spoke with pride and courage about their actions, and realistically about the obstacles and horrors they faced, and hope that their stories help younger generations realize that there is still work to be done.
“Everyone wants to see change; we need to work together to get the world back on track. We’ve come a long way but we’ve got a long way to go,” says Charles Parker, one of the interviewees. “We need to change the hearts of people – which we’re not going to do overnight. Nobody can take the world with them so there is no use in trying- you just have to leave your mark on society and help as much as you can.”
Not only did students learn about the wider Finger Lakes Community at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, but they were also privy to personal anecdotes from each of the interviewees that brought the history to life.
“I think the most interesting thing about this interviewing process was being able to learn about the history of Geneva, Canandaigua and the surrounding communities. Moreover, there are so many strong and powerful people in this area who stood up to fight the social injustices they saw around them,” says Caitlin Caron ’08, who participated in the project.
Alejandra Molina, director of intercultural affairs at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Mary Salibrici, associate professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the Colleges worked with Geneva High School and the Geneva Historical Society to coordinate this project.