Wednesday, February 8, 2017

University of Kansas showcases black Mississippi writers, including Holly Springs' Ida Wells

    The Project on the History of Black Writing at the University of Kansas is  sponsoring a series of events, Black History Suite 2017, celebrating works of black Mississippi or Mississippi-related writers during what it calls the Mississippi Renaissance, a period from World War I to the Great Depression and World War II era. Events will include panel discussions, a digital exposition, and a showing of "Yazoo Revisited" by David Morris.
    Among the writers featured are Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and Ida B. Wells. Wright is best known for his novels "Black Boy" and "Native Son," but a panel discussion will focus on his "Blueprint for Negro Writing."

    Ida Wells, who was born and reared in Holly Springs, was born into slavery in 1862. Her father was owned by Spires Bolling, an architect whose homes were known for featuring octagonal columns. He also built the Walter Place, with its unusual octagonal wings on each end. The Wells family lived at the Bolling Place, which was later the Gatewood home, and is now the site of the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum.
    Wells, who lost both parents to the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878, struggled to support and keep her younger siblings together by working as a schoolteacher. Her frustration over receiving $30 per month while white teachers were paid $80 per month led her to become active in a movement to seek equal pay for black teachers, which led to her firing, after which she moved to Memphis.
    In May 1884, Wells refused to give up her seat on a Tennessee train and move to another rail car; when the conductor tried to forcibly move her she bit his hand. She was thrown off the train and successfully sued the train company, obtaining a $500 judgment in circuit court. The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned this judgment in 1887 and assessed Wells $200 in costs. This case was later cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), which found that segregation laws were not unconstitutional under the "separate but equal" doctrine which remained controlling law until Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
    (An interesting note is that Plessy v. Ferguson was a "friendly" lawsuit carefully coordinated between Plessy and the railroad company, both of whom believed that the Supreme Court would find segregation laws unconstitutional. The railroad company wanted Plessy to prevail, as it did not want the expense of having to maintain two sets of passenger cars).
    In 1889, Wells, who was working in Memphis as a schoolteacher, became owner of the Free Speech and Headlight, a newspaper published out of the Beale Street Baptist Church. Her opposition to segregation and articles decrying the poor condition of black schools led to her firing in 1891.
    Also in 1889, three of Wells' friends were lynched, which led her to become active in the national anti-lynching movement, in which she often collaborated with W.E.B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglas. In 1992, she published a famous anti-lynching pamphlet, "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases."
    On May 27, 1892, a white mob destroyed the offices of Wells' newspaper. Because of threats on her life she soon moved to Chicago, where she wrote articles for the New York Observer and began to work for the Chicago Conservator, that city's oldest black newspaper.
    During the 1890s Wells traveled extensively to promote civil rights, including trips to Europe. In 1909 Wells was one of seven black and 53 white founders of the NAACP. In later life she retreated from the national spotlight somewhat as she devoted herself to family life, although she remained active in support of civil rights throughout her life until her death in 1931.

    The Black History Suite will also feature a showing of David Rae Morris' "Yazoo Revisited," which looks at what eventually because an unsuccessful attempt to integrate the Yazoo City schools. Morris's father, Willie Morris, who I was proud to call a friend, first wrote about the effort  in his book, Yazoo: Integration in a Deep-Southern Town." Willie Morris' book ends with him firmly convinced that Yazoo City's school had successfully integrated, maintaining a 40 percent white student enrollment. By 2000 the school system was 99 percent non-white.
    I viewed and reviewed a very early cut of this documentary in 2013, and while I enjoyed it, I was disappointed that no effort had been made to interview white families who originally stayed with and strongly supported the public system but then later drifted away. These were people of good will and not hard-core segregationists, and their viewpoints might enlighten future school choices. These are difficult issues, and ones many people might be loathe to talk about on camera, but if the question is never asked then there will never be a solution. Hopefully Morris has added some of this material to his documentary.


    The Black Literary Suite will use the hashtags #HBW and #BlackLitSuite for Twitter conversations; the Twitter address is @ProjectHBW. Information is also available at
    The Project on the History of Black Writing was founded by Kansas professor Maryemma Graham in 1983 while she was a professor at Ole Miss. It maintains a small library at the University of Kansas and is currently completing a digital archive of African-American novels, the first in the United States.

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