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Travel On a trip to Alabama, I showed my teen son the history of the civil rights movement

Photograph by Heather Greenwood Davis

Most of the monologues that I deliver at my house start out as an attempt at conversation with my teens. I raise some issue in the news, mention a similar event from the past and within a few minutes, their glazed eyes tell me they’ve moved on to counting down the moments until they can return to their game of Fortnite.

It’s frustrating, but I get it.

I remember my own parents trapping me as I tried to tiptoe past them while they watched the evening news. Despite their insistence, I paid little attention to the major events of the day.

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This, despite being only a few years removed from the American Civil Rights movement of the sixties, being alive during Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle and being well into my teens when Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

Huge historical events were happening right before my eyes, but they felt as foreign to my life as the First World War lectures in my classroom.

Recent news events that have women’s marches, Black Lives Matter protests and a fight over the Ontario sexual-education curriculum as front-page news, feel like history revisited. But for my kids, despite the fact that these events will have a direct bearing on what they learn, how they’re treated and who they become, it’s the equivalent of being trapped to watch the evening news.

Add social-media streams that make it possible for them to avoid any news that feels un-fun, and you have a generation of teens who may be even more removed from historical lessons than I was.

If I was going to get their attention, I’d need to shake things up. So, in June, I took Cameron, my 13-year-old son, to Alabama.

Maybe, if he stepped into the places where civil-rights history was made, he’d have a greater sense of its importance. My timing couldn’t have been better. The US Civil Rights Trail was launched earlier this year and highlights more than 100 sites across 14 states that were pivotal to the movement. In Alabama alone, there are 28.

We start our tour in Birmingham. The corner of 16th Street and 6th Avenue North where we meet our tour guide, historian Barry McNealy, is central to any civil-rights discussion. Behind us is the Civil Rights Institute – part museum, part gallery and part historical archive. But the church across from us is what drew me here.

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Photograph by Heather Greenwood Davis

On Sept. 15, 1963, in Birmingham, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. Inside, four school girls – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair – were killed as they prepared for Sunday school.

Three of the girls were 14 years old. The other was 11.

As McNealy tours us through the church and tells the story of the girls, I watch it register with my son. But then McNealy says something I hadn’t heard before: The girls weren’t the only ones in the church that day.

Upstairs, Carolyn Maull, a 14-year-old Sunday school secretary was in the church office. When the phone rang that morning with a warning of a bomb blast in three minutes, it was she who answered. And when it exploded, blowing her off her feet and killing the girls below, she survived.

Photograph by Heather Greenwood Davis

McNealy continues the tour by leading us across the street to the monument for the girls in Kelly Ingram Park.

There, we stop to hear how Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived after the blast, rallied the children of Birmingham and set them out on what would become known as the Children’s Crusade. Children, by some reports as young as six, would leave the church, 50 at a time, with an intention to protest segregated lunch counters, shops and buildings. Most didn’t get farther than this park; met by armed tanks, high-pressure firehoses and dogs sent by the Birmingham police.

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Standing in the spot where it happened sends chills across my skin. There were children the same age as Cameron who were knocked to the ground in this park. There were parents just like me who had to watch it happen.

At the time, the news accounts of this march would lead to an international uproar and become a pivotal moment in the movement. As we listen to McNealy, a woman passing the group stops and says hello. McNealy introduces her as “Ms. Carolyn McKinstry.” She offers quick pleasantries and continues across the street.

Photograph by Heather Greenwood Davis

McNealy seems surprised we aren’t more interested. He points at the church and repeats her first name as she leaves. The possibility hits Cameron and me at the same moment: This Carolyn is that Carolyn. Carolyn Maull is now Carolyn McKinstry. We say it out loud and McNealy nods in excitement. It was as if Rosa Parks had stepped off the local bus, said “Hello, I’m Rosa,” and then continued on to Costco.

I’m rendered speechless but Cameron springs into action. He takes off running and catches up to her down the street. From my frozen spot in the park, I watch them chat, hug and – as is required of any teen traveller – attempt to take a selfie. When that proves too tough, they stop a passerby (who we’d later find out is Andrea Taylor, the director and CEO of the Civil Rights Institute) to help. He returns to me beaming.

“That was her!” he says to me shaking his head in disbelief. “That was her.”

There isn’t a story we hear on the rest of our trip through Alabama that isn’t affected by that moment. This history isn’t age-old. It’s alive and breathing and waiting for us to meet it. My monologues have had a little more weight ever since.

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The writer’s trip to Alabama was supported in part by Brand USA, Alabama Travel, American Airlines and Marriott International. They did not review or approve this article.

Looking for ways to introduce your kids to hard-hitting subjects?

Connect the history of the place you’re visiting with something relatable

On our Civil Rights trip, historical events that involved kids his own age, made stories relevant for my son. Something as simple as an audiobook autobiography of a key historical figure can help to make a visit to a museum or historic place more relevant and relatable. Reading The Diary of Anne Frank before visiting Amsterdam will bring the book to life.

Find tours that offer interactive ways to explore the past

At the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, your family can snap a photo with one of their cameras, write down their thoughts on the importance of diversity, inclusion, the environment or reconciliation and add it to the photo exhibit wall.

At Pier 21 in Halifax, you can trace your own Canadian history through the archives. And in Rochester, N.Y., you can follow key moments in the Women’s Right movement simply by walking through the city’s neighbourhoods.

Look for exhibits that capture the emotion of an experience

At the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Ala., exhibits focus on the pathway from enslavement to mass incarceration. Down the road, you can also walk among 800 six-foot tall monuments at the National Memorial to lynching victims. As you walk past the columns they increase in distance from the ground, so that by the time you reach the middle, they are hanging hauntingly above you. At the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa, entrants are given a race identity card and your entrance experience to the museum is delivered accordingly.

Start at home

Dig into some of the history that may not have made it into your kids’ history class. The Quebec History X tour led by Francophone rapper Webster explores Black history in Quebec.

Learning that there were more than 4,000 slaves (a mix of First Nations people and Africans) in Quebec alone, is eye-opening.

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