By Maria Saporta
SELMA – A beaming Meria Carstarphen – Atlanta’s still relatively new superintendent of schools – was right at home.
Carstarphen was receiving the inaugural Phoenix Award from the Sullivan and Richie Jean Sherrod Jackson Foundation Sunday morning – on the same weekend as all the 50th anniversary events of the Selma to Montgomery March that made such an impression on this nation and was a driving force behind the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Her father, Joseph Carstarphen, could not have been prouder. Even Selma Mayor George Patrick Evans stopped by to congratulate Carstarphen for her honor – despite having had 60,000 extra guests in the small town on Saturday (including President Barack Obama) and at least as many on Sunday.
“I’m just excited to have our favorite daughter here – Meria,” Mayor Evans said. “Always a pleasure to have Dr. Carstarphen back home.”
Home. For Carstarphen, there’s no question that Selma has helped make her who she is. She talks about Selma being the “black belt” – named for the rich soil that came from the flowing Alabama River and the Cahaba River.
Although Carstarphen was born five years after the bloody Selma-to-Montgomery Mark, the role that her hometown has played in U.S. history has helped define who she was growing up and who she is today.
“This is the blessing of my life experience,” said Carstarphen, adding that the traumatic events that happened in Selma had made a huge impression on the town and on her life. “That’s why I feel so grounded and so unapologetic about what I do.”
Being superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools is fulfilling part of her core mission – lighting the love of learning among children attending public urban schools – being a servant leader for the next generation.
“That’s why this job is not political to me,” Carstarphen said. “It’s important people understand what created the person who will be leading the turnaround of Atlanta’s schools.”
So one can trace back those footsteps to Carstarphen’s Selma. When she was only four-years old, there was a broken tricycle that her father told her she could ride when it got fixed. Impatient, she started fixing it herself – getting it to a point where she could ride it.
“That one’s baked,” said Joe Carstarphen of the second of his four daughters.
When she was in fourth grade, she openly questioned why black children had to raise their hands for attendance while the white children did not. It bothered her so much that she had to talk it over with the principal, Emily Sherer, who would listen to her, respecting her willingness to question authority.
At key moments her life, Mrs. Sherer would write her notes of encouragement or congratulations – sending a message that someone was watching her.
“It’s something I do today,” Carstarphen said. “I write notes to students.”
It was in that spirit why Jawana Jackson decided that the inaugural Phoenix Award – named for her parents – be given to Carstarphen. Her mother was a teacher for 30 years, and her family always believed that education was the key to a better life.
The Jacksons opened up their home – now a site on the National Historical Register as well as the Alabama Register of History and Landmarks – to the Civil Rights leaders fighting the Voting Rights campaign .
The house, recently turned into a museum following the passing of Mrs. Jackson last year, has been kept intact from how it looked 50 years ago. The photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and fellow Civil Rights leaders in the home show how every piece of furniture is still in its rightful place.
Even the phone where King would talk to then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson is there in the favorite bedroom where King would sleep when he would stay at the house.
Mark Peterson, executive secretary of the Jackson Foundation and Museum – who went to Edgewood Elementary School with Carstarphen, said the relationship began with friendship. Richie Jean Sherrod became friends with Coretta Scott of Marion, Ala. when they both attended Selma University. That’s how their husbands became friends and colleagues in the movement.
“The owners of this house took in a friend,” Peterson said. “It was so their daughter, Jawana Jackson, could have a future where she would be judged by the content of her character and not by the color of her skin.”
Jawana Jackson has been instrumental in turning her parents’ home into a museum so that the world will be able to see where history was made.
“They were committed to supporting the voting rights campaign in this country,” she said of her parents. “The reason. I was a five-year-old child, and they wanted a better life for children and for me.”
Her parents and Meria Carstarphen’s parents as well as her aunt and uncle were close friends – and they were all “givers” seeking to strengthen the fabric of society.
“Dr. Meria Carstarphen is the epitome of what Selma produces and the very positive points of light in this town that we were born in,” Jawana Jackson said. “The events that went on in this town supported her to think big. Her parents nurtured her and molded her to think big.”
Then turning to Carstarphen, Jackson said: “Meria, this house will always be open to you. The soil in this town is absolutely incredible.”
Over the years, Carstarphen said she has had several opportunities to “unpack” her Selma heritage. In 1992, she began her education career as a middle school teacher in Selma.
Then in 2000, she was a photographer for National Geographic when she worked on an assignment about the 35th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery March. The theme of article and the photos was to show “how people (from Selma) live everyday with such an impactful moment. Is it a blessing or a curse.”
And now she is able to return to Selma on the 50th anniversary as APS superintendent and “unpack” her Selma story once again.
But this time, she brought along students from the Atlanta Public Schools, from the Atlanta International School and from Selma’s Edgewood Elementary School. They came to witness where history had been made 50 years ago, and where history was being made in 2015. This would be their history.