By Linda Dunbar
A dozen Hotchkiss students participated in the Troutbeck Symposium on April 28-29 at the 250-acre Troutbeck estate in Amenia, NY. Inspired by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) conferences held in 1916 and 1933 at that location, the symposium was conceived by a local educator as a student-led collaboration focused on uncovering erased local history through student authored research papers, art exhibitions, and conversation.
This year’s event was the culmination of a nearly year-long project involving more than 150 local students from regional public and independent middle and high schools, including Hotchkiss. Student work from the symposium has enriched the scholarly understanding of local history and its ties to the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights movement by elevating previously unexplored paths.
After several months of investigation, thought, and discussion, participating students presented historical research regarding the significant role the Spingarn family, who owned Troutbeck at the time of the original conferences and who were ardent activists, played in the development of the NAACP and the Harlem Renaissance. Student work displayed at Troutbeck revealed stories of famous and lesser-known activists and revealed largely untold narratives centering the Northwestern Connecticut Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community from this region.
Hotchkiss student responses (see below) to being included in the symposium have been powerful and passionate. “When I learned that the foundational meetings of the NAACP occurred just ten minutes from campus, I knew that I wanted to be involved and learn about this rich history,” says Billy Meneses ’22.
“When I learned that the foundational meetings of the NAACP occurred just ten minutes from campus, I knew that I wanted to be involved and learn about this rich history,” says Billy Meneses ’22.
“I truly believe that this model of learning must be explored further, particularly for topics related to identity, as it invites critical thinking, collaborative learning, while encouraging students to ponder with empathy and humanity as they consider the works of their peers.”
Annie Dong ’23
One of the first Hotchkiss staff members to join the symposium planning was Joan Baldwin, Hotchkiss’s curator of special collections, who was instrumental in bringing the initiative to the School and recruited additional staff to participate, including Kim Gnerre, assistant director of the Edsel Ford Memorial Library. Gnerre was the force behind the “LibGuide,” a research resource designed to be a hub for inquiry. Another faculty member to join the initiative enthusiastically was Brad Faus, Marie S. Tinker Chair, director of the art program, instructor in art, visual and performing arts, and 30-year veteran of the School. He encouraged his students to lend visual interpretation to their investigation of the history of the NAACP and Harlem Renaissance connected to Troutbeck. Rhonan Mokriski, history teacher at the Salisbury School and lead faculty organizer of the event, enlisted area schools and encouraged a student-led, multidisciplinary approach focused on “making students learners by doing.”
Visiting speakers and special guests shared reflections and work throughout the symposium, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dr. David Blight, artist Nona Faustine, author Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and Silas Munro, assistant professor at Otis College of Arts & Design and Vermont College of Fine Art, and a partner at Polymode Studio.
In conjunction with the symposium, Dr. Lisanne Norman, PhD. ’94, program director, instructor in humanities and social sciences, created the course “Early Years of the NAACP and its Local Historical Roots” as an upper-level Humanities elective. “My students have done a phenomenal job restoring lost history in a thoughtful, scholarly way,” says Dr. Norman. “Our students are contributing to changing the narrative of who we are and reconnecting it to what really happened. Students dug in, asking ‘what have we not heard about that we should have?’ exploring how we open the conversation around American history and enduring elements such as race.”
Critical student questions that explored intersectionality and aspects of history that are too often overlooked included “Where are the women?” and “How has the LGBTQ community participated in Civil Rights?”
“I centered my research around using art to create political change,” says Meneses. “I focused on the NAACP's 1935 exhibition, An Art Commentary on Lynching, which was part of the organization's push for a federal anti-lynching bill. I was moved by art that could be used to sway crowds of people to support civil rights, a phenomenon that is equally important now as it was back then. Ultimately, I ended up researching art about lynching and artists who depicted the practice in a variety of ways. I was inspired by this research to create my own piece about the history of lynching, how far we have come and how far we still have to go in the fight for civil rights.”
“The symposium was an amazing, enriching experience,” says Anika Balwada ’23. “I learned so much from the presentations by both my peers and students from other schools. My project was about Lillian Alexander who was the treasurer for The Crisis, the NAACP’s official magazine. She was on the board of the NAACP as well as the YWCA. She also founded a housing development in Harlem. The point of my project was to bring light to her work and who she was as there was very little ever written about her.”
“I am so proud that my students used Troutbeck, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights movement as a touchpoint to concept-driven art that demonstrates a point of view, creating art infused with meaning and depth,” says Faus. “Their artwork is multi-layered, taking into account ideas that include uncovering previously erased history.”
