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Retracing Our Steps Reflections on our Trip to the Mississippi Delta

Our students just got back from another successful and exciting trip doing oral history fieldwork in the Mississippi Delta as part of our Mississippi Freedom Project!

The Mississippi Freedom Project (MFP) is an award-winning archive of 200+ oral history interviews conducted with veterans of the civil rights movement and notable residents of the Mississippi Delta. The collection centers on activism and organizing in partnership with the Sunflower County Civil Rights Organization in Sunflower, Mississippi.

Field research is conducted during annual research trips by students and staff who conduct oral history interviews, help to facilitate public workshops, and attend lectures with veteran activists. This work lends the collection a unique focus on connecting the historical lessons of organizing with Mississippi’s current social and political climate. Each semester, staff, volunteers, and interns process interviews for the Mississippi Freedom Project, transcribing interviews and organizing a yearly panel in Gainesville to report on archival research from the latest trip.

The following is a collection of reflections written by our students detailing their daily excursions on their trip this year:

Day 1: In the Footsteps of Foot Soldiers

On Sunday, July 15th, we visited the Tallahassee-Leon County Civil Rights Memorial Walk. We were able to learn about the Boycotts that took place in Tallahassee in the 1950s and 1960. In addition, we were able to see the names of the "foot soldiers" who made the movement possible. It was a very meaningful experience to learn about the civil rights activism that occurred in our state. People often learn about the boycotts and protests that occurred in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, but not in Florida. This visit highlights the fact that black people were engaged in civil rights activism in every community in which they live.

-Nicole Yapp

Montgomery Bus depicted on the Civil Rights Heritage Sidewalk (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Stan speaking to the rest of the group (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
MFP Team looks at Tallahassee-Leon County Civil Rights Heritage Sidewalk (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Grace Chun looking down at the Civil Rights Heritage Sidewalk (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Dr. Ortiz speaks to guests at Samuel Dixie's house (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Dr. Simmons speaking at Samuel Dixie's house (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Dr. Simmons and Ms. Dupree speaking to one another (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
John Due and Juliette Barbara holding up a map of Florida (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
John Due speaks to guests at Samuel Dixie's house (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Nicole Yapp speaks to guests at Samuel Dixie's house (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
John Due speaks to Deborah Hendrix and Grace Chun (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)

Day 2: Trauma and Terrorism: A Tour

On July 16, 2018 we began the day by making our way over to visit the Southern Poverty Law Center Civil Rights Memorial Center. Our tour exposed us to stories of people who had been subjected to the trauma of terrorism throughout our country's history and to the continuing struggle to fight oppression in all its forms. While the majority of the space was dedicated to memorializing the experiences of black people in this country, a large aspect of the tour was also dedicated to stress the point that other communities, such as Native American and LatinX communities, also share a continuing fight to be recognized as fully human and to be granted equal rights in our society. Notably, the center urged visitors to use knowledge to take action through a display that read, "we must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.

- Mayleen S

"Southern Poverty Law Center" (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
"Weapons Not Permitted Beyond this Point" (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Grace Chun looking at lynching stories at the SPLC Museum (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Dr. Simmons taking photos at the SPLC Museum (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Hayat Kemal interacting with the SPLC Museum (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
"We Must Take Sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. - Elie Wiesel" (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
"America was built by Immigrants" (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Hannah Lyons looking at the SPLC Museum (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
"Human dignity = Human rights" (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)

The struggle towards freedom continues! Although the freedom struggles are not always represented as a continuation, we must remember that they are indeed tied to and build from, each other.

As the Mississippi Freedom Project Team made their way to the Mississippi Delta, they stopped at the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Equal Justice Initiative's Legacy Museum and Equal Justice Initiative's Lynching memorial. Today we not only pay homage to those who participated in the civil rights movement, we are also reminded of the long history that proceeded it. The words of Elizabeth Alexander leaves us with a reminder of this long history of resistance and memory, not only of the past but of what is ahead.

-Juliette Barbera

Nkyinkim by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Steel plates hanging at the Lynching memorial, each representing a county where a lynching or lynches occurred (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Wilcox County's steel plate (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Quote by the EJI (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Words on a water wall at the Lynching memorial (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Dr. Ortiz and Deborah Hendrix look down at the steel plates at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Orange County's steel plate (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Quote by Hank Willis Thomas (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)

Day 4: Preserving Narratives in Natchez

Today we arrived in Natchez, Mississippi where Jeremy Houston of the Miss-Lou Heritage Group gave us a tour. Our first stop was the Forks of the Roads, the second largest slave market in the South. It was a powerful experience to stand at the same spot where so many people were sold as slaves. While some tried to dilute this history, community members persisted to tell the accurate history of the Forks of the Roads and place a historic marker for all who come through Natchez. This, for me, demonstrated the power and duty of historians to challenge set historical narratives and work to reveal the truth of the past.

-Hayat Kemal

Forks of the Road sign (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Jeremy laughing during the tour (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Natchez Museum sign (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
MFP team looking at artifacts at the Natchez Museum (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
MFP team at the Natchez Museum (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Learning at African diaspora food and how it evolved during slavery (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Dr. Ortiz speaking at the student panel (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)

Day 4: A Day of Service

The researchers of SPOHP and some of the community members of Natchez, MS worked together on a Day of Service at the Watkins Cemetery. We all participated in cleaning up the cemetery and giving the deceased a more aesthetic view by cutting the grass, pulling out the overgrown weeds, and throwing away debris. As much as I love learning about others’ experience through the oral history interviews, I also enjoyed taking a break from that to be more involved with the community and making a bigger difference. It also was sad to see how disheveled and unkempt the cemetery was because of logistical reasoning. I hope Natchez can find a better cleaning system for the cemetery.

