Summer Sizzles: Lifelong learner Sarah McDowell

For this week’s Summer Sizzles, we share how Sarah McDowell, chair of the History department, spent a portion of her summer as both a student and a teacher. Immersive visits to historic sites are one of the best ways for a teacher to learn about how complex stories are transmitted. Seeing museums, memorials, and monuments central to our American story helps shine a light on other perspectives and enriches a teacher’s ability to teach students how to think critically. Ms. McDowell applied for and earned a grant from the Agnes and Sophie Agnes Irwin Fund to travel to Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana to learn first-hand how the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the history of enslavement are taught in that part of the country. She saw powerful commemorations of the Civil Rights Movement, including a visit to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, and the new National Park Service site, Forks of the Road in Natchez, MS, which was the site of one of the largest slave markets in the United States prior to the Civil War. But she also saw first-hand how buildings and statues celebrate the Confederacy and downplay the history of enslaved people.

In addition to this enriching trip, Ms. McDowell has continued her fifth summer of working as the assistant director for the Social Justice Research Academy at Penn. Led by Penn professor Scott Hanson, talented high school students enroll in a three-week program to study the complexities of social justice. They have an opportunity to interact with leaders who are working in-the-trenches on these important issues and culminate their studies with a capstone research project


For a full first-person narrative of her trip to the South, see Ms. McDowell's write-up below:

This summer I was able to use a generous grant I received from the Agnes and Sophie Agnes Irwin fund to travel to civil rights sites in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. How Americans tell our history is a matter of hot debate in the public sphere right now, and I was really interested in seeing how the history of the Civil Rights Movement as well as the history of enslavement is currently being told in the American South. 

In Alabama, I was able to visit many really moving commemorations of the Civil Rights Movement, including the Equal Justice Foundation Legacy Museum and Memorial in Montgomery, the National Civil Rights Museum and Fred Shuttlesworth's Historic Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, along with a number of other fascinating civil rights sites, some of them very recently created. The story told was rich in detail and really inspiring. 

In Natchez, Mississippi I was able to see a story of America that is in flux. One antebellum mansion had recently put up placards frankly discussing slavery and explaining what the lives of the enslaved people in the house might have been like, but it was clearly a recent addition. Forks of the Road Natchez National Historical Site, a new National Park Service designation this summer, commemorates one of the biggest slave markets in the United States before the Civil War. Natchez seemed like a city that is currently making an effort to tell a more complex story about its history.  

The Whitney Plantation, along the River Road in Louisiana, tells a brutally frank story of the experience of slavery. The purpose of the site is to commemorate the experiences of the enslaved, which they do with slave cabins, reminiscences of the enslaved, wanted posters for escapees, and a commemoration of the German Coast uprising, in which rebellious enslaved people were executed and their heads planted on pikes along the Mississippi. 

I also saw sites that tell story of America in a way that downplays slavery and celebrates the Confederacy. In the First White House of the Confederacy and the Alabama State House, there was no mention of slavery at all, at least that I saw.  Confederate statues line the road leading to the State House, and a bronze star commemorates where Jefferson Davis took the oath of office after secession. This version of American history exists in the same space as the Legacy Museum, which details the history of African Americans from enslavement through Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement.  


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Where did they go? What are they up to? Summer Sizzles features our SCH staff on the go and exploring their passions during the summer months.




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