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Sandy Spring Friends students tackle themes of civil rights, social justice and love

by Terri Hogan

Senior Staff Writer

Marking the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia in 2017, students at Sandy Spring Friends School have immersed themselves in learning about the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage.

All students were assigned to read about Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, a black woman, who both resided in Caroline County, Va.

“I knew a little about the Lovings before reading the book,” said Anjali Shah, a fifth-grader, who said her parents come from different racial backgrounds. “When I heard we were reading this book I was really excited because I can, in some ways, relate to the book. It gave me more perspective of what my family would have gone through. It made me feel happy for what I have and made me appreciate what the Lovings went through.”

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter married in Washington, D.C., in 1958 and returned home. The following month, they were arrested for miscegenation.

The Lovings were tried, pleaded guilty and were sentenced to one year in prison, with the sentence suspended on the condition that the couple leave the state and not return together for at least 25 years.

The Lovings appealed their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1967 ruled unanimously that state bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional.

 

A ‘powerful’ lesson

 

Every other year, Sandy Spring Friends School (SSFS) students participate in an all-school Community Read project. This year’s Community Read was focused on the Lovings’ story, as told through two age-appropriate books.

The Lower School students read “The Case for Loving” by Selina Alko and
illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko.

Faculty, staff, and Middle and Upper School students read “Loving vs. Virginia” by Patricia Hruby Powell.

“Both versions were excellent books, well-written and able to spark meaningful, age-appropriate discussions with faculty and students around race, civil rights and social justice,” said Johanna Cowie, Friends School librarian. “It was important to choose a book that was short/easy enough for someone who doesn’t like to read, yet ‘deep enough’ to get a depth of understanding.”

The book selection also had to appeal to a wide age range, from children as young as three years old to adults.

Cowie said the preschoolers read and discussed the book in their classroom.

“They learned that this family just wanted to love each other and live together, and that should be okay,” Cowie said.

Families were encouraged to read and talk about the books together.

Cowie said that over the course of the school year, students have interacted with the political implications of the Lovings’ struggle and the Supreme Court case and looked at the importance and craft of telling difficult stories.

Patricia Hruby Powell, Selina Alko and Sean Quals visited the school and discussed their books with students.

“Of the numerous schools I’ve visited, Sandy Spring might be my favorite,” Powell said.

“English students asked questions that challenged me, the dancers were receptive and hard-working, the assembly facility could have been a Ted Talk hall, and the grounds are inviting and relaxing. I felt so welcomed by everyone.”

Alko and Quals, a husband-and-wife author-illustrator team, were equally as impressed, calling their presentation at Sandy Spring Friends School a “true pleasure.”

“We had amazing discussions all day long with students in a range of ages, but found our time with the eighth-graders especially moving,” they said. “Our picture book seemed to be a perfect entry point to having an open and honest talk about race and civil rights.”

During the fall, families attended an outdoor screening of the 2016 movie “Loving.”

Also in the fall, the books were incorporated as part of Community Day, where all students were divided into multi-age groups to worship, complete service projects, play games and do crafts.

The theme was: “How does going to a school with a diverse student body impact your school experience? How would school be different if everyone looked and sounded like you? “

In January, court reporter Lyle Denniston, grandfather of two SSFS students, spoke about his 58 years covering the Supreme Court without missing a case. His talk included a discussion of Loving v. Virginia and other landmark cases, including the more recent “wedding cake” case, where a baker refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple getting married.

Alan Burd, a junior, said that was one his favorite events of the year.

“Lyle Denniston shared his experience in a way we hadn’t heard before, so it was really enlightening,” he said.

Also in January, NPR’s Korva Coleman moderated a panel featuring local community members who shared their experiences of interracial marriage in the D.C. area spanning the 50 years since the Loving v. Virginia decision.

Immersion Week took place in March, with offerings inspired by Loving vs. Virginia. Students chose from workshops such as 1960’s fashion, hip hop and social justice, civics in action, storytelling through poetry and Southern food.

Upper School students were required to create a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ruling, using any medium.

Chandler Grier, a seventh-grader, made a clay sculpture inspired by a photograph of Richard and Mildred Loving.

Taryn Schwartz, also a seventh-grader, said her project involved a pond, silhouettes and a clock, representing how long it took from the time the Lovings got married to when the Supreme Court ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional.

The books were well-received by the students, many of whom read both of the selections.

Fifth-grader Alli Markus said the summer reading books are always good, but this year’s selection was “super interesting” because the school stresses social justice and fairness and that everyone is equal.

Charlie Ambrose, a fifth-grader, said reading the book put into perspective that not so long ago, interracial marriage was illegal.

Dallas Chisolm, a fifth-grader, called the book “powerful.”

“I already knew that people of color were not treated the same as white people,” he said. “This needed to be fixed. They did fix it, but it still needs work.”

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