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February 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 5

For a Champion of Racial Harmony

By building a memorial to a slain civil rights leader, 6th grade students in Seattle got lessons in grantsmanship, public speaking, and public art, and grew to understand civil rights, commemoration, and community giving.

On a snowy night in late January 1969, Edwin Pratt was at home with his wife and young daughter when he heard a snowball thump against the front of his house. He opened the door to investigate and was met by a fatal shotgun blast. Police followed the footprints of two assailants through the snow to their getaway car, which was parked nearby. But the pair disappeared. Because Pratt, 38, was executive director of the Seattle Urban League and a prominent member of Seattle's African-American community, the FBI was called in to help with the investigation. Twenty-seven years later, the case is still unsolved.
The house in which Edwin Pratt lived and died is less than a mile from North City Elementary School, where 6th graders have been learning about the civil rights movement. Although Martin Luther King Jr. was already a familiar name, we have been introduced to new people (Emmitt Till, who was murdered for talking to a white woman; the "Little Rock Nine," who integrated Little Rock High School) and new ideas, like boycotts and nonviolent direct action. We have seen films, read first-person accounts, and acted out our own nonviolent responses to provocation.

Our Need to Know

We were astonished to learn that violence had taken the life of a civil rights leader who had lived in our community. We wanted to know more. So the 6th graders in both my class and my team partner Shirley Hills's class invited the detective currently in charge of the case to our classrooms.
In response to one of many questions, he explained that there is no statute of limitations on murder cases and that he is still seeking the killers. Although he couldn't disclose all the information, he did tell us that while the two suspected gunmen have probably died, the people who hired them are likely still alive. Students offered a lot of guesses about their motives. (At the time of his death, Pratt reportedly was involved in two projects: getting minorities into the construction trades and getting stricter enforcement of drug trafficking in the city's Central Area.)
Because we still had many questions, a group of students formed a team to interview one of Pratt's best friends. Charles Johnson, now a Superior Court judge, was one of the first people to arrive at the house after the shooting. He told us of the fear that other civil rights leaders felt and their determination to continue their work despite Edwin Pratt's death.
Another interview team contacted the executive director of the Seattle Urban League, Roz Woodhouse, who had also known Edwin Pratt. We learned that the League is still concerned about equal housing opportunities, more jobs, and integrated schools, as it had been under Pratt's direction from the time he was named executive director in 1961.
Pratt was behind the "Triad" school plan for combining several elementary schools, each with only two grade levels, in order to break down segregation barriers. A local newspaper reported that he "pragmatically" accepted the ensuing "brickbats hurtled at the League": "At least we've got them thinking about the problem." In response to a student's question, Woodhouse explained that Pratt and his family had lived in an integrated neighborhood to take the lead in opening up all areas of our city for all people to live in.

To Build a Memorial

Our classes also visited the park that is just a short distance from the Urban League headquarters. The art center there is named after Pratt, and the Urban League also awards several scholarships in his name. But there was nothing in our North End neighborhood, where Pratt had lived, to remind people of his life. Twenty-seven years later, we are a much more diverse community, but few of us know about him or the sacrifices he made.
So we wrote a grant proposal asking for money to build a memorial. Students also requested money to hire an artist to help us. Our two classes were awarded $750 from Seattle's Shoreline Arts Council and $300 from the Shoreline Foundation.
We began by learning about some of the important memorials in our country, then invited artist Stuart Nakamura to our classes. He talked about art for public places and how much it costs (that was a surprise!). He suggested materials that we could afford and what we could do within our budget. That meant concrete and tile, not marble and fountains, as we had drawn in our first designs.
We also talked about the purpose of a memorial; we wanted ours to help people understand who Edwin Pratt was and why his legacy is important. Beyond that, we wanted to make people think about how they treat others, and about overcoming prejudice in their own lives. That was one reason we wanted lots of kids to be able to see it.
Our school district allowed us to locate the memorial in a grassy spot between our community swimming pool, tennis courts, and soccer fields. Nakamura designed five round concrete pavers leading up to the memorial. He built the forms in a work area that he had set up on the playground outside our classrooms.
Students from our two classes worked in teams to decorate the pavers. One small group drew a pattern for Edwin Pratt's profile that would be poured in colored concrete. Another group designed colorful clay tiles to embed in the concrete. Some tiles bear Pratt's name and dates of his birth and death, others display our thoughts about equality and getting along with one another. To make square indentations for the tiles to be grouted in, we stuck half gallon milk cartons into the concrete before it hardened. Parents joined in as well, helping to mix and pour the concrete.

Casting the Dedication

With the memorial almost finished, we began to plan the dedication. We decided to read some of the poems we had written about Edwin Pratt—some were on display at the Pratt Fine Arts Center. Several students wrote new poems or essays. Chelsea volunteered to explain why we wanted to honor Edwin Pratt. Dom wrote a short speech explaining what we hoped the memorial would do for our community. Stephanie volunteered to introduce the person who would cut the ribbon to officially open the memorial. We then invited everyone who had been involved with our project.
Dedication day was the last day of school. After the morning awards assembly, we made the 15-minute hike to the memorial site. Edwin Pratt's daughter, Miriam, was in town, and we had invited her to cut the ribbon. Because we weren't certain she could come, Stephanie prepared an alternate speech in case we had to ask Stuart to cut the ribbon.
We lined up next to the memorial, squinting in the bright sunlight. Our speakers were a typical group of North City students: Vietnamese, Filipino, African American, Chinese, and Caucasian. Stephanie introduced Stuart Nakamura, who did cut the ribbon. Keven thanked everyone for coming and said we hoped the memorial would help everyone overcome racism. Everyone clapped and we then spread out to admire our work.
A few students began to gather for the walk back when someone called out that Miriam had arrived! There had been a misunderstanding about the time, but now she was here. Sabrina rushed to tie up a new section of ribbon, and Stephanie pulled out her other introduction. When Miriam cut the ribbon, we again cheered and applauded. She admired the tiles and autographed some of our poems.
Back at school, there wasn't much time for reflection. Teachers handed out report cards. Dom was eager to show his mom his autographed poem; she had gone to high school with Miriam Pratt. Sabrina clutched a fragment of red ribbon, assuring me, "This is the one that Miriam cut." A parent came to ask for Miriam's address, saying several parents wanted to thank her for coming.

Unfinsihed Work

There's more to do. Next year's class will work with the Shoreline Historical Museum to create an exhibit on Edwin Pratt's life. We'll write a brochure explaining the memorial. And we'd like to add a bench next to the memorial.
Once, when we were up to our elbows in clay and it was hard to think of ways to show what equality means in a 3 1/2-inch square tile, several students whined that they couldn't do it. "You don't understand," I told them. "We're making something that's going to be there for a long time. You can come back and show your grandchildren what you made for your community." There was a short silence. One boy said, "Oh." Everyone got back to work. To dedicate means to set apart for a special use. At our dedication, Dom said this:We made this memorial for Edwin T. Pratt because of what he accomplished and the people he touched. Also for what he did for the Shoreline community. He did it all so we could have equal rights and he did it out of the goodness of his heart, and for that we wanted to thank him. We hope this memorial will bring peace between all races.

Chris Gustafson has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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