Advertise - Print Edition

Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Fellowship recipient researches civil rights

Published: September 12, 2014
Section: News

Following a transformative summer researching the intimate history of the civil rights movement in Mississippi, Aja Antoine commences her sophomore year with a newfound appreciation for the collaborative potential of research and the unique experiences of her peers. Under the mentorship of Professor David Cunningham of the Department of Sociology, Antoine participated in the Justice Brandeis Semester program “Civil Rights and Educational Equity in the US.”

When asked to describe the most challenging aspect of her research, Antoine pointed to the pain of its conclusion. “I suppose I feel that at the end of this program I’m going to have this small void, I’ll have the need to fill. And I will be really disappointed with myself if I don’t continue, in some small way, some of the work that I’ve been exposed to during the course of this program,” she confessed.

Luckily, this fear has proven unfounded, as Antoine will be continuing her research as a recipient of a prestigious scholarship from the Schiff Undergraduate Fellows Program.
Antoine’s research, which focused particularly on the tactics employed by activists advocating for the desegregation of the education system during the civil rights movement, took her into the heart of racial tension and the struggle for equality.

Identifying as an African-American female who experienced the southern educational system firsthand, she explained her personal investment in the project. “Racial inequity resonates with my personal education as a student who was frequently one of the only African-Americans in my classes growing up in Northwest Florida,” she stated. During the 2013 National Race Amity Conference in Norwood, MA, Antoine also had the opportunity to meet William Forest Winter, the 57th governor of Mississippi, further fueling her interest in the JBS program and the civil rights movement.

Antoine focused in particular on the actions of Wednesdays in Mississippi, an interracial organization which she explains “sent women from northern cities to Mississippi during the mid-1960s to promote cross-regional communication, observe the various efforts to elevate Mississippi’s black residents from second-class citizenship and act as a quieting influence in areas of racial tension.”

During the course of the program, Antoine became fascinated by the work of activist Ruth Batson, which she stumbled across in the Radcliffe Institute’s archive at Harvard University. Titled “Black Educational Movement in Boston, a Sequence of Historical Events: A Chronology,” the thousand-page source traces the desegregation of public schools in Boston while depicting the personal and collective experiences during the struggle for equality between the 1950s and 1970s.

“I spent about a week reading this chronology, and I can honestly say it was one of the most enlightening experiences of my summer. During that week, I felt that I was connecting intimately with both Boston’s history as it relates to Boston’s Educational Movement and Ruth Batson as a community organizer and human being,” Antoine revealed.

Professor Cunningham noted Antoine’s deep connection to Batson’s work, stating “Exhaustively poring through Mrs. Batson’s papers and writings allowed Aja to deeply understand her efforts to gain some measure of equity for students of color in Boston schools, and how those efforts were impacted by direct connections to the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement.”

Under the guidance of Cunningham, the JBS program allowed Antoine and other participating students to meet with civil rights veterans, search for primary documents, become exposed to southern culture and engage in citywide scavenger hunts.

When asked to expand on the most rewarding aspect of her research, Antoine referred to the connections she formed with individuals at Brandeis and in Mississippi, stating “I think those relationships created through a common interest in social justice, education and civil rights transcended generational, experiential and racial boundaries.”

Antoine credits Cunningham with her realization that research can be not only exciting, but profound, as well. She stated, “It has the capacity to enrich your life on multiple dimensions and the ripples of that enrichment can lead to infinite personal and academic possibilities.”

Cunningham described his experience working with Antoine, saying, “Aja epitomizes the promise of JBS. She has fantastic instincts for research and an expansive sense of the value of such work. In particular, she understands and appreciates how working within communities can build connections that can make a real difference.”

As a recipient of the Schiff Undergraduate Fellows Program scholarship, Antoine will be continuing her research, looking to activist Ruth Batson, who fought for educational equality for black students in Boston, and her connection to WIMS in Mississippi to demonstrate direct parallels between the northern and southern campaigns of the civil rights movement.

Planning to major in sociology, Antoine points to the transformative effect of her research on her own personal development as a student. “Sitting in classes now, after having the unique set of experiences I had this summer, I do feel like a different student. I see the possibility for deeper connections with the students who I learn with,” she said. Pointing to the collaborative potential of her peers, each of whom brings a unique set of perspectives and beliefs to the table, she concluded, “I know that other than the clothes and books I shipped to campus my freshman year, I also brought with me 18 years of experience in my own skin.”