Pairing Southern Students with Northern Families Taught Everyone
AFSC’s deep involvement with the civil rights movement includes a unique program born in 1957, when a violent backlash began against the civil rights movement to desegregate the South. AFSC staff and supporters were deeply concerned by the resistance to integrated schools, believing “access to the best knowledge available” is a right for all people. Thus the Southern Student Program was created.
The concept was simple: Pair black families willing to send their high school students to live and study in the North with white host families. A volunteer committee worked with AFSC’s staff in New York City recruit and match families, raise funds, create reading lists, organize all-student gatherings, and address such practical matters as insurance and scheduling trips home twice a year.
The first student, a girl from Montgomery AL., was recommended by her minister, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. She spent two years with a Ridgewood, NJ family. The program grew to include students from 12 towns in seven Southern states were welcomed by 24 host families and their respective committees from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Brooklyn, New York City . All told, AFSC sponsored more than 65 students over more than seven years. Most enrolled in colleges and universities such as Harvard, Oberlin, Earlham, Sarah Lawrence, and Rockford.
Reports show the participants felt the Southern Student Program succeeded in helping students prepare for and be accepted into integrated colleges and fostering direct connections, communications, and mutual understanding among the families. For a project “conceived as a personal response on a small scale,” as one brochure from the time describes it, the Southern Student Program made a big impact.