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Face to face with history
Brooklyn teacher helps students connect with woman who took a stand by staying seated
When Jeanine Longo recently read about Claudette Colvin, who as a teenager in 1955 refused to give up her bus seat to a white woman, the Brooklyn teacher knew her 8th-graders would be inspired.
She also knew the story of how Colvin defied segregation could show her English students at JHS 227 in Bensonhurst that young people can change history.
What she didn’t realize was how much it would mean to them to discover that Colvin was alive and well and living in the Bronx.
“Knowing she was still alive impacted them greatly,” Longo said. “They heard about Rosa Parks, but she’s gone. Historic figures are not usually still alive.”
Longo set out to connect her students with Colvin.
It was March 1955 when Colvin took a stand in Montgomery, Alabama. That was nine months before Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus and became one of the most famous figures of the 20th-century civil rights movement. Eventually the spotlight found Colvin again largely because of an award-winning book for young people, “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice,” written by Phillip Hoose and published in 2009.
When the teenage Colvin was arrested and jailed overnight, she had no way of knowing where it would lead. The New York Times published an article about her on March 19, 1955, with a headline — “Negro Girl Convicted/She is held guilty of refusing to move to back of bus” — that hardly predicted its later significance. Eventually her case was included in the NAACP lawsuit that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1956 ruled that segregated city buses were unconstitutional.
Longo used a project to galvanize her students, immersing them in the world of Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation from 1877 until the 1950s. In addition to reading about Colvin’s life, the students researched the era she lived through and viewed a video documentary about her life. It wasn’t long before they started seeing their own lives in a new light. Here was a teenager just like them who acted with courage in a difficult time.
“It was inspiring,” said Timothy, 13, one of 150 students involved in the project. “She stood up for her rights.” Helen, also 13, agreed. “A girl that close to my age,” she said. “It was a really courageous thing she did, and I look up to her.”
To show their appreciation, the 8th-graders created handmade cards and notes that were delivered to Colvin by parent leader Veronica Millender. “They were so happy to write to her about how impressed they were with what she did,” Longo said.
Colvin, now 77, was moved. “I was overwhelmed when I saw the cards,” she said. She has carefully stored them in plastic sleeves and placed them in a binder.
A retired nurse’s aide, Colvin has vivid memories of the days when “the Ku Klux Klan controlled the South.”
“Down South they had boundaries — it could be a ditch or it could be railroad tracks — that separated black and white,” Colvin said. “We were trying to break the boundary and have freedom of movement.”
Some of the 8th-graders found Colvin’s narrative resonant of problems today. “We have children from different countries whose families fled violence in places like Pakistan and Mexico,” Longo said.
The experience also helped the students think about leaders from their own cultural heritages they would like their peers to know more about. Stacy, 13, thought of labor leader Cesar Chavez. “He helped the farmworkers,” she said.
In addition to teaching history, said Elizabeth Marinello, a special education teacher who works alongside Longo in an integrated co-teaching class, Colvin’s story gave students a chance to enhance their vocabulary. “For example, what does it mean to be ‘dauntless’?” Marinello asked.
JHS 227 Chapter Leader Evelyn Liell praised Longo and Marinello. “They challenge their students to rise higher than any expectations they have for themselves,” Liell said. “And they’ll use a variety of literature, DVDs, newspapers, archival works, biographies — the entire gamut — to reach children.”
For Colvin, the growing acknowledgment of her teenage defiance of unjust laws fills her with gratitude.
“There’s comedy and tragedy,” Colvin said. “Life is a journey but, as of now, I’m blessed.”
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