Freedom Summer '64 Memorial and the 50th Anniversary Sculptures
In 2000, Miami University erected the Freedom Summer ‘64 Memorial to honor the efforts put forth by over 800 civil rights activists that trained at Western College, which was originally a religious school for women before being absorbed into Miami University in 1974. Formerly known as the Mississippi Summer Project, the Freedom Summer Movement was largely conceived by Robert Moses, an American educator and civil rights activists. With the help of young student activists, the movement assisted African-American citizens register to vote in Mississippi, which was a politically, socially and physically dangerous place for people of color at the time.
Mississippi was chosen as the site for the Freedom Summer Project because it had one of the lowest African American voter registration rates. In the end, only 1,200 voters were successfully registered, and over 1,000 out-of-state activists had helped with movement's efforts. Activists and African American voters faced heavy threats of violence from the Ku Klux Klan, the police and other local authorities that tried to eliminate all efforts and people involved in the movement, resulting in at least three deaths. In addition to registering voters, the movement also helped established fifty Freedom Schools that were used to carry on the work that the Freedom Summer began.
These activists came from across the North and the Midwest to Oxford, Ohio for the training where they learned how to register voters, what to expect from the local people against African-American voting, and were even put in simulations of potential violent reactions to prepare them. The Freedom Summer Movement was a testament to the values of freedom, equality, and voters rights upheld by the college campus and the Oxford Community.
The amphitheater memorial was conceived by Miami University architect, Robert Keller, who designed many public art works on Miami’s campus. The project was funded by the Oxford Branch of the NAACP and Miami University’s Office of the President. The memorial simultaneously operates as a learning space and a commemorative space. As Keller states, the amphitheater is a space made for students in a place that was once used to train students. It was constructed with the same white limestone as the other buildings on Western campus to stay consistent with the material tradition of the school.
During assembly, Keller worked closely with the construction workers to carefully fit each stone into place. Standing from the center of the amphitheater and looking up at the seating from below, the stones are seen emerging from the bushes on the left side. As the limestone gets farther from its earthy origins, it becomes smoother and its shape becomes more defined and crisp. On the back of each level of stone seats there are quotes from newspapers recounting the journey of the activists who risked their lives. As the viewers read the headline stones left to right, the limestone becomes rougher as it leads back into the shrubbery. As the scene down South intensified, the limestones become more jagged, which represent the backlash and violence of the movement heading towards a figurative and literal rocky terrain. This juxtaposition allows the amphitheater to be read under a multifaceted lens and alternative timeline.
One of the most famous tragedies associated with the Freedom Summer Movement were the murders of three activists who trained in Oxford in 1964 and were among the first wave of activists to go to Mississippi. The three men were James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, whose bodies were discovered forty-four days after the Ku Klux Klan ambushed and killed them. In 2014, during the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer, three dogwood trees were planted and installed in memory of the three activists that went missing soon after leaving for Mississippi.
Robert Keller also designed these anniversial tree memorials. He wanted them to act as both a visual and auditory sculpture, so windchimes were attached to the top of the trees and anchored by metal that wrapped up the sides from the base so that they could not be removed. The design concept of the tree sculptures centered around groupings of three - three tubes to make up the windchime, together making three music notes and three chords, and three metal dogwood blossoms on each tree. Dogwood trees were used because a dogwood tree used to stand where the site of the memorial now resides. In this way, the trees and sculptures pay homage to two points in the history of the site and are combined in the tree and the windchimes of the 50th Anniversary sculptures.
In addition to the Freedom Summer ‘64 Memorial and the 50th Anniversary sculptures, the university has also held lectures and panels from activists and educators involved in the movement. Freedom Summer tours and an interactive app were also developed to encourage students and community members to learn about the history of Miami University and the civil rights movement.