Two years ago, D.C. high school student Isabella Ramos-Bracho took a class on the Great Migration. The most memorable part: meeting an actual Great Migrator. That was Edith Crutchfield, who was among the more than 5 million African Americans who left the rural South to move north in search of opportunity.
That meeting — and the oral-history interview that Ramos-Bracho conducted with Crutchfield — was part of a class called “Real World History” that’s open to all D.C. high-schoolers.
Cosby Hunt created the class in 2014 and teaches it with Max Peterson. When Hunt visits schools to encourage students to add to their busy schedules a challenging course that meets after school, he tells them: “The Great Migration is an important thing. Look it up in a textbook, and it maybe gets a page. But it’s the music we listen to, the food we eat, even the words we use. I’m inviting you to spend a year with me learning about the Great Migration.”
Every year, about 20 young people have accepted that invitation.
Peterson and Hunt work at the Center for Inspired Teaching, a nonprofit that helps teachers.
Students start off by reading “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Isabel Wilkerson’s book about the Great Migration. Reading about people, and their motivations and experiences, is one thing. Sitting across from them is another. That’s why the centerpiece of the class is preparing for, conducting and transcribing a 45- to 60-minute oral history.
How do they find a suitable interviewee?
“We, of course, encourage students to start with their own personal networks,” Hunt said. “Someone in your family may have been a part of this historical event.
“We’ve gotten a lot of success calling churches and asking whoever picks up the phone if they know anyone who’d fit that description. . . . We had one student who got on his bike on a rainy day and rode over to a church and knocked on the door. He told them about the class, and they connected him with Deacon Haywood.”
That’s Clarence Haywood, a deacon at New Bethel Church of God who moved to Washington from Georgia and enjoyed a long career in nursing.
Ramos-Bracho found Crutchfield through someone her mother works with. Now 84, Crutchfield moved to Washington in 1953, just after finishing high school in Culpeper, Va. In the time she spent with Ramos-Bracho, Crutchfield talked about the discrimination she faced, there and here.
“You don’t really feel things when you read it,” said Ramos-Bracho, now a senior at DC International School. “Seeing the look on her face, it felt painful for me as well.”
Reading that Black passengers had to move to the back of a bus is different from hearing about it from someone who experienced it. Or hearing about when such discrimination ended.
When I spoke with Crutchfield, she mentioned the first bus trip back to Culpeper that she and her younger sister Urie took after the Interstate Commerce Commission put an end to segregated seating.
“That was life-changing for me, to able to get on the Trailways bus and sit where I wanted, for which the driver was totally unprepared,” Crutchfield said.
The students learn that day-to-day experiences make up the broad sweep of history. Sometimes, they connect on a more personal level, comparing what is similar about their lives — and what is different.
Ramos-Bracho is an only child. Crutchfield is one of 10 sisters.
“That was pretty big,” said Ramos-Bracho.
“Real World History” students spend their second semester interning at a D.C. museum. They also visit the Phillips Collection, where they study Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series.
The students’ transcribed interviews are starting to go up at Dig DC, an online repository of the D.C. Public Library’s People’s Archive (what used to be Washingtoniana).
“We’re so excited to have stories of past generations told and collected by future generations,” said Laura Farley, digital curation librarian at the archive. “We have a lot of collections that tell the big stories of how D.C. came to be the place that it is today, some of the big political things that happened on the local level. We’re also really focused on telling the stories of everyday people in the District. This collection fits really well into this category.”
After moving to Washington, Crutchfield married and worked in the libraries of the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration. She got as much out of sharing her story as Ramos-Bracho did out of hearing it. She thinks other seniors would, too.
Said Crutchfield: “I told Max he should take it to the senior homes.”
Correction: This column incorrectly said the “Real World History” class was co-created by Cosby Hunt and Max Peterson. Hunt created it on his own. Clarence Haywood has been interviewed once by for the class, not twice. The name of Edith Crutchfield’s sister, Urie, was misspelled.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.