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Birmingham City students recognized for essays on racial history

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The Equal Justice Initiative and the Jefferson County Memorial Project hosted a ceremony in downtown Birmingham honoring winners and participants in their high school essay contest. (Erica Wright, The Birmingham Times)
By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times 

When Aimee Howard, a junior at Birmingham’s Ramsay High School, learned about a high school essay contest last fall reflecting on racial and social inequality, she knew she had to say something. 

“When I looked on the Equal Justice Initiative’s website and saw how a lot of the [racial] institutions were [created] after slavery, I wanted . . . to examine and dissect them” how see how they were still affecting us today, she said. “A system is not something that can be changed but it has to be torn down.” 

Howard, won first place in the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and Jefferson County Memorial Project (JCMP) high school essay contest for her essay, “The Racial Divide” (see below). 

The EJI is a Montgomery-based nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes, poor prisoners without effective representation, and others who may have been denied a fair trial. The JCMP is a grassroots coalition composed of more than 35 community partners and a multi-racial, multi-faith, multi-sector, and multi-generational group of committed volunteers.

The two organizations hosted a ceremony announcing winners of the Birmingham City High School essay contest Thursday night at the Jemison Gallery downtown. 

The contest was launched during the dedication of the county’s first historical marker ceremony this fall to honor lynching victims. High school students from Birmingham City Schools were asked to reflect on this history and connect it to contemporary issues. 

First-place winner Howard received a $2,500 scholarship and will also have her essay published in the JCMP 2020 Fellows report which will be released later this month. 

“At first, I wasn’t going to write the essay but when I was looking at the website, I knew this is what I wanted to do. I want to be a lawyer and fight for Civil Rights and [against] mass incarceration within our communities and this relates so much to me, it was like a calling from God,” said Howard. “I didn’t expect to win… I told my mom I thought I was going to get an honorable mention, so it was a real shock when I heard I won first place.”

From left to right: Aimee Howard, Ja’Mya Acoff, Taniya Davis, Gustavo Perez and Kya Norman, winners of the EJI and JCMP High School essay contest. (Erica Wright, The Birmingham Times)

The other winners included: Jy’Mya Acoff, senior at Carver High School, second place; Taniya Davis, senior at Wenonah High School, third; Gustavo Garcia Perez, freshman at Carver High School, fourth; and Kya Norman, a junior at Wenonah High School,  fifth.

Acoff, who received a $1,250 scholarship, wrote an essay titled “Facing the Fact that Segregation Continues to Divide Us.” 

“My essay was about the ways segregation continued for so long and the ways it affected the black community based on my own experiences and my grandmother’s experiences,” said Acoff. “I wanted people to hear what I had to say because I worked and I experienced racism but I couldn’t do anything because [it happened while on a job) and I wanted to let them (the judges and audiences who will read the essay) know that happened to me and it’s still happening even though we’re past Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. My grandmother is in her 70s and she grew up in that era and I wanted to show that even though we grew up in two different time periods, we’ve experienced some of the same things when it comes to racism.”

The JCMP also announced pilot learning programs in Jefferson County where its Teacher Committee of local educators has created a curriculum on lynching and racial terror that will provide strategies to prepare students and teachers for conversations around the county’s history and include a potential field trip to The Memorial in Montgomery. 

Educators at The Altamont School in Birmingham; Jefferson County International Baccalaureate School in Irondale and Ramsay and Woodlawn High Schools in Birmingham will be the first to implement the new curriculum. 

For middle school students, JCMP is partnering with the Greater Birmingham Arts Education Collaborative and Bush Hills STEAM Academy to start a 6th grade curriculum through the arts about the curriculum. Students will work with local spoken word poet, Jahman Hill, to explore identity, safety and empathy through poetry and history surrounding the Green Book, which is a guide to African American travelers during Jim Crow. 

Three other students were recognized as honorable mentions: Gabriella Granado, senior at Wenonah; Kyndal Williams, senior at Ramsay; and Ahmari Rowe-Brown, a junior at Wenonah. 

All winners of the essay contest were awarded with a plaque and swag bags from the EJI as well as a total of $6,000 in scholarships. 