-Hayat Kemal

Day 5: A Day of Reflection

On July 19th, we had the opportunity to interview with Earl Turner, aka “Icebreaker.” Turner earned the moniker from his affiliation with the group of the same name. During the interview, he detailed stories of how the Icebreakers were tasked with integrating spaces that served whites only like lunch counters and diners. He also mused over civil rights leaders like Stokely Carmichael visiting Natchez and the Mississippi Delta.

Afterwards, we had the opportunity to listen to the wisdom of Dr. Paul Ortiz and Ser Sehs Ab Hester Boxley and discuss the importance of continuing the fight of liberation in the 21st century.

Dr. Simmons at the panel (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Dr. Ortiz introducing the panelists (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Audience at the Student Panel (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Nicole Yapp at the Student Panel (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Oliver Telusma at the student panel (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Dr. Simmons reads "A More Beautiful and Terrible History" for her part of the lecture (Photo by Cheyenne Cheng)

Day 6: On Glorifying a Gruesome Past

Today is the second day of interviews in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Before interviews started this morning, a few people from the MFP group ventured out to Vicksburg National Military Park to learn more about the area’s extensive Civil War history. The parking lot for the visitor center is actually nestled between Union-built embankments, and all the cannons littering the park’s many acres were used in the pivotal battle of Vicksburg. Because Vicksburg was the last remaining Confederate fortress on the Mississippi its surrender marked a major victory in the progression of the Union’s Anaconda Plan, and the battle effectively cut Western states like Texas and Louisiana out of the war. Some of the land where the nine-month siege took place is now preserved as a national park, and each state that had soldiers in the war sponsored the construction of monuments and placards for their regiments. Driving through the park is incredible, and the expanse of hills, trenches, and embankments of the battleground compose this sort of idyllic grass-covered countryside. When we stopped to admire the beautiful Indiana memorial monument, Dr. Simmons commented that they should put bloody mannequins on the fields to show how disgusting and deadly the battle really was. In Mississippi, it seems as though the Antebellum South, as well as the Civil War, continue to be glorified, and I realized that Dr. Simmons was completely right. I had just been admiring a valley where hundreds of people had lost their lives, and despite all of this loss racism and discrimination continue in Vicksburg today. I suppose visiting the park was just another lesson on the importance of looking closely at popular historical narratives and seeking out unpleasant truths- beneath all of the sprawling fields and wildflowers there may be a story of siege and death in the name of unity and emancipation.

-Hannah Lyons

Vicksburg National Military Park (photo by Hannah Lyons)
Vicksburg National Military Park (by Hannah Lyons)
Audience participating at Dr. Ortiz's book signing event (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Dr. Ortiz speaking at his book signing event (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Audience at Dr. Ortiz's book signing event (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Ms. Eva Ford speaks at Dr. Ortiz's book talk (Photo by Cheyenne Cheng)

Day 7: Remembering Emmett Till

Today was the last day of the trip and it was both heavy and light. We drove to Glendora, Mississippi and was greeted by Representative Tracey Rosebud who offered to give us the Emmett Till tour personally. Tracing the steps of Emmett Till’s last moments showed us how gruesome it was, and how some in the town do not want the story to be told (see the photo of the sign with bullet holes.) On the lighter side of things, we were able to hold an Open Mic with kids in Glendora. While shy at first, it was amazing to hear the poetry of the kids and our own group.

-Cheyenne Cheng

Rep. Tracey Rosebud gave the MFP Team the Emmett Till Tour (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Marker for the shop where Emmett Till allegedly whistled at Caroyln Bryant (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
building near the place where Emmett Till's body was buried once (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Historical marker for where the trial was held for the murder of Emmett Till (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Historical marker of the river where Till's body was recovered. The sign is marked with a number of bullets (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Historical Marker about Fannie Lou Hamer (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Fannie Lou Hamer's gravestone (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)
Statue of Fannie Lou Hamer (photo by Cheyenne Cheng)

Final Thoughts

From Segregation To Black Lives Matter:

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program is hosting a three-day symposium on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 21-23 March 2019. This symposium marks the formal opening of the Joel Buchanan African American Oral History Archive at the University of Florida to scholars, students, and researchers. The new collection includes over six hundred oral histories with African American elders in Florida telling stories of family memories of slavery, resistance to segregation, the coming of the modern civil rights movement and narratives of Black and Latinx intersectionality among many other topics.

We invite you to join us as we bring together scholars, educators, and community leaders to discuss the latest trends in African American history from K-12 to higher education. Participants will have the opportunity to view and to listen to films, podcasts and panelists. The event will also feature book-signings of noted authors.

Your Support:

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program is proud to make equitable fieldwork opportunities, like the Mississippi Freedom Summer Trip, available to students year-round. These trips are made possible by our faithful donors who are committed to giving each of our students the chance to empower themselves through living history. If you're interested in supporting our next experiential learning trip, visit the link below to become a SPOHP donor:

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