EDITORS NOTE: Zac Ellis writes for VUcommodores.com for Vanderbilt Athletics. Click here to read this article in its entirety.
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Oren Burks strolled the crowded halls of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture on Monday afternoon, scanning exhibits housed in the expansive Smithsonian attraction in Washington, D.C. Burks, a junior linebacker/safety at Vanderbilt, led the way for a group of fellow Commodores: running back Khari Blasingame, safety LaDarius Wiley and defensive end Jonathan Wynn shadowed Burks, soaking in artifacts, documents and other items illustrating black culture in America.
Burks, a native of nearby Fairfax Station, Va., was hardly unfamiliar with the history offered in every corner of Washington, D.C. But the junior coveted a chance to experience that history with other Vanderbilt student-athletes.
"To come back home to so much history and culture in the D.C. area, I'm excited to share this to my teammates," Burks said.
The Commodores' afternoon in the nation's capital was part of a unique opportunity offered by Vanderbilt for the first time. The university sponsored a day trip to Washington for Burks and 27 other athletes across a variety of sports in observation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Student-athletes spent the day touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), one of the Smithsonian's newest attractions. The group later enjoyed a guided bus tour of the capital's other monuments and memorials before returning to Nashville.
The opportunity had its origins with David Williams II, Vanderbilt's vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs, who sought a way to uniquely educate student-athletes on African American history. Williams and his wife, Gail, are charter members of the NMAAHC and attended its opening in Sept. 2016. There, David Williams met Damion Thomas, Curator of Sports for the Smithsonian, who extended an invitation for Williams to bring Vanderbilt student-athletes to D.C. for a private tour of the museum.
With Martin Luther King, Jr. Day approaching, David Williams put two and two together. He and deputy athletics director Candice Lee organized a trip for select student-athletes to Washington, where they would tour the museum - and its storied history - up close.
"Student-athletes put so much time into doing their sport and academics, so a lot of the things we're able to offer, they don't get to do," Williams said. "This one was very interesting because as the group [of students] gets younger, you start to encounter people that don't really understand the history of it all. So, let's take a day, go back and actually educate."
The group began its day with a 4 a.m. departure from Vanderbilt's McGugin Center. A chartered flight shuttled the student-athletes and a number of administrators from Nashville to Washington's Dulles International Airport, after which they arrived at the NMAAHC to a private tour of the museum. A guide began the tour in the Slavery and Freedom exhibit, a complex account of one of the darkest periods in American history. Student-athletes witnessed first-hand accounts and artifacts surrounding the transatlantic slave trade, slaves' fight for freedom and much more.
The tour winded through later exhibits on emancipation, the Civil Rights Movement and iconic African American figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman. The museum features literal pieces of America's civil rights battle; it houses an entire segregated railroad car and the exhumed casket of Emmett Till, a 13-year-old black Chicago boy who was brutally murdered by two white men in 1955.
The NMAAHC's more somber exhibits, such as slavery and civil rights, were situated five stories underground. That's by design, and it hit home to Omar Mance, director of recruiting and player personnel for Vanderbilt basketball. Mance is a Stone Mountain, Ga. native whose father, Eric, coached basketball at Martin Luther King High School in Atlanta. The younger Mance noted how the tone of the experience improved as the tour moved upward.
"It was profound that slavery - a truly difficult time in our nation - was underground downstairs," said Mance. "It was a foundation that was built in struggle and pain and controversy. But as you worked your way up, it was bright, you could see the sun and suddenly the exhibits detailed the successes of African Americans in sports and entertainment."
The museum wrapped with exhibits on African American music, pop culture and sports. The sports section served as particularly inspiring to a Vanderbilt student-athlete like Burks, who views athletics as an instrument of change. "I'm big on sports activism," Burks said. "To see people like Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, guys that have paved the way for African Americans in sports, it really means a lot to see them honored in that way."
Added Vanderbilt soccer/track and field senior Simone Charley: "It's just cool seeing prominent African American figures in things like civil rights, sports and entertainment, and just seeing how big of an impact African Americans have had on the United States."
To others, the museum served as a reminder of how present issues of inequality are in America today.
"It feels like these things happened so long ago, but really they didn't," said Taiana Tolleson, a freshman goalkeeper on the Vanderbilt women's soccer team. "It's crazy to think that just eight years ago, our first black president was elected. You don't realize those things until you're here, reading about it and learning about those things. We've lived through that history."
Before returning to Nashville, the Commodores capped their day in D.C. with a bus tour of nearby monuments. A local tour guide offered background on the history behind landmarks such as the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Vietnam War Memorial and Korean War Memorial. That included a stop to view the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in observation of the national holiday.
Thanks to the success of Monday's trip to Washington, D.C., Williams now plans to cement Martin Luther King. Jr. Day as an annual chance for unique opportunities for Vanderbilt student-athletes. The university hopes to sponsor similar trips to historic destinations in the future. "This definitely shows Vanderbilt is willing to put things in place for us to be more than student-athletes and get the whole experience," Burks said.
"With this being a formable time in a young person's life, it's good to continue to give our student-athletes a perspective of the world and the length of its history," said Rayna Stewart, director of player development for Vanderbilt football. "The more you expose people to, the greater their understand of the world. Opportunities like this can be transformational."
To Williams, the foundation of this opportunity is simple: don't simply ask student-athletes to learn about history. Instead, allow them to experience it for themselves.
"This is the best way for them to be educated," Williams said. "I just think it's a way to make sure we remember. Today I had some of our kids come up and tell me, `I didn't know about that, I didn't know about that.' I think that's what this was all about."