Every year, the Chicago Public School District close their schools’ doors to honor the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However, many argue that a “day off” from work or school is not what Dr. King would’ve wanted. Instead, they argue he would’ve urged citizens to have a “day on.” In response to this feeling, organizations, museums, and businesses all over the United States offer opportunities for people of all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds to come together for a day of learning and service. The DuSable Museum of African American History on Chicago’s South Side is one of these aforementioned institutions.
For over 20 years, the museum has been hosting a King Day celebration. This year’s “Day On” celebration centers around Dr. King’s “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community” manuscript. As the museum’s website articulated, “The day-long event is designed to ‘elevate your consciousness,”‘ and featured a wide range of events including readings, live performances, and documentary viewings.
The museum itself offers an extensive amount of educational resources. The museum’s long hallways are adorned masterful artwork and the museum’s galleries feature a variety of exhibitions that center on diverse topics. Some of the exhibits that I enjoyed included “Africa Speaks,” an exhibit that highlighted the cultural and religious diversity of the continent as well as, “A Slow Walk to Greatness: The Harold Washington Story,” an exhibit that highlighted the life and accomplishments of Chicago’s only African American mayor: Harold Washington. Mayor Washington was an advocate of Chicago’s public education system and if it was not for a sudden and tragic heart attack, more teacher and community empowerment would have been engrained into the Chicago Public School system.
However, I was personally drawn to a temporary exhibit entitled, “Beyond the Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges.” The exhibit centered on a piece of World War II history I was previously unaware of: the immigration of Jewish scholars to the Deep South. As Nazi Germany rose to power, many Jewish scholars saw fled persecution and immigrated to various Western countries, including the United States. This fact did not surprise me. After all, I knew that Albert Einstein, arguably the most intelligent man to ever walk this Earth, fled for the United States to continue his work.
But that is where my knowledge of Einstein’s journey stops. What I did not know, and what the DuSable’s exhibit emphasized, is that the vast majority of the Jewish scholars fled the racial persecution of Nazi Germany to come face-to-face with the racial persecution of the Jim Crow South. These racially persecuted scholars developed a strong bond with the racially persecuted black youth of the Deep South. In some cases, they used their positions as college professors to challenge American racism. Albert Einstein himself challenged racial segregation. But that part of the story is often left out. While the pairing of these two groups of people may seem unlikely to some, in reality it makes perfect sense. Both African Americans and Jews had been subjected to intensive hatred and exclusion from society. The exhibit was extremely enlightening.
During my trip to the DuSable Museum, I was also fortunate enough to hear an outstanding spoken word presentation put on by the Young Chicago Authors. Originally founded in 1991, the organization eventually became the largest youth poetry festival in the world. In 2001, in response to anti-gang legislation proposed in Chicago out of fear of increased violence on American soil, Young Chicago Authors developed their “Louder Than a Bomb” program which aims to empower Chicago’s youth through writing and performance. Today’s presentation, entitled “Truth to Truth: MLK / MX,” provided a platform for some of Chicago’s premier young poets to inspire the room with their experiences of societal and educational injustice. Powerful poetry hits hard, and I was struck by these poets.
While the immediate classroom connections to my 3rd Graders wasn’t as strong as my ACM colleagues who are teaching in high school settings, one message did ring loud and clear. As one of the poets expressed prior to a riveting critique of the Chicago Public Schools, “Young people are the historians of their own lives. And they bring their experiences with them to the classroom.” Let us not forget this. Let us honor, elevate, and provide countless opportunities for students to succeed, no matter what their previous experiences may have been.