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On weeklong trip, black students from La Crosse area reflect on a lost history

August 25, 2018

When she sits in history class, Brittany Williams often feels as if something is missing.

Namely, her history.

“We learn about slavery and everything, but we don’t really get in-depth visuals of everything else that happened,” said Williams, a senior at Central High School. She and 42 other black students returned Tuesday from a weeklong trip across the southeastern United States, where they toured museums, black colleges and other key sites in African American history.

“It was nice,” she said, “to get a different perspective we’re not usually shown in La Crosse.”

The Legacy Keepers trip, funded through a $50,000 donation from the La Crosse Community Foundation, brought students and chaperones to places they’d only read about in books — in some cases, places they’d never read about at all.

At the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, students saw the lunch counter where four black men staged a now famous sit-in over racial segregation.

At the King Center in Atlanta, they learned about the titan of social activism and the face of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr.

And at nearby Spelman, Clark and Morehouse colleges, they retraced the footsteps of some of the first African Americans to earn a college degree.

“I had heard of historically black colleges and universities, but I didn’t really know what it was,” Williams said. “I’m going to be graduating from high school soon. It’s cool to see that people like me were out there pursuing this.”

Khyree Malone-Day, a freshman at Central, said she was particularly moved while walking down a former slave trail and while viewing the casket of Emmett Till, a black boy who was murdered for offending a white grocery store owner in 1955.

“It was also cool to go to new states and build relationships with students I didn’t really know,” she said.

One of those friendships is with Omar Cox-Bey, an eighth-grader at Logan Middle School.

Omar jumped at the opportunity to go on the trip, though it meant sacrificing a week of summer vacation, because he wanted to see the sites and absorb the history.

“Most of my teachers aren’t colored, and some of the stuff they teach is not true,” he said. “I liked seeing all of the art and the quotes on the walls. If you listen, you can actually use this stuff instead of it going in one ear and out the other.”

The students who attended the trip have no intention of keeping the experience or the lessons to themselves.

Williams, for example, plans to feature a different African American historical figure each month at her school.

Danya Day, community school coordinator at Northside Elementary, sees the need for better education around African American history every day.

She attended the trip as a chaperone, she said, knowing it would be a safe and welcoming environment — a chance for both students and teachers to reflect on a lost history.

“I knew I would feel accepted and that I wasn’t just a grain of pepper among a pile of salt,” she said. “It’s important for students to see themselves in a positive light. That’s needed in our history books, too.”

“It’s important for students to see themselves in a positive light. That’s needed in our history books, too.” Danya Day, community school coordinator at Northside Elementary in La Crosse

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