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The student-led Memory Project at Central takes history high tech

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WORKING ON THE MEMORY PROJECT: Central High students Adaja Cooper, Morgan Hibbard-Gregg, Zaria Moore, Tristan Thompson and Zia Tollette work with Kwami Abdul-Bey and George West.
  • WORKING ON THE MEMORY PROJECT: Central High students Adaja Cooper, Morgan Hibbard-Gregg, Zaria Moore, Tristan Thompson and Zia Tollette work with Kwami Abdul-Bey and George West.

Moments in time, even the important ones, are fleeting, and once they're in the past, it's up to historians to decide what is worthy of inclusion in the history books. In America, that process has been hit-or-miss, especially when it comes to noting the historical contributions and wisdom of minorities and other marginalized groups.

Since 2004, The Memory Project at Central High has been making an attempt to rectify some of the overlooked or willfully neglected history of civil rights in Arkansas. The core of the project is nearly a thousand essays, written by a succession of ninth grade civics students at Central and based on collected family stories about the turbulence created by the struggle for equality in Central Arkansas. The Memory Project is now going high tech, with students finishing up the process of researching, writing and producing a walking tour that follows in the footsteps of the Little Rock Nine as they desegregated the school, including a phone app that will be used by the National Park Service to guide visitors to Central. Former Central High teacher George West, who taught there from 2003 to 2015, now serves as Education Outreach Coordinator for the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, a division of the Central Arkansas Library System. West was one of the teachers who conceived The Memory Project. While a young teacher at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts in Hot Springs, West and a fellow teacher had started a semester-long project that required students to find and research a document related to their families and then write about it.

After taking a job at Central in 2004, West was working one day when Spirit Trickey — then a park ranger at the Central High National Historic Site and the daughter of Little Rock Nine member Minnijean Brown-Trickey — came in, asking West if his students would be interested in talking to several families who were visiting Central after a trip to the former Japanese internment camp at Rohwer, where some of their family members had been held during World War II. Coupled with West's interest to get back to the student-led history collection he'd run in Hot Springs, speaking to the Rohwer families was, West said, a "lightbulb moment."

"She said, 'Would you like to talk with these folks in your class?' " West recalled. "At the end of that conversation it sort of struck me to ask the students, 'What stories have you heard that stick in your mind? Go home, think about that, and write up your answer to that question.' That became kind of the kernel of The Memory Project assignment ... having students ask questions about how they perceive the change [in attitudes about race]. Did it change attitudes actions, relationships?" Over that year, the project emerged, with all ninth grade civics students required to interview an older family member about their recollections and attitudes about Civil Rights, and then write an essay revealing what they heard and their own reactions to it. As the essays started coming in, the stories fired students' curiosity and enthusiasm to the point that some asked West if a website could be created to catalog the essays. That original website, which West hopes to resurrect online soon, eventually archived almost 750 student essays. West has six more boxes of essays in his office at the Butler Center waiting to be catalogued.

"We came up with the idea as a one-time project," West said, "but when the essays started showing up in class and the stories started being told, it was clearly too meaningful to the students and it was just a continuing lesson for me." As a historian who worked at a school where something monumental took place, West said the early days of the project were particularly enlightening for him. Sometimes, when walking through the school, he'd be struck by what he called the fullness of what had happened there. "It wasn't always pretty, but suddenly it was a living history lesson that I'd walk into, around the corner," he said. "It would either be from remembering the experiences of the Little Rock Nine as I learned more about them, or any of the other black students who came to Central in subsequent years. There were grandchildren of those students who would write about the conversation they'd had with them. So you could see things changing and not changing."

Over the years, West said, the essays revealed both the "simple truths" and the complexities of the struggle for civil rights, both through the choices people made and the choices they felt they couldn't. While it's easy to sit in 2017 and assume you would have been on the right side of history had you lived in those times, the reality is more complex. West said people often felt "held captive by social conventions" or the fear of being hurt or ostracized.

"More and more, I realized these aren't just stories from the past, or about past actions," he said. "These are stories about choices that people were making. Every individual has those choices, and we continue to be faced with those choices. The story of Central High is not merely a story of black and white relations and the entrenched institutional racism in a white-dominated society. It's another chapter in the ongoing story of the great American experiment in democracy in a nation of many cultures and many peoples."

Started without a singular vision, The Memory Project has evolved, West said, growing organically and taking advantage of new opportunities as they presented themselves. Two student-edited books have been produced from The Memory Project, "Beyond Central, Toward Acceptance," which was released in 2010, and "Mapping the Road to Change," which was published in 2013. Conversations with students about "how to get the stories back off the printed page and into face-to-face conversation" led to a reading circle workshop that students have presented at national and state conferences since 2003.

In 2013-14, students with the Memory Project assisted in writing a proposal and securing a grant from the Smithsonian Institution to write and perform spoken-word poetry about historic places and cultural identity.

In their latest project, students with The Memory Project are working with the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub to develop an app and an audio walking tour called "Words That Matter — Voices of Civil Rights: The 1st Day at Central High." Launched Sept. 4 at Central, the walking tour allows visitors to the National Historic Site to follow in the footsteps of Little Rock Nine member Elizabeth Eckford on Sept. 4, 1957, the first day the Nine tried to attend classes at the school. On Sept. 25, students will release a second part of the audio walking tour, produced by National Public Radio in partnership with Youth Radio, taking visitors through the events on the day the Nine were escorted into the school by soldiers with the 101st Airborne.

In coming months, West hopes to get a new, updated version of The Memory Project website online, incorporating both the essays from the older website and new essays authored by students at Central. The Butler Center will become the permanent archive for the physical artifacts associated with the project, including the essays and what West said are "hundreds" of audio and video recordings of interviews collected by students over the years.

West is proud of the fact that The Memory Project is wholly student-produced, with teachers trusting students — many around the same age as the Nine when they integrated Central — to collect what he called "authentic experiences" that show them that what they create matters, while giving others the sense of immersion students felt while talking to their relatives. The new app and walking tour is already immersing visitors in the past.

"One of the powerful things in this is watching the students experience the reactions of other people in the community to the essays that they wrote, the spoken-word pieces that they've created, the books that were published, and now this walking tour," West said. "It's very moving. There were 75 or 80 people who did the walking tour on Labor Day, including some real veterans of Civil Rights actions. ... One person said: 'I didn't realize how far Elizabeth had to walk through that mob.' "

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