HARWICH – Educators at the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School are eagerly exploring ways to use a recent gift of photographs, many depicting iconic moments from the civil rights movement.
In one photo, the leaders and organizers of the August 1963 March on Washington sit at the feet of the sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in his memorial; in another Marlon Brando stands with his arm slung over James Baldwin’s shoulder, as the pair looks out over the National Mall on that same day. Faces from the crowd fill other photos: of volunteers at workstations, of college students painting signs and children earnestly watching it all. Pictures show Jackie Robinson at the march, hugging his son David, and Harry Belafonte speaking; Peter Paul and Mary singing and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. flanked by Floyd McKissick, Matthew Ahmann and Reverend Eugene Carson Blake surveying the crowd.
In addition to the March on Washington, which drew more than a quarter million people to where Dr. King gave what became known as his “I Have a Dream” speech, there are other photos taken of other times: of Arthur Ashe, the first African American allowed in the Davis Cup Federation; of author Langston Hughes on the set of “The Strollin’ Twenties,” a made-for-television movie about the history of Harlem he co-wrote with Harry Belefonte; and Ashe meeting Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Even though all of the pictures are black and white stills, each is filled with the deep shades of urgency, passions and hopes that fueled the civil rights movement.
“We really see the photos being used in a way that they become a part of the whole school culture,” said one of the donors, Meri Hartford, whose daughter Bailey attended the charter school several years ago. “We thought this would be a unique way of trying to tell the story of the civil rights movement. It’s a powerful and uplifting story.”
Taken together as a whole, Hartford said, the collection will allow students to recognize the talents of people not always connected to the more popularized version of the early ’60s story.
The photographs were shot by Rowland Scherman, the first photographer for the Peace Corps. Scherman’s work appeared in Life, Look, Paris Match, and Playboy, among others. He won a Grammy Award for his album cover photo of Bob Dylan, travelled with Robert Kennedy when the senator was testing the waters to run for president. He captured iconic images at Woodstock, the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young in their studio and The Beatles’ first American performance.
Hartford and her husband Dave have owned and operated their business Memento in Orleans for over 20 years, framing artwork and representing a variety of artists. For over 10 years they managed Scherman’s work, holding exhibits across the country. More recently, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which has a large social justice collection, acquired all of Sherman’s negatives. The college has digitized the collection and made it available through Credo Reference. This left the printed photos that have been donated to the school.
Eighth grade language arts teacher Hannah Kast says she is “thrilled” to have the photos available to students. Every year since the school opened its doors more than two decades ago, students at the Lighthouse School have read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
“When I heard about the photos, immediately I started to brainstorm ways to incorporate them into the eighth grade unit on To Kill a Mockingbird,” Kast said, adding that especially over the past year she has been examining every critique of the book she can find, asking herself “Does it address the topic of racism in our country’s history through the appropriate lens? Does Atticus’ character perpetuate a “white savior” archetype that does more harm than good?
“Eighth graders are ready to grapple with those questions, but they need historical context,” she pointed out.
Kast believes the photographs will add depth and diversity to the unit by sparking conversations about the “real, complex people and events that helped our country move from the 1930s when To Kill a Mockingbird was written to the 1960s when it was written to today and beyond.”
Given the events of the past summer, Hartford said they thought hard about which students on Cape Cod might benefit most from the donation.
“We wondered if it would be better to have the images in a school that might have more diversity, like in Barnstable,” she said. “And then we wondered if it was better to have mostly white students surrounded by images of powerful, successful, influential people of color.”
Ultimately, the group settled on the charter school, where the student body is made up of children from across the Cape. That Lighthouse is a middle school, grades six through eight, was another factor. “We felt starting younger might be better,” Hartford said.
Like their colleagues around the nation, faculty members at the school have been grappling with how to broaden and deepen school curricula and culture to address the issue of systemic racism.
Sixth-grade language arts teacher Susannah Remillard said she believes the images themselves and the historical significance attached to them “can begin a journey into meaningful conversations and deeper understanding for students.”
“Who was the photographer? Why were these events chosen? How are they situated in the history that surrounds them? How have these moments become flashpoints in history? Why were these images chosen for our school, specifically,” Remillard posited potential questions to consider. “We live in a very white part of our country. If we do not intentionally teach our students that race is a social construct, if we don’t expose them to the history of racial injustice in our country, they may grow up believing that our country is a level playing field. It’s not. But it may seem that way in our neighborhoods and communities.”
Remillard, who has done extensive work developing strategies for teaching difficult history, said, particularly for students of color, avoiding the reality that inequality exists in the nation contributes to a destructive cycle of racist thinking, even for the well-intentioned.
Special education director Jen Hyora, who headed up the school’s Antiracism in Education Working Group formed this fall, agreed with Remillard, saying “teaching the history of racial injustice in our country is vital for all students. Black history is American history and should be infused as a part of our ongoing conversations and not just highlighted one month per year.”
Seventh-grade social studies teacher Daniella Garren works hard to teach students in her ancient history class how to look at history critically and discern the difference between primary and secondary sources of information. She said she is eager to use the collection as a tool for understanding photography as a primary source.
“Photographs present an interesting and complex medium when it comes to interpretation. These images are authentic and have not been doctored. It is important for students to consider how easily digital images can be manipulated in today’s world and that images we see online may not be 100 percent reliable,” she said. “It’s also interesting to think of how differently we engage with images today than people did even as recently as 50 years ago. Today we are all walking around with high resolution cameras in our pockets, which we can use to take pictures that we can then send to friends and family on the other side of the world instantaneously.”
As an example, Garran pointed to videos and photographs sent from the events at the Capitol on Jan. 6, which allowed people to experience the insurrection as it was happening.
Garren, who is already planning a seminar in curating as one way to use the photos in her teaching, said exciting opportunities exist for pairing the pictures with voice recordings, videos and newspaper articles.
“These photographs offer us an amazing opportunity to walk through the historic past of our nation at a time when we should be reminded of what our ancestors went through in order to preserve the democratic ideals on which this country was founded,” she said.
As teachers continue to consider best uses for the pictures, school Director Paul Niles has invited each staff member who would like to choose one photo that speaks to them to hang it in their work space, write a paragraph describing the events of the moment and how it touches them. These paragraphs with the photos will ultimately be shared through the school’s social media.
Calling it an honor when alumni families make donations like this, Kast said, “We aim to be a public school that pushes past traditional curriculum by connecting with the community and using innovative and interactive teaching methods, and a gift like this is a wonderful validation that former families remember us that way.”
“That we have been entrusted with gifts of such significance indicates, to me, that our families and community believe we will shape these historical artifacts into meaningful learning experiences for our students,” she said.
While the photos represent a time of upheaval and racial tension in our county, Remillard was quick to note they also preserve a time of action and growth.
“My hope is that we will use this gift to educate our students in ways that counteract the longstanding effects of systemic racism and inequality that continue to plague our society today,” she said. “These are not easy conversations to have or simple lessons to guide our students through. Having photos like these gives us a place to start developing learning experiences that require critical thinking, awareness, and deeper empathy on the path to a compassionate citizenry.”