Despite its history as the “cradle of the civil-rights movement,” Alabama still struggles with deeply ingrained racial divisions. A group of Princeton alumni has worked to confront this legacy by establishing the Princeton Prize in Race Relations in Alabama. It honors high school students who are trying to promote racial understanding.
Many students in Alabama attend public schools that are racially homogenous. The state’s most impoverished counties, in a region known as the Black Belt, are overwhelmingly African American and rural. Barbara McElroy ’81, president of the Princeton Alumni Association of Alabama, says it’s critical to encourage students who are working to bridge this divide. “For these students, many of whom may never have left the state, it can be absolutely transformative to travel to a place like Princeton and talk about race relations with other people who care,” she says.
The prize’s launch was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary celebrations of civil-rights milestones. Last summer, alumni met in Selma to work with the nonprofit Black Belt Community Foundation, which is aiming to bring new life to the Black Belt area. Foundation officials have said they hope the prize marks the beginning of a partnership with the alumni.
The Princeton Prize is awarded annually in about 25 locations; this year it culminates April 29–30 with a symposium on race on Princeton’s campus. Alabama’s winner is Katie Klasing, who started a student-exchange program between her predominantly white high school and a predominantly black one.
McElroy hopes that the awarding of the prize will, over time, encourage more Alabama high school students to dedicate their time and energy to improving race relations in their local communities. “Our goal is to tell students in Alabama that racial healing matters,” she says. “We want to recognize and celebrate their work, and encourage them to do even more.”