They were black, white, Latinx and Asian – the youngest a teenager, the oldest in her 80s, and they came from different economic brackets, different backgrounds, different experiences. The trip, which organizers named an “uncomfortable journey,” took them first to Montgomery, Ala., where they visited the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. It also took them to Selma, Ala., where together they walked across the Edmund Pettus bridge.
While the bus ride from Evanston to Montgomery took 16 hours, the participants began preparing in Evanston weeks before the departure date. Participants read books, including, “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson and “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo. Also, Gilo Logan and other facilitators led pre-trip meetings that included a ceremony to begin the spiritual journey and sparked the discussion.
“We provided an opening libation at both of the two pre-trip meetings. We had a pouring of libations to honor the ancestors, to honor the travelers’ individual interpretations of their creator, and to honor the purpose and power of the trip,” said Dr. Logan.
Dr. Logan said that, as a background to the libation ceremony, a drum was played continuously, representing the sound of a heartbeat. “The heartbeat equals life, which equals humanity, and is deeper than any differences, perceived or real, between us. It is the primordial sound shared by us all in the womb of our mothers.”
Asked what he sensed the trip participants were feeling at those pre-trip meetings, Dr. Logan said, “I would dare to say that people were feeling the whole array of human emotions – excitement, fear and concern and everything in between. We debriefed and discussed that. What did they need to be able to bring themselves to the whole experience?”
Dr. Logan said that though he knew the trip was going to be a powerful experience, and for many, transformative, the facilitators worked to manage expectations. “[The trip] is one step in the journey toward knowledge, justice, equity, understanding – one step. But yet, it was a big step,” said Dr. Logan.
Some of the trip’s participants traveled with family members. Kimberly Holmes-Ross, one of the organizers of the trip and Director of Community Engagement at Evanston Cradle to Career, traveled with her son, Nikko Ross, and her mother, Delores Holmes, a retired Evanston alderman. “We were three generations on the trip together. My mother was the oldest person on the trip,” said Ms. Holmes-Ross. “I said I didn’t think it was the trip for her; she had had knee surgery, but she was going. I didn’t get it until the Pettus Bridge. It was amazing – she lived during the times of segregation. She said, ‘We owe it to our ancestors. We haven’t come as far as we would have liked, but we’re still here.’ Then the light bulb went on for me.”
Since it was also Ms. Holmes-Ross’ son Nikko’s birthday weekend, she said, it was a “hard sell” with him, but that during the trip he got it and that it was a powerful experience for him. “He walked out of the museum a couple of times, but came back to it digest all.”
Another of the travelers, Leonard Gaines, a doctoral candidate at Garrett Theological Seminary, said he completed the tour of the museum, including its peace and justice area, but because of the intensity of the exhibits, “Some of my friends couldn’t take any more and didn’t finish.”
Speaking more about why he went on the trip, Mr. Gaines said, “My parents are from Georgia, and I wanted to find out information about what happened there. Also, I wanted to come together with a group of people from different backgrounds to try to make some sense of what happened historically in this country . . . I still haven’t unpacked everything that occurred.”
Anne Levy Brown talked about walking through the National Memorial and the power of the installations and exhibits. “The monuments [to the lynching victims] are at ground level and then the floor drops down and you see the monuments hanging. The imagery of that, in relationship to people being lynched . . . the way that the memorial makes visible and physical the number of people that were lynched in America was incredible – you know, really moving,” said Ms. Levy Brown. “It did a great job of illustrating the truth of what happened. It is an opportunity to face the fact of some of the horrors in our nation’s past and deal with them.”
Ms. Holmes-Ross said that even though she had read about the museum and memorial online, there was nothing like experiencing it. “It was the raw, ugly truth of American history right in your face, up close and personal. At the same time, I’m so glad that we were able to assemble such a diverse group to go. I do know that everyone experienced it on a different level. There was so much to take in. I’m still digesting all that we saw. It was so impactful.”
