Big Ten brings civil rights history alive for athletes, staff

First announced during Black History Month in February, the Big Ten Conference recently completed a field trip of 100 student-athletes, coaches, administrators, staff and others from across the conference to Selma and Montgomery, Alabama for a three-day “transformational educational experience.”

The “Big Life Series: Selma to Montgomery” on July 15-17 featured various activities, including crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of Bloody Sunday in 1965; visiting Alabama State University’s Interpretive Center to learn more on the profound impact that students had on the Civil Rights Movement; and visiting a couple of museums dedicated to that history and providing a comprehensive overview of America’s legacy of racial injustice.

Julia Hayes (track) and Taylor Landfair (volleyball) were among five Minnesota student-athletes who went on the field trip. Both of them spoke to us in separate Zoom calls last week of their respective experiences.

“Going into it,” recalled Hayes, “I was already really excited. I’ve never been down to Alabama before. I watched Selma [the movie] and all of that, but being able to actually go there and experience it, I was thrilled.”

“I think the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Legacy Museum was definitely one of my favorite parts of the trip,” noted Landfair. She recalled walking through the exhibit that featured a ship that brought Africans to America—it was very impactful for her, she added.  

“All of these heads on either side as you walk the path… They have a bunch of chains on their necks. I was just really sad to see it,” she recalled.

Continued Hayes, “Crossing the bridge and going to march from First Baptist [Church] over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I think that was really moving. You could just feel in the environment…how emotional that was.”

The field trip’s primary purpose to “inspire a meaningful dialogue about racial, social, religious and cultural injustices in our nation” certainly was achieved, said the two Minnesota students.

“To actually understand a lot further than just kind of the surface was really inspiring to me,” affirmed Landfair, a redshirt sophomore from Plainfield, Ill. She remembers, “I’m sitting with one of my teammates and she asked me how are you feeling. I just felt really sad and disappointed with the amount of change that we’ve not made so far.”

Said Hayes, a redshirt junior from Mounds View, “We’re still dealing with some of these same things” Black people dealt with in the 20th century, she observed. “There was anger and there’s frustration and sadness. Just seeing that, after all this time, we’re kind of still in the same place in some ways.”

Hayes admitted that back in high school she didn’t pay too much attention to history. “History is not my favorite subject in school. A lot of the stuff kind of just went in one ear and out the other,” she pointed out. 

When her dad, a high school history teacher, first learned that his daughter was about to go on the trip, “He was thrilled” and started sending her material to study prior to her leaving, said Hayes. “I think he was about as excited as I was.” 

“I had a general idea of what happened back then,” said Landfair. “But I didn’t really know fully because nothing’s taught in schools [on Black history].” She plans to share her experiences with her Gopher teammates when the team comes back for pre-season training next month.

“We’re actually going to have a whole team debrief before practice, and we’re going to have a really long discussion. I’m going to be able to share my experience with my teammates so they can maybe pass it along to other teammates, and maybe their family,” said Landfair.

Concluded Hayes, “I think that just being open to learning and being open to being uncomfortable is the best way to really understand.”