Wade in the Water: Mississippi Delta Oral History Project

Social Change in American Communities: Memory and Cultural Production in the Mississipi Delta (Soc 156a), spring 2006

Faculty Reflection by Mark Auslander

We were fortunate to receive a generous grant from Brandeis University's Theodore and Jane Norman program, which would allow us take eight students and a Teaching Fellow to the Delta for a nine-day research trip without substantial expenses for the students, so we began to make plans for a course. We decided to try to do the entire course within a single semester, locating the trip during our mid-semester break in February (17-26). [In hindsight, this was perhaps not the best approach; the time in Missisippi proved enormously intense and draining for the entire group, and we plunged back into classes and mid-terms in a somewhat 'ragged' state. There are days when I still feel, a year after the course ended, that we are all "recovering" from the class! In the future, it might be better to space the course over two semesters, travelling to the Delta during the January break, and then having an entire semester in the spring to process the experience and develop meaningful materials based on our data. Alternately, we might try do a "field school" in June, after regular classes and commencement.

Having said that, we did manage to get a great deal accomplished in a compressed amount of time. In October 2005, we put out a call for interested students, and received application essays from about 40 undergraduates. We interviewed about half of these; we met many extraordinary young people in these interviews, and I've often wondered what it would have been like to work with each one of them in the Delta. The eight students selected represented a diverse range of Brandeis students, in terms of age, gender, race/ethnicity, and academic interests. We were extremely lucky that Rachel Kulick, a gifted doctoral student in Sociology, agreed to serve as the course's Teaching Fellow. Ellen Schattschneider, also a faculty member in Anthropology, agreed to volunteer her time to come down to the Delta with us; she kindly drove the rented van and helped on logistics and pedagogy in innumerable ways. We simply couldn't have done the trip without her.

The Class Before our Trip

We had an extraordinarily gifted group of students in the course, but David and I were mindful that everyone was taking the course as an overload, and so tried to limit the academic work in the first month of the semester. We read several key texts on the Delta, looked at some videos, talked about different disciplinary perspectives on social and cultural reseach, trained students in the use of ipods (for digital audio recording in the field), and reviewed our planned itinerary in Mississippi. In hindsight, it would have been better if we'd assigned more structured writing projects before heading to the Delta; perhaps each student could have developed expertise in a specific problem or issue,and written a short research or position paper on it. We also should have, I have come to realize, allowed more of a space for frank discussions of the dynamics of race and power within our small group.

David and I had hoped that before we left for Mississippi, our students would have a chance to develop a relationship of some sort with our community partners. We did set up a community blog to which several friends in the Delta were subscribed; but this never really took off, although some of the postings were quite thoughtful and meaningful.

We knew that we wanted the course to produce some sort of tangible outcomes, that would be beneficial to our community partners in the Delta. Our initial idea was to develop a set of digital audio walking or driving tours, along the lines of what my Museums and Public Memory course had done the previous semester, in collaboration with the West Medford Afro-American Remembrance Committee, creating a digital tour of West Medford's historic African-American neighborhood. David and I had paid a visit to the Delta in January '06. Guided by Luther Brown, the Director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning (Delta State University), by the Delta Blues Museum (Clarksdale) director Shelly Ritter, cultural entrepreneur and activist Sylvestr Hoover, and the Delta scholar and activist Pamela Moore, we had a pretty good idea of the locales for the digital audio research to concentrate on: the New World District of Clarksdale, Baptist Town in Greenwood, and Mound Bayou (an extraordinary community that had remained under African-American leadership throughout the Jim Crow era). Our students ended up collecting a great deal of video and audio materials in these communities, but after the class returned from Mississippi in late February we realized that developing workable walking tours was beyond our technical capabilities and time limitations. In the West Medford case, my students had been working with a single community organization nearby; we were able to consult with them frequently as we developed the tour, and to record or edit new segments based on their feedback. In the Mississippi case, it just wasn't possible to play our community partners draft audio footage and to revise our materials in a timely fashion Our thinking also altered during our time in the Delta, as we came to appreciate the great local need for educational materials about the Delta that could be used in local classrooms. So in the end we decided that the best "product" might be a Web site sharing edited and raw audio interviews, that in time could the basis for lesson plans (still to be developed) for use in middle school and high school classrooms (in the Delta and elsewhere.)

