PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When Françoise Hamlin, an associate professor of Africana studies and history, arrived at Brown in 2008, she quickly learned of the University’s historic partnership with Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, formalized in 1964 during the civil rights era.
Hamlin also learned of a semester-long exchange program between Brown and the historically black liberal arts college, but noticed that far more students from Tougaloo were coming to Brown than the other way around.
To a British native whose interest in and research on the American South stems from a “gap year” spent in Clarksdale, Mississippi — one that eventually led to the subject of her first book, “Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta After World War II” — the absence of an equal exchange, she believed, was a missed opportunity.
“Most of our students don’t come from the deep South, so their knowledge of it is limited,” Hamlin said. “Tougaloo has so many beautiful strengths, and I wanted to direct students to look at Tougaloo as an alternative and worthy place of study, where they would gain a better understanding of themselves and their own country.”
To do this, she created a one-week trip to Tougaloo during spring break that last week brought a group of Brown students to Mississippi for the sixth consecutive year. She designed the spring break trip not just as an opportunity to immerse students in the rich civil rights heritage of Mississippi but also to introduce them to the Tougaloo campus and encourage some to come back for a full semester.
First-year student Meghan Mozea said that last week’s trip inspired her to do exactly that.
“I originally didn’t want to do the full semester exchange,” said Mozea, who plans to concentrate in history and education. “This experience changed my mind. I took two of the best classes I’ve ever taken, and students there were so passionate about things that I felt such a personal connection to.”
Hamlin said the trip is intended to be transformational – grounded in history but also a charge to fight injustice in the present and future. This year’s trip, co-organized by Hamlin and Tougaloo College faculty (Hamlin is on sabbatical this semester), included a focus on social justice struggles outside of the fight for African-American civil rights in the U.S. Students met with undocumented Tougaloo students applying for amnesty in the U.S. and took part in discussions focused on international human rights and religious extremism.
“The students left Tougaloo really engaged and chomping at the bit to throw themselves into social justice work, knowing that every little thing helps,” Hamlin said. “They really understand now that because they have the privilege to be here at Brown, there are so many tools and resources they can marshal to do this important work. They felt very empowered. You can’t teach that in a classroom in one week.”
This year, for the first time, Brown’s spring break coincided with the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement conference, an annual gathering of activists from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Students attended the conference, presented at the opening plenary, and learned from civil rights luminaries such as Hollis Watkins and Joan Trumpauer Mulholland.
They also took a civil rights tour of Jackson with stops at Farish Street, a central location for activism in the 1960s, and the home of Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary for Mississippi who was killed by a Ku Klux Klan member in his driveway in 1963. At Jackson State University, they toured the Margaret Walker Center, a museum dedicated to the preservation, interpretation and dissemination of African-American history and culture, and attended a panel on civil rights and immigration.
For Mozea, the spring break trip and a future semester in Tougaloo are just first steps in what she expects will be a longer journey. She recounted how at the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement conference, one veteran activist told Brown and Tougaloo students that they have both the ability and the responsibility to take up the fight for social justice that she and her generation had begun when they, too, were college students.
“It was moving and terrifying that they were putting so much faith in us to do this work,” Mozea said. “But they did it when they were our age. I realize that everything I’m learning in the classroom, I need to be able to find a way to apply it in real life. I’m at the point now where I can really start to make a difference.”