Students from HWS and Geneva High School came together last semester to interview Geneva residents about their experiences during the local Civil Rights movement.
“You don’t always think of the Civil Rights movement as related to smaller cities like Geneva, but during this activity we were shown that it was present all over the nation,” said Alexandria Hanson’08.
The Writing to Remember activity began with a presentation on interviewing by John Marks, curator of collections at the Geneva Historical Society. The students then met the community residents at various locations for the interviews.
Hanson interviewed Geneva residents, Mr. and Mrs. Richmond, who talked about their experiences in West Virginia as well as Geneva. They said in West Virginia, they didn’t face segregation. They could sit where they wanted on a bus, and they could eat at whatever place they chose; life in Geneva was not so kind. Mrs. Richmond once went to take her children out to eat at a diner called Neisner’s. With hungry children in tow, she went into the restaurant and the family was denied service because of their skin color.
The couple revealed other racial tensions of the past. “We didn’t sleep. Honestly, we were afraid that people were going to throw a bomb in our window and kill us,” Mrs. Richmond said of her husband’s involvement in the NAACP.
“Looking at Mr. and Mrs. Richmond and hearing them speak, a person would never guess that they faced the type of discrimination and segregation that seems to be a distant memory,” Hanson said of the interview.
“It’s difficult to imagine either one of them being denied a seat at a diner or being hit by a car when speaking up for what they believe in and still having the courage to talk about it today with a smile.”
In the group discussion that followed the interviews, students spoke of the cultural climate of the 1960s and how the residents related it to the current political campaign. One student described how a resident imagined politics today if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. not been assassinated in April 1968.
Their stories were both personal and political, ranging from childhood friendships that transcended race to involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Many of them intertwined their own histories with those of family and friends. Keisha Martin, a Geneva High student, reflected on how the interviews changed her and the community member’s views on the Civil Rights movement. “It affects us in the same way,” she explained, “to know where you came from, and where you are going.”
“I never realized the Civil Rights struggle of all Americans,” Geneva High student Cassie Snyder said.
As the students closed the discussion of their interviews, each agreed that the experience went beyond their expectations. Alejandra Molina, director of Intercultural Affairs and assistant professor of Spanish and Hispanic Studies, described the community members as “a generation of activists” and “witnesses of the true history.” Writing to Remember was part of HWS’s week-long celebration of King’s life and works.
Several students who participated in the Day of Service will continue their work in a Readers College organized by Mary Salibrici and co-taught with Molina. They will collaborate with the residents to choose a medium for displaying the material they have collected.