Dr. Joseph Fanning Drake, the namesake of Drake High School, an African-American school founded in 1957

This spring, a group of 140 Auburn High School juniors will be taking a hands-on approach to discovering Auburn and Lee County's civil rights narrative.

The project, called Land of Freedom: The Civil Rights Movement in East Alabama, will be a three-year initiative with the students first focusing on the integration of the area's schools.

"Everyone is familiar with the Montgomery, the Birmingham, the Selma narratives, but what about the Auburn, the Opelika narrative?" said Blake Busin, AP History teacher at AHS.

Busbin first turned his students into historians when he began the Veterans Project — a project that collected oral histories of local veterans over the span of three years. In a conversation with AHS assistant principal Caroline Raville, the idea to explore civil rights history in the area came up, and Busbin decided to shift the project's focus.

With the first year focusing on the Civil Rights Movement within local schools, years two and three will spotlight the desegregation of public spaces and the struggle for political rights in the area, respectively.

To unearth the county's history on this topic, students will conduct extensive research as well as interviews of former students who attended some of the area's African-American schools, like Drake High School in Auburn and Darden High School in Opelika. 

Busbin said he also hopes the students get a chance to interview teachers of those schools or anyone who was involved with Auburn City Schools or Opelika City Schools during integration. 

"Who helped move our society forward? We want to identify who you could call our unsung heroes in the community," he said.

Students will begin interviews with community members the week of April 23. Currently, they are in search of people to participate. Anyone who is willing to share their piece of the story can email Busbin at wbbusbin@auburnschools.org or call the high school at 887-2120.

As part of the project, students will also each receive a copy of the book "Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America" by Frye Gaillard, who will visit the students to talk to them about how he went about writing his book.

"Gaillard, who is the writer in residence of University of South Alabama, will be coming up here and speaking to the students about how he made a narrative and about how they can make a narrative in their own community," Busbin said.

Funding for the books and Gaillard's trip will be paid for by grant money from the Alabama Humanities Foundation that was awarded to the school for the Land of Freedom project. Busbin said the project has also received funding from the Foundation for Auburn's Continuing Enrichment in Schools and from the Bill Melinda Gates Edcamp Foundation.

Funding from these sources will also help the students produce an exhibit of their findings, which will be on display at the Auburn Public Library in May. A public symposium will be hosted at the library on May 14 to allow the students to explain their exhibits.

To begin the project, a group of students will go on a four-day tour of civil rights sites in the Southeast.

"They will learn more about how that story is presented in other exhibits," Busbin said. "We'll be in Montgomery; Selma; Jackson, Mississippi; Memphis; Birmingham and Atlanta."

Busbin said the goal of the project is twofold. He hopes students learn the importance and thoroughness of being a historian, and he hopes powerful conversation happens within the community as members learn about their city's civil rights history.

"With the students, I really want them to understand — as with the Veterans Project — the study of history, the research that goes into it to produce an informative project for the public. Historians don't just do research for their own interests, but they do it to tell a story," he said. "For the community, it's really to reveal our narrative ... With the public exhibit, we hope to spark a community conversation."

He also hopes the students will realize the depth of the civil rights struggle.

"I think a lot of students take for granted the Civil Rights Movement in a sense that it achieved rights and everything is over," Busbin said. "But to see the actual struggle and to see how it was not a flip of a switch, but over years. Brown v. Board of Education was decided in '54, but you don't really have full integration until the 1970s."

To keep up with the project, follow Land of Freedom: The Civil Rights Movement in East Alabama on Facebook.

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