Halls of Memories

Inside a historic school in Chesterfield, students build a mini-museum for civil rights.

A high-school student asks her history teacher why she was taught that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence because he believed in equality and human rights — but no one taught her that he owned slaves. She concludes that the Founding Father was two-faced.

Such questions of how and why history is taught are the crux of a seven-month project underwritten by the University of Richmond’s Partners in the Arts program and Communities in Schools. One result is “Carver [On] Record,” an interactive exhibit at Chesterfield Community High School. It’s created by students and facilitated by artist and musician Nelly Kate Anderson, with assistance from teachers Elizabeth Claud and Sarah Marcellin.

Why exhibit at a school? Chesterfield Community once was Carver High School, Chesterfield County’s sole secondary school for black students from 1948 to 1970. Working with 150 students and curator Toni Wynn, Anderson set out to facilitate the creation of an oral history archive from former students of the school.

“It’s really clear the time is now,” Anderson says. “We’re going to start seeing those people who lived through the civil rights movement dying, and young people now living through Ferguson and New York need time to reflect on that.”

Delving into storytelling, personal narrative and the interview process, Anderson shared existing material from Story Corps, one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, to give students a sense of radio-quality interviews. She impressed on them the importance of telling their own stories to take their place in history.

After building a sound booth, the students began interviewing alumni about what it was like at Carver.

“There was something about having these interactions with older people that helped dignify the younger people,” Anderson says. “As they apply that in the future, it may help with things like job interviews. If that’s the only thing they take away, that would be great.”

But it isn’t. “Music was what the students initially tuned into,” Claud says of Anderson’s early sessions focusing on the analogy of sound composition to art. “But after developing their questions, interviewing and meeting with Toni Wynn, I would say the kids are now really focused on producing something important. They’re proud of this project. It feels professional to them.”

Anderson spent weeks teaching students how to record, edit and compose sound in the tradition of musique concrete, a technique of musical composition using recorded sounds as raw material to produce an aural montage. At the end of the interviewing, Anderson says, they distilled these little sound clips and composed music to complement spoken word selections.

For one night, the school will host a multifaceted exhibit, part temporary and part permanent. An interactive structure will marry video projections and complementary sounds. Students will bury a time capsule with the taped interviews, a tape deck, small portraits of the project’s participants and memorabilia. Visitors to the exhibit will be given questions to answer in the sound booth about their own civil rights experiences.

But the heart of the exhibit will live on in perpetuity. In one wing of the building, 12 lockers have been retrofitted with installations of selected, abbreviated oral history recordings and artifacts. In effect, they’re each miniature museums for future generations.

Wynn sees the legacy of the project as the students’ recognition that civil rights aren’t a problem that’s been solved but an ongoing movement that succeeds through participation.

“Museums can be slow to recognize the benefits teens offer,” Wynn says. “Carver [On] Record bypasses the museum itself to create an onsite exhibit experience from the ground up.”

For Marcellin, the history teacher who was asked about Jefferson’s hypocrisy, it was the first time a student had questioned why some things are taught and not others.

“I hope they’ll take away an understanding of the universality of civil rights and the importance of promoting and respecting those rights,” Marcellin says. “And I hope they’ll take away the courage and desire to shape the story of their community for the next generation.” S

“Carver [On] Record” runs March 27 from 6-9 p.m. at Chesterfield Community High School, 12400 Branders Bridge Road, Chester. For information, visit carveronrecord.com.


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