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Sankofa Pathways to Peace Pilgrimage focuses on learning from the past with slavery, Civil Rights Movement, to inform the future

Participants visited historic sites in Alabama related to slavery, Civil Rights Movement

Christian Brothers College High School participants including, from left: Matthew Mahaffey, CBC chaperone and teacher; Julian Anderson; Nikolas Washington; Elijah Washington; Jayden Littlejohn-Hill; Clayton Washington; Christian Mason; Timothy Willis; and Aaron Walker (kneeling) in front of the statue of Martin Luther King Jr. at Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama.
Photo Credits: Photo by James Watts
Sankofa is an African principle that encourages learning from the past to inform the future. Its translation is rooted in a proverb of the Akan Tribe of Ghana: “Se wo were fi na wosan kofa a yenkyiri,” which means: “It is not taboo to go back for what you left behind.”

Catholic high school students who attended the second annual Sankofa Pathways to Peace Pilgrimage put that principle into action when they visited several historical sites Sept. 22-25 in Birmingham and Montgomery, Alabama, related to the slave trade, violence during the Reconstruction era, racial segregation and the Civil Rights Movement and mass incarceration. The pilgrimage was organized by the archdiocesan Office of Racial Harmony.

Their first stop was the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, which traces the evolution of enslavement to the Civil Rights Movement through modern-day mass incarceration. The museum is located near what was formerly one of the most active slave auction sites in the United States.

Participants were asked to reflect through journaling on what they learned and how it made them feel. Jayden Littlejohn-Hill, a sophomore at Christian Brothers College High School, said the museum broadened his knowledge of slavery. He learned about the contributions of slave labor to the development of New York City. Enslaved people cleared forest land for the construction of Broadway, for example, and were among the workers who built the wall for which Wall Street is named, he said.

What Jayden noticed the most among those who were enslaved was a strong sense of resilience. “At every museum and stop we made, the main message was that every person in that community stuck together and were able to overcome differences that they went through,” he said. “They leaned on each other’s shoulders and relied on each other.”

In addition to the pilgrims from CBC, students from Villa Duchesne High School, Visitation Academy, Cardinal Ritter College Prep High School and the youth group at St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in south St. Louis participated in the experience.

Students attended Mass on Sunday morning at Resurrection Church in Montgomery. Pastor Father Manuel Williams, CR, a well-known revivalist throughout the United States who specializes in African-American Catholic spirituality, was the main celebrant and homilist. Several students noted that the parish’s rich African-American culture was evident in the preaching, music and hospitality of parishioners.

At Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, students met Deacon Jacky Rodgers, who was part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which conducted sit-ins to protest the racial segregation of restaurants in the 1960s. The park served as a central staging ground for large-scale demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Villa Duchesne High School senior Nadia Pagan said a common theme she observed was looking toward a positive outcome from the history that has preceded us. “We came from slavery, but this is where we are now,” she said. “It was good to talk through all of this history, but also to see that this is where we stand today.”

Other sites pilgrims visited included the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the site of a 1963 bombing by members of the Ku Klux Klan that became a major catalyst in the Civil Rights Movement.

“We made it clear that we were on a journey,” said Joyce Jones, director of the Office of Racial Harmony. “For me, it was not a trip to form activists. This trip was about forgiveness, reconciliation, understanding and acknowledging, so that we can move forward in Christian love. We want to look to the past, bring forward what is useful for the present and look toward the future.”

Several adult leaders at Saint Louis Priory School attended with the intention of bringing students next year. Jon-Pierre Mitchom, director of equity and inclusion, said he observed the Catholic Social Teaching principle of solidarity in action.

“This was an opportunity for students to historically see how we have sinned against each other,” he said. “Since the very beginning, in the midst of the pain and the trauma, we see a remnant of folks for who stand up for what’s right and true, and that is our story today. (The pilgrimage) allowed students to make connections with here and now and the past.”

Taking an honest account of our past and being generous with others and ourselves leads to an ability to show honor through humility, he said. “It’s about honoring people’s human dignity. Our solution to healing in the present and embracing a positive future is found in some ways in our past. If we can do that work, especially in the Church, we can be an example to the rest of the Church.”

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