During the early decades of the 20th century, Troutbeck was a hotbed of intellectual and cultural change for such influential leaders as W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Virginia Alexander, and Ralphe Bunche, among others.
At the time, Troutbeck was owned by Joel and Amy Spingarn. Joel, a founder of Harcourt, Brace & Co. and one of the most respected literary minds of his day, served as treasurer, president, and chairman of the NAACP from 1913-1939. The Spingarn Medal, named for him, is the NAACP’s highest honor. Amy, who felt she could be more effective in her work by staying out of the limelight, was also highly active and influential in the work of advancing the cause of people of color. Troutbeck is currently the home and conveying place of Charlotte and Anthony Champalimaud who are passionate in their exploration of the site’s history and importance and were instrumental in creating the symposium.
Collective Learning Adds a New Dimension to a Shared Experience
According to Annie Dong ’23, her greatest lesson from the Troutbeck Symposium was understanding the importance of collective learning. “While it may be time consuming for one individual to obtain all the knowledge shared at the conference, the collective efforts of the students there allowed us to learn, listen, and reflect together,” she said. “The sum of all the presentations covered a tremendous amount of breadth and depth, providing me with a much more nuanced understanding of the lives, dreams, obstacles, and tensions of the figures whose names I’d always known but never had time to research. I truly believe that this model of learning must be explored further, particularly for topics related to identity, as it invites critical thinking, collaborative learning, while encouraging students to ponder with empathy and humanity as they consider the works of their peers.”
In explaining her project for the symposium, Dong’s thoughtfuless and enthusiasm shone through: “During a winter’s walk, I was captivated by the imagery of a pinecone embedded in the pale, white, frozen ground. The ice’s intentional curve around the pinecone’s exact silhouette, evidently a result of its stillness through countless snowstorms, inspired me to think about my attempts in carving out a space for myself as a woman of color at a historically primarily white and all-male institution. I wondered whether I would ever succeed—like the pinecone did—in creating a space precisely in the shape of my truest self. I chose to use a three-dimensional representation of the pinecone and other natural elements to emphasize their meticulous implantation and belonging in the frozen ground.
“The portrait of a friend next to the pinecone was further inspired by Langston Hughes’ poem ‘Theme for English B’, in which he questions his self-identity and its connection to his work. The poem added yet another layer to my original interpretation; external efforts in attaining space in a community often create immense internal uncertainties. Thus, I chose to illustrate my friend with her hands covered in white to symbolically illustrate the loss/erasure of one’s sense of self through continued attempts at assimilation. Her mixed expression, while unplanned, seems to imply loss, surrender, and confusion but also tranquility and ease as she ponders her place and her self-identity. As I considered the conceptual meaning of my piece more—I realized that the poem served as a reflection of the inner thoughts and transformations of POC as we struggled to carve out our own places in our communities. The more I read, the more I derived a sense of intimacy from Hughes’s words.”
Hotchkiss Students Share Their Perspectives on the Troutbeck Symposium
Olivia Taylor '22
I had a fantastic time taking this NAACP research class: my focus was on Marcus Garvey and his relationship with W.E.B. Du Bois, which played out not only in The Crisis but also in letters written by NAACP members who regularly wrote in to both The Crisis and directly to DuBois. I learned so much about the history of the NAACP, and the Troutbeck conference was fantastic. I loved seeing other student presentations and documentaries.
Emiliano Leal '23
My project was a children's book about Ida B. Wells' life story. When I was first deciding what I wanted to do, I had a conversation with my mom, who is an educator. In that conversation, I came to the realization that Troutbeck is surrounded by schools, but I doubt many of those schools know about Troutbeck, or even use it as a resource. I thought that making a children's book, with accessible language and vibrant pictures, would be the best way to educate younger students about such an impactful, important, yet often forgotten woman.
Amber Bretz '23
I created a documentary that examines the dichotomy of W.E.B. Du Bois’ identity as a New England aristocrat and black man. Du Bois had an indelible impact upon African American history, and I sought to highlight the influence that his collegiate experiences at both Fisk University and Harvard University had upon his choice to pursue social activism as a vocation.
Fatoumata Bah '22
I explored the presence of the arts, specifically dance styles, in The Crisis' portrayal of black rights and its impact on the subscribers. I want to understand how receptive the viewers were to the usage of dance and its influence on the growth of the NAACP. I want to understand the impact of the arts and its role in advocating for Black civil rights. It was important to see how DuBois connected the arts to further his message. It is my hope to shed more light on another way Black people used to share their message and fight for equality.