Bridges to the Past: LGW Journeys into Civil Rights History
July 8, 2022
On September 15, Leadership Greater Washington will set out on the first leg of the Fall DMV Bridge Journeys. This series of experiences, starting on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and continuing in Richmond, VA (Oct 26-27) and Washington, DC (Nov 10), are designed to reveal our region’s civil rights past, reflect on how these histories impact our present, and recalibrate attitudes towards racial justice and reconciliation. These are action-focused journeys that examine accountabilities and challenge personal change, a call for all leaders to confront the realities of racism in our region and in themselves.
But this isn’t our first journey into America’s racial past.
In 2018 and 2019, in a partnership between LGW and Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG), 21 funders and other civic leaders experienced a Civil Rights Learning Journey to the South. Over the course of 3.5 days, they visited major museums, houses of worship that played significant roles in the activism of the 1960s, sites of key protests, and met individuals who were leaders on the ground in the 1960s and those who continue to push for change today. It was an opportunity to build a deeper understanding of the movement for racial equity and justice; the beginning of a journey for some participants, a continuation for others.
“The greatest opportunity to hear and see and experience what I had learned from my grandparents, my parents, my ancestors, my community, my culture, my people.”
Tracye Funn ('21) was raised in the South. Just across the river from DC in Alexandria, Virginia, but the South nonetheless. As a Black woman coming up during a momentous struggle for civil rights, that sort of distinction was minor given the events and attitudes she had to endure during that period. Her parents were both school teachers, and her father created the National/International Cultural Exhibits (NICE), a sort of curricular toolkit – posters, artifacts, teaching tools – bringing racial history to life that he toured around the country. This history, this journey, was an everyday part of her life.
Funn’s initial participation in the Civil Rights Learning Journey was to some degree professional. “In my position as Manager of Corporate Contributions for Washington Gas, I thought it would be an enlightening experience,” Funn remembers. “From a professional standpoint, that was a bonus. But more importantly, from a personal standpoint, it was the greatest opportunity to hear and see and experience what I had learned from my grandparents, my parents, my ancestors, my community, my culture, my people.” “So for me to be able to transition from what my father taught about to actually see those sites - best experience of my lifetime.”
For Funn, one of the most impactful moments occurred at the home and now historical museum of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was assassinated by a white supremacist. But it wasn’t an artifact or historical recollection, it was music. “The tour guides had been young teenagers at that time, who led the movement, which made it a real experience hearing it through their eyes and ears. And on this particular morning before we went inside the actual home, they taught us a song. This song stays in my heart, and it goes like this.” She remembers the words like it was yesterday.
“Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom
I said I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom
Well I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom
Hallelu, hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelu, hallelujah”
And she still sings that song to remind herself of the pain, of the struggle, of their leadership and commitment. “What these people, my people, went through, it gives me the energy and the courage and the determination and the persistence to come back and do my job even better.”
“It was one of the most significant participatory engagements I've ever had”
Myra Peabody Gossens ('87) is also from the South. She attended the University of Georgia in the late 1960s, only five years after the first black student had matriculated. She had witnessed first-hand the period of upheaval that typified the region during that time, and had not shied away from the history and her position within it as a white woman. But the Civil Rights Learning Journey was a new experience for her.
“Honestly I had never been to a lot of those places,” Gossens says. “I’d not been to Selma, not been to Jackson. I’d been to Montgomery and Birmingham, but not the way we went to Montgomery and Birmingham.” It was the very personal way they saw these sites that impacted Myra the most. “Seeing it through other people's eyes, sitting down in the pews with a person who was there the night that very church was bombed is a different experience from looking out of a tour bus and saying ‘that's the church that was bombed.’ It was one of the most significant participatory engagements I’ve ever had.”
And there were experiences that reminded her that the past still informed the present. She recalls being outside of Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market in Greenwood, MS, site of the false accusation that led to the murder of Emmett Till: “It was late in the afternoon, and there were people driving down this country road, big trucks with gun racks behind the driver. And I actually got afraid.” But it wasn’t her reaction that troubled her. “The guide, a young black attorney, said something to us. He said that we really needed to go.” Later on in the tour she was crossing over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the brutal Bloody Sunday beatings of civil rights marchers. A truck drove by, a window rolled down, and racial slurs were hurled at her group. “This was 2019,” Gossens said. “I [mention] these moments because I felt the fear. And I don’t live with that fear. I have privilege that allows me to do pretty much whatever I want to, whenever I want to. And I felt it.”
“You need that… perspective to be a better leader and a better human”
There’s a an oft-repeated axiom, one that Funn paraphrased in reflecting on her experience as a leader embarking on this journey: “If you don't know the history, if you're not educated in what has taken place in the history, you'll be doomed to your future decisions. You need that educational perspective to be a better leader and a better human.” Both the Civil Rights Learning Journey and the DMV Bridge Journey share this common thread. In learning the racial past of our country, whether it’s the civil rights struggle in the South or the sometimes forgotten history right in our region, one informs and readjusts their approach not just in leadership but in humanity. “When you take this journey and you experience first-hand these sites and you hear the historical relevance,” Funn continues, “all of these tools only serve to make you a better leader.”
Gossens sees her participation in the Journey, and to those preparing to embark on their own, as a necessary reaction to the world around us. “If a person is going to take these journeys right now it needs to be in the context of what’s happening in the country. We need to be able to counter the movements that are stripping away, rewriting history.”
“Something will change you,” she promises. “Something will profoundly change you.”
The DMV Bridge Journeys begin on September 15 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and continue with experiences in Richmond, VA (Oct 26-27) and Washington, DC (Nov 10). For more info and registration please visit lgwdc.org/dmv-bridge-journeys