Area project to preserve memories of segregation

Program to focus on life of African-Americans before Brown decision.

Published: Monday, January 18, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 17, 2010 at 11:55 p.m.

It has been nearly 42 years since civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was struck down by an assassin's bullet at age 39.

As the country celebrates King's birthday, he would have turned 81 last Friday, more than half a century has passed since many of the seminal events of the Civil Rights Era, such as the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and 1956.

Many iconic figures from the early years of the movement have passed away, and the number of surviving members from the generations before them who lived through segregation are dwindling at an even greater rate.

So preserving and passing down the history lessons from the Civil Rights Era and the Jim Crow South that preceded it grows increasingly important and is comparable to capturing the stories of the remaining World War II veterans, said Paul Ortiz, director of the University of Florida Samuel Proctor Oral History Program.

With $150,000 in university funding, that program will launch a project this semester to document African-American history in Alachua County, with a focus on the years before the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education school desegregation case, through interviews with those who lived during that time.

"They are passing really quickly, and they have a wealth of stories to tell and share," Ortiz said.

Ortiz said the project will detail the rural communities where black land ownership was strong, the community churches and the reality of living in a segregated society. The spoken firsthand accounts, he said, will provide meaning that cannot be found in a textbook.

"What did it mean to vote for the first time?" Ortiz said. "What did it mean to live in a segregated society? What did it mean to tell your children they could not drink from a certain water fountain?"

As a member of the Rosewood Heritage Foundation, Santa Fe College professor Sherry Dupree has worked to preserve the memory of Rosewood, the predominantly black Levy County town that was destroyed by a white mob in a January 1923. Dupree said when the Foundation was established there were 10 living survivors of the Rosewood massacre. Today, there are two - Mary Hall Daniels, 90, and Allenetta Robinson "Robie" Mortin, 95.

"They were children then and now they are telling the stories that their parents told them," Dupree said.

She said the history of Rosewood is well-documented as survivors told their stories through interviews recorded before they passed away. Still, Dupree said, nothing is as compelling as hearing them tell their experiences firsthand.

"You miss their way of telling the stories, their gestures, their tone," Dupree said. "Little things like that mean a lot in telling a story."

Moving forward through the years from the early 20th century South to the Civil Rights Era, Dupree is able to pass down history firsthand. As a student at North Carolina A&T College, she said she met King briefly when she was hired to serve dinner when he was in the area for a speech. She later took part in civil rights marches.

University of Florida assistant professor of religion Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons said that while many of the "deans of the civil rights movement" have passed away, many activists from the younger generation of 1960s college students are still "very much alive" and passing down history.

Simmons is among them. Sent to Atlanta's Spelman College, which had a mission to "prepare proper black ladies," Simmons entered a hotbed of the movement and joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She was arrested during a sit-in at a segregated burger joint, dropped out of Spelman to devote herself to the movement and registered black voters in Mississippi under the threat of violence from the Ku Klux Klan.

She said when she recounts her experiences, like an encounter with Lester Maddox, the segregationist restaurant owner who used to brandish an ax handle to ward off demonstrators and was later elected governor of Georgia, her students cannot believe it.

"There are things that really happened in the 20th century, and they can't contemplate it," Simmons said.

Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088.

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