Research in the Delta

Our nine days in the Delta (Feb 17-2) were so full, so rich, so profoundly moving, and so emotionally intense that I can't begin to do justice to them in a brief account. (See the course trip log for day by day details.) On Friday, Feb. 17, we flew down to Memphis, picked up the rental van and made our way south to Clarksdale, where we got a walking tour of the New World District, a neighborhood that had played an important role in the early development of the blues. We then made our way to to the Delta State University campus in Cleveland, where Luther Brown (of the Delta Center for Teaching and Learning) had arranged for students and instructors to reside in two houses during our time in the Delta. The living room of the student house became our informal classroom for the next eight days, where we would debrief and relax at the end of each long day.

Our first full day, Saturday, Feb. 18 found us in Clarksdale, where we'd paid a brief visit the previous day. Bubba O'Keefe gave us a tour of his museum on the history of the radio station WROX, and we learned a great deal about the pioneering African-American DJ Early Wright, also known as "Soul man".

The plan had been to have a community meeting that morning in the Clarksdale Public Library, to run our ideas by representatives of the Clarksdale African-American community. The library was closed due to an ice storm and I'm not really sure that many people would have shown up in any case. (Generally speaking, it is better to tap into an existing community organization meeting for this sort of thing, rather than summoning busy community folks to a special meeting.) By a great stroke of luck, however, Shelly Ritter learned that a community group was holding a "Soul Food Fiesta" to raise money for an imperiled Headstart program in East Clarksdale, a predominantly African-American community. So we headed over to the fundraiser, at W.A. Higgins Middle School, and were warmly greeted by the school principal and by community members. This remains one of my warmest and most powerful memories of trip: in an instant, all the cold, freezing rain, and worry melted away and we were engaged in a range of facinating and deeply moving conversations with African-American men and women about education, poverty, social development and their hopes for the future. We met the brilliant and charismatic Johnny Lewis, a movement activist who had been an English teacher at Higgins;in subsequent days he became one of our most important interlocutors in Clarksdale. Johnny's voice is featured on our class Web site's homepage.

It was a little unfortunate that we then had to take a two day break from Clarksdale, although many important things happened to us during this time. On Sunday some of us (three students were ill) were able to go to a beautiful worship service at Stranger's Home Baptist Church in Shaw, where we were hosted by Deacon Jim Collins, who then took us back to his place where he told us remarkable stories of growing up in the Delta. At Stranger's Home we heard a moving performance of the old spiritual "Wade in the Water,"which Margot later suggested serve as the title of our class Web site. We then picked up with the rest of the group and went to visit the remarkable farm of Mr and Ms. Horn near Mound Bayou, where we were joined by the noted African-American artist Lynn Marshall-Linnemeir and her dear friend Eunice Sanders (with whom the class became very close.) We were moved by the Horns' philosophical reflections on making a life off of the land. We then headed into Mound Bayou; there wasn't time for the planned walking tour of the community, but we did do extensive interviewing with members of the Mound Bayou Historical Foundation. (I'm sorry to say these rich materials still aren't ready for posting on line.)

Monday was another packed day. Deacon Collins took us on a tour of Shaw, his hometown,and then we met up with Luther Brown at the Delta Center for Culture and Learning. We had decided to put our group together with a group being led with Rabbi Seth Limmer from New York State, who were touring the Delta. In hindsight, this probably wasn't a good idea. Our students were eager to get back to their research project in Clarksdale and were frustrated with what they regarded as a tangent. That evening, we were generously treated to dinner by the Cleveland Jewish community at Adath Israel and then to a conversation in the sanctuary about Jewish life in the Delta. I came to realize during the evening that we hadn't given our student sufficient background about Jewish history in Mississippi. We had a very intense, difficult conversation back in the student house on campus; students were deeply shaken to learn that by and large the Delta Jewish community had not been active in the Civil Rights movement, and this led to some interesting if painful conversations about historical complicity and accountabilty.

