"We prepare students to engage in the world that is and to help bring about a world that ought to be."

Facing History

Kara Kutner, Director of the Center for Peace, Equity and Justice

Fifteen Upper School students recently traveled to the cities of Memphis, Jackson and New Orleans for an immersive experience entitled Civil Rights and Music: Blues, Jazz and the Politics of Race, sponsored by the Center for Peace, Equity and Justice. Our program provided an opportunity to examine—and in some cases experience first hand—painful pieces of our country’s history, from slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement and our present day. A thread that unified all of this history was the powerful current of Black music and the ways that Black people have created and used music to signify, communicate, celebrate and protest throughout the struggle. The music, the art, the history, the people, the experience of walking the land and simply watching it go by from our bus window all had an impact. 

“Before going on this trip, I thought of music and civil rights as entirely separate. But through this experience, I learned how deeply rooted Black music is in the history of this country, how enslaved people sang songs to secretly spread messages of when and how to escape,” Safira ‘26 explained.

Our travels brought us to important sites of historical significance including the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, the home of assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers, The Delta Blues Museum, The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, and Presbytere Museum of New Orleans. 

A visit to the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana was a particularly poignant experience for some students. “It’s one thing to learn about enslaved people in a classroom, but being on the land where Black people worked unwillingly is a whole new and interesting experience. It caused me to reflect on America’s past and what it means for us today and in the future,” Khady ‘26 reflected. 

Mason ‘24 was also deeply moved by the visit. “Stepping foot onto an actual plantation was eye-opening. Seeing the progress my people have made, and subsequently all the steps we need to take in the future really called me to action,” he stated. By visiting these pieces of our collective history, students are better able to understand how our past stretches into our present day, and how we can act to change the future.

We learned about the Black musicians whose voices have moved hearts and inspired change like Aretha Franklin (whose birthplace we visited), Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Nina Simone, and many others, including hip hop artists of today. The experience was anchored by opportunities to interface with real people in the communities we visited, including Ms. Johnnie Walker, Founder of the National Association of Black Female Executives in Music & Entertainment; Ms. Sharon Miles, director of the play Anne and Emmett (which the group saw), Ms. Jenny Mann of the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra; Jackson blues musicians Ben Sterling, Kyrus ATG and Eddie; and New Orleans street musicians Adrian Jusdanis and others from New Thousand Band. The group also sampled the best of southern cuisine (barbecue, crawfish boil and gumbo!) and took a steamboat ride on the Mississippi River. 

The deep learning and perspective taking throughout was supported by regular intentional discussions and debriefs, allowing students and teachers alike to share their insights, view history through new eyes, and connect what they were learning to the here and now. Eli ‘24 explained “All the significant events, culture, music, and even the horrors of American history are usually only taught in textbooks. However, through this opportunity to immerse myself in the south, I was able to better understand American history than I had before by just reading text.”

There was also abundant joy, community building and new friendships forged along the way. Students took time to reflect on the expedition upon their return and discussed how we remember these critical moments from our collective past, how we reckon with the history of race and the legacy of white supremacy, and how this can inform how we live today.
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Friends Seminary — the oldest continuously operated, coeducational school in NYC — serves college-bound day students in Kindergarten-Grade 12.