Have You Met an ACTivist Yet?

27, April 2017
Color photo of two ACTivist actor-interpreters portraying historic figures during an in-school visitACTivist actor-interpreters Peggy Harris and Merlin Bell portray Lucy Delaney and Charlton Tandy during an in-school visit.

Whether introducing new generations to St. Louis's civil rights legacy or reminding older ones of its existence, the ACTivists Project ensures the people and stories of our community's freedom struggle will not be forgotten. This theatre-based project is a counterpart to our #1 in Civil Rights exhibit.

Why theatre? Because it sparks empathy and emotional connection, which gets us thinking about things from more than just our own perspective. It also provides a strong shared experience that can help create a dialogue. Thanks to a generous grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, our ACTivist actor-interpreters are able to engage people with St. Louis’s civil rights story in the Museum and in local classrooms.

ACTivists in Schools

Color photo of an ACTivist in-school visit to the Missouri School for the BlindACTivist actor-interpreter Peggy Harris portrays Lucy Delaney on-site for students at the Missouri School for the Blind. Image courtesy of MSB.

Starting a month and a half before the exhibit even opened, our ACTivists have been going out to local schools to facilitate workshops and perform 20-minute plays about historic St. Louis activists, including:

  • Lucy Delaney, an enslaved 12-year-old girl who sued for (and won!) her freedom here in St. Louis but had to sit in a jail cell for two years while her case was tried
  • Charlton Tandy, a man who helped integrate St. Louis’s streetcars and create Sumner High School, the first African American high school west of the Mississippi River

Through these activities, students discover what it means to be activists, the power of their voices, and how they can be activists in their own lives.

Photo of two thank-you letters from students following their ACTivist in-school visitsThank-you notes from kindergarten students at Carondelet Leadership Academy.

In less than three months, more than 3,000 students have experienced an ACTivist in-school visit (with another 700 more booked before the end of the school year!). Of those students, over 1,000 were from a local school district that had recently cut field-trip funding. Our ACTivists were honored to bring history to them at a time when seeing the #1 in Civil Rights exhibit in person proved impossible.

One first-grade teacher from St. Louis Language Immersion Schools–The French School described her students’ experience as: “Wonderful! The storytelling was engaging for our first graders, and they had so many thoughtful questions as a result.”

ACTivists in the Gallery

Color photo of ACTivist actor-interpreter performing in the gallery as Pearl MaddoxACTivist actor-interpreter Linda Kenney portrays Pearl Maddox in the gallery for a group of high school students.

When K–12 students participate in our STL Civil Rights Legacy field-trip program here at the Museum, they also interact with an ACTivist in the gallery. The 1963 Jefferson Bank protests come alive as ACTivists help students imagine what it would have been like to be there, in part by teaching them protest songs such as “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Through this experience, students expand their thinking about what it means to protest, which also helps them connect the events of the past with those of the present. The lesson lingers too: We often hear students singing the protest songs throughout the rest of their program.

ACTivists are in the gallery every day, engaging with young and old alike and making history come alive in a way that only theatre can. Recently I was walking through the exhibit and caught the final minute of an ACTivist’s performance. She was portraying Margaret Bush Wilson, a St. Louis lawyer who was involved in the Jefferson Bank protests. After the performance, a woman raised her hand and said:

I am so glad I saw that. My mother was the first African American frontline staff at [the] Mercantile Bank at Lindell and Grand in the [19]60s. She worked with the security deposit boxes. When I was little, I remember the Jefferson Bank protests, but I didn’t know what it meant. Seeing this play really helped me connect what was happening then to what happened in my life. And to reaffirm my family’s story.

Hearing this, in addition to the feedback from students and teachers, is confirmation that the ACTivists Project—and #1 in Civil Rights as a whole—is succeeding in telling a story that often goes untold: that of St. Louis’s civil rights legacy.

—Rachel Crouch, K–12 Programs Coordinator

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