Tuesday was a marvelous, if very long day. Johnny Lewis gave us a priceless walking tour of Clarksdale's New World District, full of humor and pathos, recalling the changing economic fortunes of the community and sharing memories of great civil rights activist Aarron Henry and his 4th Street Pharmacy, as well as the New Roxy Theater, We then split up: David took some students to do archival research in the Clarksdale Public Library, and I headed over with some others back to W.A. Higgins Public School, where the principal had invited us to teach a workshop to 8th grade English students on oral history and community art projects. This was a delight; Claudia gave an inspiring address to the students about oral history and then the students interviewed one another (as well as me and Ellen) about all manner of topics, from their favorite restaurant to what we thought of the Iraq War. Hannah and others organized a student art event, as 8th graders drew their visions of East Clarksdale. This experience gave us a wonderful sense of what a Delta heritage project with local Middle Schoolers could be like, and we are eager to revisit this initiative soon.

That afternoon the whole class met up at George Messenger's Pool Hall in the New World District, which became our home away from home in Clarksdale. We then drove down to Mound Bayou, where Eunice gave us a tour of St. Gabriel's Mercy Center, a venerable community institution run by the Sisters of Mercy. We all fell in love with the mission's thrift store, "St. Gabriel's Closet", which Eunice supervises. We then headed over to the home of the late Milton Crow, Mound Bayou's renowned historian. Artist Lynn Marshall-Linnemeir, who had collaborated with Milton Crow for many years, spoke to us about her politically and historically-informed community art projects, including her "Stereo Propaganda" project. Milton's brother Richard, who resided in the house, told us spell-binding stories of his work as a driver for many leading figures in the civil rights movement. He was a remarkable man, and we were all saddened to learn of his passing several months ago.

Wednesday saw another highly productive day of oral history interviewing in Clarksdale, generating some of our most important material. Students worked with Ms. Brenda Outlaw in her fashion boutique, Ms. Shirley Fair in her flower shop, and collected memoires of Ms. Vera Pigee and her beauty shop. We also had several important conversations with Johnny Lewis and others about the importance of education and educators in the civil rights movement in Clarksdale. We closed the day in a celebratory mood back at Messenger's.

Thursday we took a break from direct research. Henry Outlaw took us on deeply fascinating and moving tour, recounting the story of the abduction and murder of Emmett Till, as well as the infamous ensuing trial. We were glad for a chance to connect with Susan Glisson (U of Mississippi) and hope to work more with her and her students in the future. That afternoon the students concentrated on their journals; Ellen, Rachel and I headed back to Clarksdale to do some follow up interviews and get a sense of local cemeteries. Shelly and I talked to the district's school superintendant about the possibilty of developing curricular materials on Delta heritage. That evening Luther and his wife Bonnie arranged for a wonderful dinner at Dockery Farms, where we were joined by our new friends from the Delta - Richard Crow, Eunice and Lynn.

On Friday we started what was in many respects the most difficult, though ultimately most rewarding, part of trip: two days of research in the low-income community of Baptist Town in Greenwood. We picked up the community activist Kathleen Cromwell in Itta Bena, and then drove directly into Baptist Town, crossing the railroad tracks that divide it from the rest of the city. We had breakfast at Hoover's Grocery store, which would be our home base for the next two days. Sylvester took us on a walk through Baptist Town, which was distinctly uncomfortable for many of the students, painfully conscious of being outsiders and strangers in a very low income community. The group sort of folded in on itself; we ended up having a pretty interesting conversation about this on the steps of a Baptist church, as students shared many of their frustrations and concerns.We decided as a group to take several proactive steps to get to know people in the community a little better; some students played a pickup game of basketball with local young people, others arranged to hold a community art workshop for local youth the next day (Mary Hoover kindly arranged for this to take place in the back room of Hoover's Grocery.) That afternoon, a blues band we had hired through Sylvester played outdoors for the whole community, and this gave us a chance to hang out with a wide range of people. Some of us interviewed Dr. Pauline Stamp, a scholar and activist who had grown up in Baptist Town, who shared important stories to tell about the community on the eve of the movement. We got a tour of the wonderful "Back in the Day" museum on the history of blues and sharecropping, that had just been opened by Sylvester and Mary Hoover.

