By TMoM Team Member Laura Simon
Located right here in the Triad, the International Civil Rights Museum creates an impactful learning experience for children and adults alike. Gracing a quiet side street in downtown Greensboro, the museum is located in the former Woolworth’s storefront where the original four North Carolina A&T students staged the first sit-in. The lunch counter is preserved in its original state inside the museum, and its surrounded by exhibits devoted to the ongoing struggle for freedom and equality.
I chose to take my kids (ages 10, 9 and 6) with me on the visit because it’s important for them to understand their responsibilities as Americans. We spent a lot of time reading stories about Brown vs Board of Education and Rosa Parks, so they walked in prepared to a certain degree. They had dates and context; the museum made the history hit home. I recommend doing the same if you take your kids. This is not a museum where you touch things and play; there’s a lot of reading, watching, and listening, and it helps if their minds know what to expect. (Plus they do not allow photos so unfortunately I am not able to share visuals of all the amazing exhibits!)
Because of Covid, docent-guided tours have been suspended, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a meaningful experience. Instead of a tour guide, you’ll start your tour with a video recorded by several of the guides. It’s brilliantly done, and it feels like watching a well-done documentary. The video takes you through each part of the museum and supplements the tour guides with actual video footage. There’s a dramatic retelling of the A&T students planning the sit-in (this was not an impulse decision for them) and another of the actual event.
As you walk through the museum after the video, you can read stories of Civil Rights heroes, both well-known and obscure. Be prepared to read a lot – out loud to younger children. And be prepared to explain. It’s hard for kids to wrap their minds around the injustice they see in these stories. They’ll see real water fountains with real discriminatory signs. A lenticular picture changes as you walk past, vividly depicting the difference between a white classroom and a black classroom in the era of Jim Crowe A series of guidebooks help African-Americans travel by providing lists of hotels, restaurants, and boarding houses that will serve them. It can be jarring and hard to take in.
The lunch counter is impressively preserved in its original spot in the store. It’s not hard to imagine the hustle and bustle of shoppers while the young men sat and waited. Throughout the museum, you’ll find echoes of the store it once was.
There are some graphic pictures, particularly in the part of the exhibit devoted to Emmett Till. The museum employees did an excellent job of preparing me for what my kids would see. The video tour is much less graphic, but ultimately I didn’t want to cut out the ugly parts of history. If we go again when tour guides are available, we’ll take that part of the tour.
Also, plan for conversation on the way home. This might be the most valuable part of your day. Our 45-minute drive home was intense, with lots of questions about what they saw and lots of new realizations. One child insisted he would just call the police if someone treated him that way. It was a big learning experience to be told that many of the police were also in the Klan. Little by little, we chipped away at their assumptions about justice. It was hard. And so important.
If you decide to go, here’s a few things to know:
~ Affordable parking is available at the Greene Street Parking deck. The first hour is free, and you’ll pay $1 for every hour thereafter. The walk to the museum is only one block.
~ Allow 2-3 hours. My kids – especially my 6-year-old – weren’t up for reading every single thing, and we were still there for a solid two hours.
~ Covid protocols were followed and there’s plenty of space to spread out. This is actually a good, safe learning experience in these times.
~ Bathrooms are clean and easily accessible.
~ Consider learning styles when you decide when to visit. My kids don’t get a ton of technology, so the video was actually very engaging. If your kids like interacting with others, it might be a good idea to wait for guided tours to resume.
~ No food or drink is permitted in the museum, so finish your coffee beforehand or down it in the lobby. Also, fortify your children with snacks in order to avoid a hangry meltdown in the gift shop.
~ The gift shop is full of great resources, from children’s books to graphic novels. We purchased a book called Freedom on the Menu that tells the story of the sit-in from the perspective of a child. It’s been a great learning tool and conversation starter in our household.
Go. This is such a prominent part of civil rights history and it’s right here in our backyard.
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