Mississippi Freedom Project september 6-11, 2016 | A photo essay

On the morning of September 6, a group of students arrived at Pugh Hall with packed bags, ready to drive all the way to the Mississippi Delta to conduct oral history interviews. Graduate Students Venetia Ponds, along with undergraduate students, Anupa Kotipoyina, Holland Hall, Brenda Stroud, and John Paul Lorie. These students would learn about much more than conducting oral histories. Along the way, they connected with narrators and local individuals as they traveled to cities and towns in the rural Mississippi Delta that, though tiny, helped to define the black freedom struggle of the 1960s. Join with us as we retrace our journey.

Venetia Ponds (left) and Holland Hall (right) prepare to leave outside of SPOHP's Pugh Hall headquarters


We began our fieldwork research with a stop in Tallahassee and Monticello. Every year as we travel to Mississippi, Mrs. Laura Dixie and her son, Mr. Samuel Dixie Jr., always welcome us into their home, fueling our minds with generous heaps of food. Though Hurricane Hermine had come through earlier that week and their power was still out, Mr. Sam Dixie powered up his propane fryer. We sat outside in the breeze and ate fried chicken and potato salad with Florida civil rights leaders, Mrs. Laura Dixie and Attorney John Due. Mrs. Dixie was a leader of the Tallahassee Bus Boycott of 1956. Attorney Due, a committed civil rights lawyer, continues to work throughout Florida, and he was involved in the movement alongside his wife, Patricia Stephens Due, who was a leader of student protest in the Tallahassee Boycott. After lunch, we asked our interviewees, "What does history mean to you?" They shared their experiences with us, and our other interviewees from the Lincolnville Museum and the Museum of Florida History shared their thoughts on the meaning of history with our student oral historians.

This year, our group had the unique opportunity to interview a World War II veteran. A few of our students made a stop at the American Legion Lodge of Monticello, Florida, to interview Mr. Ernest Sneed, Montford Point Marine and a Congressional Gold Medal Recipient. Mr. Sneed was a Montford Point Marine, the first African Americans to be allowed to serve in the Marine Corps.

Mr. Ernest Sneed, a World War II veteran and recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for being a Montford Point Marine, one of the first group of African American Marines. He is pictured alongside his nephew, Tanzoila Gilley.

"One of our first stops was in Monticello, Florida to interview Mr. Ernest Sneed. Sneed is an extraordinary man and veteran, who served our country during World War II. Within the first minute of our interview with Mr. Sneed asked us if we have ever faced discrimination and explained his experience fighting for a country that treated him so poorly. Sneed shared his feelings of isolation and discrimination he overcame to later be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Obama.”

— Margaret Clarke, UF Undergraduate

Left: Sharing a meal with SPOHP friends at Mrs. Laura Dixie's home in Tallahassee Right: Director Paul Ortiz and Visiting Scholar Filiz Sonmez stand with Attorney Due and Mrs. Laura Dixie


On the second day of our research trip, we visited social justice organizations the Equal Justice Initiative and the Southern Poverty Law Center. We also got the opportunity to visit several sites significant to the Civil Rights Movement.


“In the back of the room we were in was a large bookshelf extending all the way along the wall and reaching up to the ceiling. Each shelf held large jars filled with dirt, I tried to take a picture of the shelves in their entirety but couldn’t manage to fit it all into the frame. The dirt of each jar was a color slightly different from those around it, some dark brown, others orange or green. The sheer amount of jars drew the eye and made it hard to focus on just one, but upon closer inspection, the front of each jar had a different name, date, and location. Each jar represented a lynching, and the dirt came from where it had taken place. Lynchings are something you are told about, but it’s not something that is taught; the festivity behind it, the amount of it, the brutality of it. Society does not go out its way to remind people of how horrid our history is. That back wall, in that one room, was the most striking representation of America’s racial violence and injustice I have ever seen. This is what makes the Mississippi Freedom Project so unique and important. It is not just about learning or teaching, it’s about understanding and appreciating. It goes beyond learning the facts and goes to understanding the events, the emotions, and the pain because without that, we can never move forward to solve our societal problems today.”

