COE Social Science Grads help students document cemetery, get hands-on with history


Thanks to a couple of outstanding COE Social Science Education grads and their students at Auburn Junior High School, Auburn’s Baptist Hill Cemetery, drenched in the mysteries and histories of Auburn’s black community dating back to the 1870s, is being researched and documented while getting the care and respect it has always deserved. 

As part of our state’s bicentennial celebration, ALABAMA 200 awarded a series of grants that focused on connecting schools to their communities. Drew Morgan, a COE Social Science Education grad and Auburn City Schools Secondary Teacher of the Year for 2015-16, heard about the opportunity and began looking for an engaging topic. 

Tree and head stone with a cross only in Baptist Hill Cemetery

“I’m really big on Alabama history so I was interested,” Morgan said. “I had been thinking and thinking about what we could do that would allow our students to learn research and writing skills, but also learn about our community and feel a deeper connection to it through service. I was driving to school early one morning and went past a place I see every day: Baptist Hill Cemetery on Dean Road. I knew right away this is what we could work on.” 

Morgan developed the proposal and won the grant. He and his colleagues at AJHS, including Social Science Ed grad and James Madison Fellowship winner Caitlin Halperin, selected 20 students to become part of the team that would work on the project. They intentionally chose students from a wide range of abilities. 

“This class meets for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, at the end of the school day, so we really needed a group that would work well together and benefit from such a unique project,” Morgan said. “We had teacher recommendations and some of the students we already knew, but what they all have in common is that they are hard workers. We also wanted these students to accurately reflect the makeup of our school, and I think we got that. These students have been on it since day one.” 

I had been thinking and thinking about what we could do that would allow our students to learn research and writing skills, but also learn about our community and feel a deeper connection to it through service. 

Researching and documenting the cemetery is challenging because much of its history comes from oral traditions, with few reliable written sources. As a result, Morgan knew the project would help his students develop research, writing, and critical thinking skills. 

Two young students cleaning a gravestone

“I have always believed in project based learning, kind of getting your hands dirty as you discover truths about history, and this project seemed to have every element we could hope for,” he said. “Plus, it allows our students to give back to Auburn by uncovering information we have lost along the way. The city is exploding with growth so the time is now to make this important contribution to the historical record. Our students are learning how history is written by going straight to the source.” 

Keystone joined the students in the cemetery on a recent spring day as they were learning to properly clean headstones using a mild acid wash, toothbrush scrubbers, and water. The students worked in teams, and were assigned to different parts of the cemetery. Each student was also able to clean the grave of the person he or she had been researching. 

The students have uncovered many accomplishments of Auburn’s black citizens from days gone by. Such examples include military stalwarts. There are Baptist Hill soldiers from the 92nd Army Division, which was the only all-black unit to see actual combat in World War I. There are also Spanish-American War veterans buried here. We see social history, such as that represented by Marvin Hutchinson, who moved north to work in the steel mills as part of the Great Migration, only to be drafted into World War I. 

“These are the kinds of histories that students can learn more deeply when it is hands-on, or project based learning,” Morgan said. “It’s one thing to read about the Great Migration in a book. It’s another to learn about one of its real people and to clean his grave with your own hands.” 

Group of three participants

Ja’Nija Gauntt was one of those students. “I have loved this from the start,” she said. “I like the stories of the people we researched, and to go back in time and see their accomplishments. There is a lot of history here but it is hard to find. When I came up on the grave of the man I had been researching it was a different feeling. I really respected him.” 

Trey Nelms has also grown from the project. “This has been a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s a learning experience, but it’s also a chance to get closer to your friends and teachers as part of a team working toward a common goal. I have learned how African Americans helped shape Auburn. And I have definitely improved my research and writing skills. Writing biographical pieces now comes easy, which has improved my social studies essay skills.” 

Nelms is a good student who has always wanted to attend Auburn and study engineering. “That’s my goal, but after this project it makes me want to learn history and be a teacher. Doing this made me see things in a whole new way. I’m part of the extended Dowdell family so a lot of my relatives are buried here. I now feel like a part of all that.” 

I really love that we have combined solid scholarship with service to our community. That’s been the goal all along. 

Morgan said although most of the work has been done in the computer lab, it has been good to focus on doing research in a single, local place of historical significance. 

“The kids have really taken ownership of this,” he said. “It’s been a great project and I hope we can continue it next year. We have been together every day, all year. It’s become kind of like family. We have formed very close relationships. I really love that we have combined solid scholarship with service to our community. That’s been the goal all along.” 

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