Saturday, our last full day in the Delta, held some of our greatest highs and lows. Some students did archival research in the Greenwood library (a mixed race group, they felt their reception from the white librarians was pretty hostile). In the back room of Hoover's Grocery, some of us had a very productive meeting with the Baptist Town Community Development Association. In this same room, several students held a wonderful art workshop with young people in Baptist Town (one of their works can be seen on our Baptist Town Web page). Some of us went over to meet with State Senator David Jordan in the Courthouse; he shared with us stories of the movement in Greenwood. We dropped a (mixed race) group of students off at white-owned cafe in town; when I came back about 20 minutes later they were outside, explaining they had been refused service, that the manager had claimed the place was closed, although she sat an all-white group a few minutes later. I went into talk to the manager, but didn't get much satisfaction. The experience certainly put a pall over the day, which continued to resonate for many weeks afterwards. (That evening, as we debriefed, some of the students of color pointed out that such experiences were not entirely unfamiliar to them on the Brandeis campus.) We all gathered together at Hoover's Grocery, for a joyous couple of hours, taking great delight in all our new friends. One of the most beautiful events of our whole trip was watching Sam being instructed by Mr. Norwood in how to recite devotions in the old Baptist style, learning to sing "Have a Little Talk with Jesus."

We then raced over to Mound Bayou, where we had been invited by Eunice to the annual St. Gabriel's Senior Citizen Fashion show. We got there late, but there still time for Maria to dazzle everyone modeling finery for the "Closet" thrift store, and for Sam to play a heartbreakingly beautiful rendition of "Will the circle be unbroken?"

The next morning, we were all exhausted and more than a little sad to be leaving the Delta. But as we drove north we spotted Eunice's pickup truck parked at the Shelby turn off. She popped into van and presented the women students with special hats, parting gifts from St.Gabriel's Closet.

We drove to Memphis, where Margot's parents generously hosted us for brunch and then headed to the airport for the flight home.

After the Mississippi Trip

I think it fair to say we were overwhelmed with our trip to the Delta; we had seen terrible privation yet also been privileged to meet so many remarkable people, listen to such extraordinary stories and hear such wonderful music. (Vanessa's blog posting, a few days after our return, powerfully expressed this complex range of sentiments.) We were all conscious of the need to give something tangible back to our community partners, yet also aware that we had collected hundreds of hours worth of digital video and audio data, more than we could realistically process in the remainder of the term.

Each student undertook to edit a segment of digital audio, using the free application 'Audacity'; this was extremely demanding though rewarding work. I think we each found it particularly challenging to settle on one specific audio project to work on; so much had happened to us in the Delta that any given "audio portrait" seemed insufficient. We also faced some technological challenges, although students, with LTS help, were able to solve most of these.

Meanwhile, as a class we tried to decide what overall framework would make sense to organize our work. After some deliberation, we decided a Web site would work best, in part because we hoped it would be accessible to young people in the Delta (at least through workstations in school and in local libraries). We spent a good deal of time debating the title of the Web site, finally settling on "Wade in the Water," in memory of the gospel song we'd heard at Stranger's Home Baptist Church in Shaw. Hannah Chalew patiently worked through several iterations of a graphic design for the site, until coming up with a design that meant with the approval of the whole class and our major community partners. (We haven't given up on the idea of digital walking tours, that could be burned to CDs or downloaded via podcasts, but we haven't compiled those yet.)

Through our remaining Norman funds, supplemented by the generous support of the Dean's office, we were able to fly up several of our most important community partners -- Sylvester and Mary Hoover, Johnny Lewis, Kathleen Cromwell, Shelly Ritter and Luther Brown--up to Brandeis at the end of the semester. Johnny wanted to see Walden Pond so we headed over there; one of the most beautiful things I've ever experienced is being in Johnny's presence at the pond as he recited Thoreau in his deep, gravelly voice. At a gathering the next evening in the International Lounge, we played and discussed the edited digital audio segments and discussed the process we'd gone through.

After the Spring 2006 semester

Although a great deal of audio had been edited, we closed the semester without a coherent Web site; we're all grateful to Rachel and Margot for carrying the project forward during Spring 2007, and moving the Web site to a public "roll out." The site contains an "Archives" section, providing raw audio footage that that is available for downloading and editing by future classes at Brandeis as well as by interested students in the Delta. We look forward to continuing work on the site in future courses; we hope that students will develop lesson plans for use in middle and high schools in the Delta.