-- John Paul Lorie, UF Undergraduate and SPOHP volunteer


Top: Students interview Morris Dees, the CEO and founder of the SPLC, and Mark Potok, senior fellow and editor-in-chief of the SPLC quarterly, The Intelligence Report.


Statue of activist Fannie Lou Hamer at the Hamer Memorial Gardens in Ruleville, Mississippi.


From Montgomery, we traveled to the Delta. Our first stop was Cleveland, Mississippi. There, we conducted interviews at the Senators' Place Restaurant owned by Mississippi Senator and Delta native, Willie Simmons. While there, we interviewed Edward Duvall, a local pastor working on the continuing fight for desegregation in the local school system. Anupa Kotipoyina interviewed Mr. Duvall, and Venetia Ponds and Brenda Stroud interviewed Ike Adams and Senator Willie Simmons about their lives in the Delta.

Top: Anupa Kotipoyina interviews Mr. Edward Duvall. Middle: Venetia Ponds and Brenda Stroud interview Mr. Ike Adams and Senator Willie Simmons. Bottom: SPOHPers interact with narrators.

Remembering Margaret Block

Cleveland is always a significant place for Mississippi Freedom Project oral historians because of our late contact, Margaret Block. A native of Cleveland, Margaret was a civil rights veteran who worked as a SNCC field secretary in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi in the 1960s, registering African American voters. Listening to her experiences affected many of the students who participated in the Mississippi Freedom Project throughout the years. We were saddened last year to hear of her passing, and in her honor, we held a voting rights panel at Delta State University.


After interviewing individuals and presenting a panel presentation, our fieldwork team was able to visit Mayor Johnny B. Thomas in Glendora, Mississippi, at the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center. He took us through the rural roads where Till visited his family during the summer of 1955. In Money, Mississippi, we saw the Bryant Store. Afterwards, we visited the Sumner County Courthouse where Till's murderers were acquitted by an all-white, male jury. Visiting the sites we read about in American history classes was a visceral experience, and it won't be forgotten by our students.

Mayor Johnny Thomas, CEO of the Emmett Till Intrepid Center (ETHIC) leads SPOHP researchers on a tour of sites central to the murder of Emmett Till such as Bryant's Store (left) and the Sumner County Courthouse where his murderers were acquitted (bottom right).


Our last stop was Natchez. With one of the longest histories in Mississippi, Natchez has a tourist industry surrounding a rosy-historical portrait of the planter class that made a bustling city on the banks of the Mississippi River. While that historical tourism is evident through the French colonial fort, Fort Rosalie and the preserved white mansions placed along the river.

We experienced a different Natchez.

Professors Jason Ward (left) and Paul Ortiz (right) discuss the history of the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi during a panel presentation at the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture welcomed SPOHP for the third consecutive year. Over the past three years, student researchers have interviewed many Natchez natives about their experiences regarding race and the Civil Rights Movement in Natchez. This year, our narrators reflected on their lives in present day Natchez and the

Top: Students interview Ser Sesh Ab Heter Boxley on the steps of the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture. Bottom: Jeremy Houston talks about his life in Natchez.

Listening to Ser Sesh Ab Heter Boxley explain why history was important to this area. We toured the area with Natchez native Jeremy Houston, who showed us important sites of African American history in the area fully underlined the history not highlighted in tourism.

After our interviews in Natchez, Natchez native Jeremy Houston showed us many of the significant landmarks to Natchez. Many important places for the African Americans in the city that are off the beaten track of tourism. Jeremy took us to the black cemetery, where a mass grave of individuals were buried in the 1940s after one of the most devastating fires in the nation of the history destroyed a Natchez nightclub, killing a few hundred people. We then traveled to see the Forks of the Road, a memorial on the grounds of what once was the largest slave trading site in Mississippi.

Jeremy Houston talks about the history of Black Natchez, while showing us historical landmarks largely forgotten by the tourism industry of the city

Being able to interact with the communities of Natchez and to see where African American community lived and worked was an important way to connect to the history that our oral history narrators were telling us about, and it also served to further reinforce the struggles that they were continuing.

Digital Humanities Coordinator Deborah Hendrix catches student researchers on film as they soak up Natchez history on their last day in the field

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