Dr. Perrotta  and students
Dr. Katherine Perrotta (far left) and Irene Sanders (third from right), executive director of Student Leadership Johns Creek, with student narrators and film crew from Chattahoochee, Northview, Johns Creek and Centennial High schools.

ATLANTA – Mercer University’s Tift College of Education, in partnership with nonprofit Student Leadership Johns Creek and the Johns Creek Historical Society, received a $2,500 Georgia Humanities grant in May to fund high school student research on the history and preservation of the Macedonia African Methodist Church Cemetery in north Fulton County.

In early 2022, two special events – at Johns Creek High School on Jan. 27 and on Mercer’s Cecil B. Day Campus in Atlanta on Feb. 18 – will showcase four student-produced documentary films. These films cover topics such as the history of Macedonia Cemetery, the relationships between those who lived in the Johns Creek area, the importance of historical research and ultimately why it is important to preserve such historical cemeteries.

Four groups of students in the 2023 Student Leadership Johns Creek cohort representing three local high schools conducted oral history interviews and archival research to produce these documentaries.

  • A group from Northview High School interviewed Dr. Kenja McCray, associate professor of history at Atlanta Metropolitan State College and visiting professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, for a film on the historical context of enslavement and racial discrimination during the Reconstruction Era through the 20th-century Progressive Era.
  • A group from Chattahoochee High School interviewed Emily Cobb, education outreach coordinator at the Atlanta History Center for a film on the legacy of the Cherokee Nation in North Georgia and how the lives of local farmers, several of whom were of Cherokee descent, intersected with Black residents who are buried in the cemetery.
  • A group from Johns Creek High School interviewed Madyun Shahid, U.S. Marine Corps veteran, CEO of Hidden Voices LLC and descendant of April Waters. The resulting film highlights the importance of historical research and genealogy by focusing on the life and family of Waters, a former enslaved African American who is buried in the cemetery.
  • A group from Northview High School interviewed Dr. Jennifer Dickey, associate professor of history at Kennesaw State University, and Ashley Shares, preservation director at the Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. The resulting film examines current preservation efforts by the city of Johns Creek and other local organizations, including the Johns Creek Historical Society, Girl Scouts, Student Leadership Johns Creek and grassroots efforts by community members.

Dr. Katherine Perrotta, assistant professor of middle grades and secondary education, serves as project director and principal investigator on the grant project, titled “They Were Here: Preservation and Commemoration of the Macedonia African Methodist Church Cemetery of Johns Creek.” 

“For years, students in Student Leadership Johns Creek and other youth organizations have been active in working with the Johns Creek community to help preserve the Macedonia Cemetery and honor those who are buried there,” said Dr. Perrotta. “Thanks to this Georgia Humanities grant, this community partnership with Tift College of Education is an exciting opportunity for faculty, staff, and students to engage in the work of doing history through service-learning and civic engagement with young people.”

AV teacher and students
Centennial High School AV teacher Christopher Buechner advises students on how to record voiceovers for the films.

Members of the grant team include Dr. Robert Helfenbein, associate director of research and faculty affairs in Tift College of Education; Irene Sanders, executive director of Student Leadership Johns Creek; Joan Compton, president of the Johns Creek Historical Society; Kirk Canaday, U.S. Army veteran and Johns Creek Historical Society member; Randee Nagler, retired area superintendent of Fulton County Schools and adviser to Student Leadership Johns Creek; and Dr. Harry Akoh, dean of social sciences at Atlanta Metropolitan State College.

“Dr. Perrotta’s partnership with Student Leadership Johns Creek and the Johns Creek Historical Society is a fantastic example of what university-school partnerships can do,” said Dr. Helfenbein. “Students are working on an authentic project that helps uncover some of the hidden history of the African-American experience in Georgia and also learning new skills in digital storytelling. We in the Tift College of Education are thankful to Georgia Humanities for supporting this work and hope this is just the first of many more amazing partnerships.”

“The collaboration this grant effort presented has been amazing. The students have had the opportunity to learn through doing about the history of the city they call home,” added Sanders. “Our hope is that these films will stand the test of time, providing a model for other communities to empower their youth to perform similar significant historical projects.”

Tift College doctoral students in the curriculum and instruction Ph.D. program Jamilah Hickson, Caitlin Hochuli and Rachael Williams are serving as graduate research assistants on the project. Seniors Anais Long and Stella Braune of Centennial High School in Roswell are overseeing filming and production of the documentaries with the assistance of AV teacher Christopher Buechner, a Tift College of Education alumnus.

“The people we have been able to meet during the process are truly awe inspiring,” said Brady Carnesale, a sophomore at Johns Creek High School. “Not only have I been able to speak with these amazing people, their wisdom and expertise make me want to do whatever I can to make a difference.”

“Growing up in a new city such as Johns Creek often makes us forget what the place we live in was like before we lived here. An opportunity to work on a project involving the Macedonia Cemetery was an enlightening experience filled with curiosity and excitement, and we uncovered the unknown past and made connections to its future,” added Shruthi Balachander, a junior at Northview High School. “Working on such a unique project shows you moments of history you could never imagine that exist in places we now simply drive by. It was truly gratifying to be able to carry and tell the stories of those who lived such strenuous lives. With hope for the future and appreciation for the past, Student Leadership Johns Creek is proud to have this privilege.”

About the College of Education

Mercer University’s Tift College of Education – with campuses in Macon, Atlanta and the University’s two regional academic centers – prepares more professional educators than any other private institution in Georgia. Named for the former women’s college that merged with Mercer in 1986, the College of Education offers baccalaureate and graduate degrees, and is guided by the conceptual framework of the “Transforming Educator,” which supports those who aspire to grow professionally throughout their careers, while also seeking to transform the lives of students. For more information, visit education.mercer.edu.