04/23/2013 01:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2013

High School Students Celebrate Emancipation Jubilee -- and Look to the Future

A giant portrait of Frederick Douglass stared down at the audience of about three hundred high school students, mostly from Long Island schools, who gathered in the Hofstra University student center to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The Emancipation Jubilee opened with a rap by Brooklyn-based rapper Reeces Pieces (aka Hofstra University Professor Alan Singer). The "resistance rap," included at the end of this post, summarized the history of the emancipation struggle and drew on an 1843 speech by Black abolitionist Reverend Henry Highland Garnet at an emancipation rally in Buffalo, New York.

Students from the Hofstra social studies education program presented a play, "Grand Emancipation Jubilee," that they helped to develop based on newspaper articles and speeches from the original emancipation celebrations in January 1863. As part of the production, Danny Watson, an Air Force veteran preparing for a second career as a secondary school teacher, led the cast and audience in a series of gospel tunes and freedom songs. "Speakers" included Frederick Douglass, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, two escaped slaves, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. who explained why the 1963 march was a continuation of the emancipation struggle.

After the play, three students from the Hofstra University Department of Speech Communication, Rhetoric, and Performance Studies presented historical reenactments and Professor Michael D'Incennzo of the History Department, who worked with Martin Luther King, discussed his experiences in the Civil Rights movement.

However, the most important part of the celebration was yet to come. Long Island is a hodge-podge of 124 racially, ethnically, and economically segregated school districts and students rarely have any experience crossing these divides. The 300 students, from Wheatley High School in East Williston, Wyandanch Memorial HS, Hastings Academy Alternative High School in Baldwin, East Meadow High School, Uniondale High School, Garden City High School, the Uniondale Cornelius Court Alternative School, and the Bronx Design and Construction Academy, separated into diverse groups of twenty-five students each to discuss the presentations and two fundamental questions that will affect their futures.

One hundred and fifty years since the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation, has the United States healed its racial divide?

Can we create a society where all men and women are fundamentally equal?

Student teachers from the Hofstra program facilitated an ice-breaker where the high school students gave their name, age, school and something interesting about themselves, an activity that took away some anxiety about speaking about race. While many of the high school students were reticent to speak at the beginning, as they warmed to each other, their comments were perceptive and sharp.

A Uniondale student, from a school where almost all of the students are Black and Latino, explained that in her high school, she only saw people like herself. She had no chance to speak with people from other backgrounds, to learn to work with them, and to figure out a better future. Another Uniondale student said she felt the Treyvon Martin case symbolizes race relations in the United States today. People fear each other and this especially affects Black youth. A Black male student described how he had been stopped and frisked by the police.

Students from the Bronx school and from East Williston, an affluent Long Island community, commented on economic disparities in the United States. One of the Bronx students said that "it costs so much to run for President, no wonder business has so much power." An East Williston student agreed, "so many things benefit the few over the many." Jose Ortiz, one of the student teachers from Hofstra joined the discussion and explained how when he was young and living in Brooklyn he could not do simple things like go to the library to use the Internet or cross the street to the park by himself because the neighborhood was poor and dangerous.

A White student from East Meadow felt that this was a democratic country, but if people do not start with the same opportunities, there really is not equality and some people are condemned to the bottom of the economic pile. A Black student from the same school said she gave up on watching the news because she felt television coverage of events only strengthened stereotypes. "I am not those stereotypes. That is not who I am. I will not let them define me!"

Overwhelmingly, students said that they were hopeful that change is possible, that things have changed, but not enough. A White student in one of the groups said that some of her relatives might still be racist, but that is not her or how she feels about people.

In the final plenary session over pizza I tried to respond to student comments and questions. In closing, as Professor Singer rather than as Reeces Pieces, I said, "You are not responsible for where you were born, where you live, and where you go to school. But you are responsible for the future you help to build. We organized today because we felt an understanding of the past and the ability to discuss the present with each other, would give you the possibility of deciding to work to create a more equal and social just future."

Resistance Rap
Time to tell the truth
'Bout freedom and slavery
Lincoln gets the credit, but set nobody free.

Abe says emancipate
Proclamate Blacks in the south
But they stay en-slaved in the northern house

Thank A-bo-li-tion-ists
Black and White made the fight
Pushed Lincoln and north to do what's right.

In freedom's Hall of Fame
The heroes of liberty are named
And those who enslaved the Blacks they are blamed.

Remember them well.
Life at risk they passed the test.
Frederick Douglass and all the rest.

White brothers Tappan
Brave Seward, Greeley, and Smith
Risk fame and fortune to end the abyss.

Hail to the fighters
Tubman, Lougen and Ward,
Northup, Brown, Jacobs, and Highland Garnet.

We have the power
Heaven calls on you to arise
Let your motto be Resistance! Resistance! Resistance!

Garnet told his people
Heaven calls on you to arise
Let your motto be Resistance! Resistance! Resistance!