Ms. Levy Brown volunteers at Kingsley Elementary where her sons go to school, co-facilitating a group called Parent Conversations About Race at Kingsley. She said that when she signed up for the trip, she thought it would be an intense three days. As she prepared, reading the books and participating in the pre-trip meeting, she realized that it was going to be even more intense than she had expected.
“We developed agreements for how we would interact on the trip. We thought about interacting in a way that was positive and wouldn’t harm anyone and that would really create community . . .” said Ms. Levy Brown. “. . . thinking, as a white woman, how does my whiteness influence my position on this trip and how can I be respectful of others on the trip. Having that reinforced was very important because of different places people are at in terms of awareness with white supremacy. It was important that there was grounding.”
Nina Kavin, Executive Director of Dear Evanston and one of the organizers of the trip, said there were many reasons that she wanted to do it. “Two years ago, I saw that Bryan Stevenson was building this memorial. The minute I saw it I said, ‘I’m going and taking people from Evanston,’ and I posted on Facebook and said, ‘When this is built, who’s in?’ All these people said, ‘I’m in.’ Finally
I said, ‘this is it,’ found some people to partner with and we did it.”
Ms. Kavin’s organization partners included Evanston Cradle to Career, Evanston Community Foundation and NAACP Evanston North Shore. In addition to Ms. Kavin, lead organizers were Ms. Holmes-Ross, Kathleen Long, Evan Bernstein Finamore and Jennifer Moran.
Ms. Kavin spoke about the significance of the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. “Up until now there has been no real museum and memorial to the brutality that was committed on Africans in America. There are monuments to the victims of atrocities in Germany and in South Africa, but in America up until now the monuments have been to perpetrators, the confederates. This country hadn’t done it until now,” said Ms. Kavin. “It was a mission, I needed to go see it and wanted to do it in community – the way we went – not just as a homogeneous group.”
Asked what she believes will happen next for the group and with all the goodwill that has come of it, Tosha Wilson, who made the trip with her sister, said that she wasn’t sure, then added “But I do know that the conversation is there – free to have. We created a safe space for ourselves, to where if I want to express anger or joy I can, whether people agree with it or not. I do think that the conversation is step one. Now we’ve done that, we have to go out and gather the rest of the community.”
Ms. Wilson, an Evanston police officer, said she had faith in Evanston and that that’s why she wanted to be on the trip. “In my opinion, this is so Evanston to do a community thing to address the hard topics. I didn’t want to just hear about it. I wanted to be there . . . I don’t see another community where there’s white, black, old, young doing this. In Evanston, people want to understand you and want to feel safe.” But she also noted that it is going to take the entire Evanston community to move forward.
Ms. Kavin said while the trip was not planned to coincide with the broader community discussions about equity and reparations, she is mindful of the fact that it did. “I hope that our journey in its small part can help to support whatever equity and reparations initiatives are going forward,” said Ms. Kavin. “I don’t know how this would have played out in another community – in a suburban community that is more homogenous. It shows that a lot of Evanstonians want to do better and be better and want to understand what black people have lived through. Still, many white Evanstonians just don’t do enough to work towards an inclusive city. I was grateful that this journey reflected inclusivity.”
“This trip tells me that Evanston has the mindset and heart to get this race thing – we’re on the right track to getting it right,” said Ms. Holmes-Ross. “To have so many white people go and care and want to find out and want to own what American history is. We can’t deal with the present if we don’t deal with what happened in the past – we can’t pretty it up, we have to know where this comes from. We’re confronting racism.”
Mr. Gaines said he is looking forward to a post-trip meeting and other gatherings. “We had conversation on the bus, but I want to gather what it was like for those of different backgrounds. How did they feel? There was a learning experience for them as well,” said Mr. Gaines. “How do they feel and what does it mean as far as changing their perspective on people of color in America. Can’t tell you fully until we have the post-meeting, that will shape more how I feel about the total experience. I didn’t think it would touch me that much and it did.”
“On the way home, in our bus, there was such a bond – people felt such a bond. They started telling their stories, they were writing poems and reading them,” said Ms. Kavin. “It felt to me like the black folks on the bus were appreciative of white people that had learned more about their history – and the acknowledgement that they felt supported. That was really beautiful to me.”