This event is part of JCMP’s education efforts to engage broader parts of Jefferson County in a discussion around its history of racial violence and the legacies of racial injustice that exist today. Part of the mission, along with the placement of historical markers at lynching sites and the retrieval of our monument from the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, is to allow the community to honestly reckon with the past and advocate for a more just future. For more information visit www.jeffersoncountymemorial.com  

 

The Racial Divide

By Aimee Howard
Ramsay High School

Aimee Howard, a junior at Ramsay High School, reads her essay during a ceremony honoring winners of the EJI and JCMP high school essay contest. Howard was the first place winner. (Erica Wright, The Birmingham Times)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once stated, “Racial segregation must be seen for what it is, and that is an evil system, a new form of slavery covered up with certain niceties of complexity”. 

This a very powerful quote because within it Dr. King exposes segregation for what it truly was, and that was a system used to promote black inferiority. The interesting thing about systems is that they cannot just be changed, but instead must be torn down and built a new.

In the aftermath of slavery the U.S. never truly broke those institutions that caused racial divides, they simply tried to cover them. The United States attempted to pacify these racial divides while building institutions that kept African Americans in political and economic bondage. It is clear that narratives of racial difference continue to shape American society and the continuous progression of minorities within this nation. 

Before examining racial divides one must first understand the complex history behind segregation in the United States. The genocide of Native people, 250-year enslavement of black people, adoption of “racial integrity laws” that demonized ethnic immigrants and people of color, and enforcement of policies and practices designed to perpetuate white supremacy are all part of our difficult past.

It all began with the abolishment of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment. It is important to note that this document said that slavery was illegal, except as a punishment for a crime. With that in mind laws such as “Black Codes” and “Jim Crow Laws” were established to keep the black community in bondage and hinder their upward mobility.

Many know the story of the American fight for civil rights, however, the mass opposition to those rights is often clouded. The idea of Reconstruction and giving blacks equal rights through Amendments, such as the 14th and 15th, posed serious challenges to white supremacy within this nation. With that in mind, segregation was developed as a societal tool to forever keep colored people in a place of inferiority to their white counterparts.

Racial segregation had a long and enduring history in America, supported by courts, laws, and elected officials. The pervasive effects of that legacy are still felt today. A recent study from Pew Research Center found, “More than eight-in-ten black adults say the legacy of slavery affects the position of black people in America today…About 78% say the country hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving black people equal rights with whites.”

The U.S. is the victim of an unequal race opportunity. This concept is vividly illustrated by Erica Pinto’s Short film for the African American Policy Forum, showing metaphors for obstacles to equality which affirmative action tries to alleviate.

Within this film she shows how a group of people that have been marginalized for centuries, held back by the bonds of slavery, and plagued with laws and institutions to hinder their development, can never truly have an equal position within American society. Within this five-minute documentary themes such as slavery, segregation, wealth disparities, poor schooling, underemployment, the school to prison pipeline, housing segregation, racial profiling, white privilege, and countless other tools that have been perpetrated throughout this countries history and have led to clear socio-economic gaps between races was explored.

It is clear that the United States has been plagued with narratives of racial difference, and that it is still present in society today. The solution to solving those issues is a little less clear.

However, like most things, it begins with education. This country must stop sweeping its devastating history under the rug and, instead, gather enough bravery to explore and conquer it. The only way to change these institutions is to tear them down, but that concept can only manifest when one is aware of how they were built.

It is time to stop running away from history and use those lessons to fix the current status of this country, or else history will continue to repeat as those with power abuse established institutions. Dr. King once said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle”.

This is a very important philosophy because Americans must remember that the fight is not over. It is time for this nation to be held accountable and it will not come through complacency; instead, it will come through the people of this nation demanding that the systemic issues plaguing this country be plucked from the roots of justice and equality.

Bibliography

— Eji. “Introduction to Segregation in America: Equal Justice Initiative.” Introduction to

Segregation in America | Equal Justice Initiative, 

https://segregationinamerica.eji.org/report/introduction.html.

— Horowitz, Juliana Menasce, et al. “Views on Race in America 2019.” Pew Research

Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, 23 Aug. 2019,

https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/04/09/race-in-america-2019/.

— Lawson, Steven F. “Segregation.” Segregation, Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe®,

National Humanities Center, National Humanities Center, May 2010,

http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/freedom/1865-1917/essays/segregation.htm.

— Pinto, Erica. “The Unequal Race Opportunity.” Youtube, 14 November 2010,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vX_Vzl-r8NY.