How did it feel to be a black child during the Jim Crow era? Was it scary to be an activist during the civil rights movement? How is life different for black people today? These are just some of the questions that arise for Manhattan Country School’s sixth-graders as they study the civil rights movement. On Wednesday, they got some answers when civil rights activist Nell Braxton Gibson visited their class.
Nell grew up in the South during Jim Crow. While attending Spelman College, she joined the growing number of student activists walking picket lines, participating in mass demonstrations and registering first-time voters during the Civil Rights Movement. As an adult, she continued her social justice work partnering with religious organizations in their fight for equality in the United States and Africa. She chronicles her experiences in her book, Too Proud to Bend: Journey of a Civil Rights Foot Soldier.
During her visit, Nell read excerpts from her book to the sixth-graders. To set the stage, she asked the students to close their eyes and imagine what it would be like to be a 10-year-old black girl traveling from the South to Washington, D.C. during the Jim Crow era. She then read from a portion of her book where she recounts her experience as a member of her school’s safety patrol. The group of black youngsters had been invited to the nation’s capital to lead President Eisenhower’s inaugural parade. The children were filled with pride and excitement about being at the head of the parade, but their spirits were quickly dashed when a group of white students arrived and assembled in front of them, effectively segregating the parade participants. It was an experience so embarrassing that Nell would not talk about it when she returned home.
Nell also shared a contrasting story about Eleanor Roosevelt’s visit to Daytona Beach, Florida, where Nell spent part of her childhood. When Eleanor learned that she was scheduled to speak at an event in which blacks were not allowed to attend, she refused. Instead, she chose to accompany her friend Mary McLeod Bethune for a drive through the city’s black neighborhood in an open car. From this experience, Nell says she learned that there where white people who would stand up for black people.
After sharing her writing, Nell fielded questions for the inquisitive students. Their questions drew out the following details:
- Nell was inspired to be an activist at a young age after the killing of Emmitt Till, which took place less than 60 miles from her home.
- Mary McLeod Bethune was another inspiration. When Nell was a young girl, the educator made Nell promise that she would make the world a better place for the children that would come after her.
- Attending an integrated summer camp in New York’s Catskill Mountains opened Nell’s mind to what the world could be.
- MCS was the kind of place she dreamed about when she was marching on picket lines. Her daughter, Erika Gibson, attended MCS. Erika is the first African-American board certified veterinary neurosurgeon and a current MCS board member.