Maureen Boyle and Patricia McPherson are award winning New England journalists. Boyle is an assistant professor and director of the journalism program at Stonehill College. McPherson is the information literacy and outreach librarian at Stonehill, who has helped in the development of several classroom projects
At one end of the church hall, 82-year-old Ramona Jackson was telling the college senior how, decades earlier as a young nurse in Boston, she refused to give in to the demands of a patient who didn’t want a black person treating him.
“I said to him, ‘I’m sorry, darling, but I’m not gonna assign you to any nurse I’m going to take care of you,” she recalled. “You better get used to this face.”
Elsewhere in the hall, other members of one of the oldest African-American churches in Brockton, Massachusetts, were sharing other stories with students about life in the South during segregation—and the challenges they faced when they moved to Massachusetts during the later days of what is commonly referred to as The Great Migration. This was the mass relocation of Southern Blacks to the North and West, roughly between 1915 and 1970.
For the predominately white students in the Advanced Newswriting and Reporting course at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, the interviews with the senior citizens from Messiah Baptist Church, one of the oldest black churches in Brockton, provided a first-hand look at the country’s racial divide. This was part of a semester-long project called Brockton’s Great Migration, which required the undergraduate students to study and write about the Brockton community’s experience in the decades-long exodus of American blacks from the South. Students, as part of the project, were required to research the Great Migration, write several articles and produce videos on the topic.
This Community Based Learning project, sponsored by the college’s Office of Community Based Learning, Office of Intercultural Affairs and facilitated by the college’s MacPhaidin Library, was designed to help students understand the hurdles American blacks faced in the not- so -distant past and how those experiences shaped racial perceptions today. We also hoped this project would give students a different view of the American black experience and family.
The student body at Stonehill, a Catholic liberal arts college about 20 miles south of Boston, is predominantly white. According to statistics compiled for the 2014-2015 Common Data set, 2,006 of Stonehill’s 2,401 students identified themselves as white, non-Hispanic.
Brockton, which abuts Stonehill’s leafy campus in Easton, is a city of some 94,000, 31 percent of which identify themselves as black or African American, according to U.S. Census Statistics.
Our students’ exposure to the black community in Brockton, the hometown of boxing great Rocky Marciano, was predominantly shaped through service projects. Students went to the city to tutor inner city (and mostly black), poor children in the schools. They delivered furniture to the needy. They reached out to the homeless, interned at the police department and the district attorney’s office. They learned in the classroom about poverty and went to the city next door to help. Most of the people they were helping or studying were individuals of color—and poor.
What the students were missing were the stories of the American blacks in the community who struggled and prospered, who valued education, whose children graduated college and rose through the ranks of government and businesses. Students needed to hear how hard it was succeed, how easy it would have been to give up and how failure wasn’t an option. They needed to hear the stories passed down through the generations of these families to understand how what happened in the past influences perceptions today.
We wanted the students to see this other part of the American Dream.
Through our Office of Community Based Learning, we met with representatives from Messiah Baptist Church during the CBL office’s Summer Institute to develop a preliminary plan for the project. The Summer Institute provides faculty an opportunity to work with a community partner - in this case the church - and a student to develop a Community Based Learning course or revamp an existing course. The institute traditionally runs for two days during a summer week. The college’s Office of Intercultural Affairs also agreed to provide money to pay for lunches for the seniors on the days the students would be conducting the interviews.
Messiah Baptist Church, in the heart of Brockton, is a one of the most socially active African-American churches in the city. The membership includes prominent members of the black community, many with strong ties to the South. The church offers a wide range of social programs, including tutoring and outreach to the homeless.
For the project, each student in Professor Maureen Boyle’s Advanced News Writing and Reporting class did at least two stories: a historic article on the Great Migration and a profile on a senior citizen who moved North. For the first, historic article, students were assigned a specific topic on the Great Migration and its effect on Brockton to research and write about. Stories ranged from the job and housing market to education and the importance of religion.
Through a partnership with the college library called the Faculty-Librarian Partnership Program (FLPP), this research was made a bit easier for the students. Patricia McPherson, a Stonehill librarian and former newspaper reporter who worked on this project, crafted and posted a library guide of resources on the course learning management system for students. That resource provided students with links to primary source material related to the Great Migration, statistical sources for demographic information and repositories of local history material. Lists of suggested people for students to interview were also posted.
For the second article, students went to Messiah Baptist Church on a Sunday to meet and interview members of the congregation for a profile story. For more than three hours, students talked with seniors in the church hall for their stories. A few weeks later, the senior citizens came to the Stonehill College studio to tell their stories on camera. Students later uploaded the stories to a class blog created by McPherson, and the videos uploaded to a class YouTube channel linked to that blog. The students also created eBooks using the Book Creator app on the iPad. The PDFs of the eBooks were also printed and bound for the participants thanks to a grant from the college’s Center for Teaching and Learning.
Students later said going to the church and talking with the elders provided a unique perspective on racial issues and history. Hearing stories from people who experienced discrimination, who left homes and families in the South for what they hoped would be a better life, forced them to stop and reflect. Those who attended the Baptist church services as part of the project said it provided them a different view of the role of religion in a community – and how church can be fun.
In engaging in such community-based projects, we are adhering to the college’s mission, which reads in part: “Stonehill College educates the whole person so that each Stonehill graduate thinks, acts, and leads with courage toward the creation of a more just and compassionate world.”
This was the first of what we expect will be several projects students will be doing with this church. The goal will be to shatter students’ preconceived notions of race, religion and inner city stereotypes by putting a face—and providing a voice—to social issues.