Students at Little Rock’s Central High are embracing the school’s rich history and making it their own. What started out as a freshman civics assignment is now the Memory Project, an ongoing oral history compilation about social and human rights issues.
The students are asked to interview a friend or family member with a memory involving discrimination. George West and Keith Richardson are teachers and two of the sponsors of the project. They work with a student-run editing team to select the stories that are featured on the project’s website, as well as two recently published books.
Abhilasha Gokulan, an editor, says “on our own time at home we’d spend 40 hours in total reading the essays…toward the end of the school year we spent every day after school”, editing, selecting and organizing the essays.
One of these essays was written by Amaree Austin, grand-niece of Mrs. Thelma Mothershed-Wair, one of the nine African-Americans that integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
“I don’t mind telling people what my memories are, I don’t mind sharing, I think it is good to share with other people so they can know what went on. It gives people a better sense of history”, said Mothershed-Wair.
The project is giving students a chance to connect with older generations and understand their stories. Malik Marshall, a sophomore, interviewed his grandmother, Helen. Mrs.Marshall says she experienced discrimination towards her mixed-race marriage.
Today, Malik says Central has come a long way, but racial divisions still exists, “I go to lunch and there are all these black people sitting over here and all these white people sitting over here, and I go sit with the people I know”.
The students have been interviewed for morning talk shows, recognized and special events, and praised for their work with the books and website. However, there have been a few challenges.
Sally Goldman, who is a practicing Muslim and wears a traditional head covering, is one of the editors of the project and dealt with several negative facebook comments directed towards her and the hijab. She and the editing team used this incident to welcome a discussion and turned the experience into a learning opportunity.
Sponsors George West and Keith Richardson say the project’s goal is to educate one another about our collective history, so that people can better understand one another. They say they are happy the project is lead by the students, who are now bringing the stories back to life through the next phase of the project, “Grio”.
Through Grio the students are visiting local schools and sharing their stories. The Memory Project is excited about this initiative, as well as publishing more books and getting the project started in schools across the country.
The group plans to publish more books at lower costs, making it easier to replicate the project and collect more oral histories. The students, faculty, and family members involved hope their efforts will help to bring unity and understanding among people in the generations to come.
Amaree and her great-aunt Thelma's extended interview:
Malik and his grandmother Helen's extended interview: