A Handshake with History

From the griots of West Africa to men toasting on rural Mississippi back porches, oral history has been a major part of African-American traditions. However, with the birth of each new and more desensitized generation, these stories are fading into a blurred background of recycled people, places and events. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the Library of Congress and other organizations are sponsoring a 70-day, 22-states bus tour to find and archive the stories of the Civil Rights Movement that are not so commonly told.

The tour came to the Old Capitol on South State Street on Aug. 19, carrying people from different states with or without direct affiliation with the sponsors, to mingle with the participants of the civil rights fight, and to shake hands with history.

The event started at 10 a.m. with a ceremony honoring local civil rights leaders. Reflecting on what the movement of the '60s meant to them, leaders like Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-2nd District), former Gov. William Winter and Rev. Ed King gave powerful insights into the struggle from their perspective.

"I think it is very important that we do not lose the experiences and stories," said Winter. "Listening to them gives us a better understanding of where we came from and goals that should be set."

Following the presentation, at stations set up in front of the Capitol, Southerners recorded stories about events that they witnessed, were involved in, or helped organize in relation to the Civil Rights Movement.

Walter Howell, associate state director of the Mississippi office of AARP, says this tour is necessary for future generations. "People are sitting down telling stories right now. They are telling stories that will be preserved forever leaving a legacy for our children," he said. Howell said the event at the capitol served a dual purpose. "This is also important because it recognized and honored leaders like Bennie Thompson and Governor Winter, right here in Jackson, who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement and, in a way, we also honor those who have not been so well known by preserving their stories."

Among the storytellers were people from all over Mississippi and different places in the South. Sarah Dave, owner of Sister Sarah's Black History Traveling Museum, located in Pattison, Miss., told her story from childhood. She was born in New Orleans where she spent most of her life. During summers, from ages 6-19, at the request of her mother, she would take the train to Stanton, Tenn., to visit her relatives. "During this time the Great Migration was taking place," she said, referring to the migration of blacks away from the Jim Crow South to northern cities. "Usually the fathers would go north first, leaving behind the wives and children. The men would find work, make money and then send for the rest of the family."

Dave remembers how at every little town where the train stopped, more men would get on, leaving their families. "I remember, as the train was easing off, the tears running down the wives' and children's faces as their family was being split apart. I saw the Great Migration happen right from the window of that train."

Vern Smith, one of the story recorders for the tour, says: "As someone who grew up in Mississippi, I would tell everyone on the bus that when we got to Mississippi that was when we would hear the real stories. And coming here and listening and recording the stories of the people here only proved my point." Esther Iverem, another story recorder, says: "Regardless of how educated we think we are or how well read, we still have lots to learn from history.

"I have heard stories from a nurse who treated people after Bloody Sunday in Selma, a woman told of how her father's church and house were burned down by the KKK, and another man shared his story about how he was a freedom rider and a driver helping him had his brains blown out in front of him."

Also on the tour bus were people who were interested in coming in close contact with what the struggle was all about. Deanna Coleman, a visitor on the tour, grew up in Harvey, Ill. The fight for her was more covert: "I wanted to do something so when I was 15; I would help with voter registration as my way of getting involved." Coleman says the "Voices" tour has given her the opportunity to see what the struggle was about though the eyes of the people who were there. "Now the stories I heard all my life make sense to me." Coleman also says that this kind of demonstration taking place in Mississippi is something she thought she would never see. "It gives me hope because racism is not going anywhere unless we get involved and do something about it."

Verlee Triplett, an AARP member, says the tour is important for black people because "we have very little African history, and so we have to start from where we can. It also gives black people, especially our youth, pride in where we have come from."


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