Roanoke College

Deetz and history students capture civil rights stories

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  • Deetz and history students capture civil rights stories

  • 12/16/13
  • The journey of Lucy Martin Harmon was a long one.

    She was born in Pulaski, Virginia, in 1914. After milking the cow every morning on the family farm she walked four miles to school because blacks weren't allowed to ride the school bus.

    Public education for blacks stopped at ninth grade, but her parents heard about a black high school in Alabama.

    "There was a fella...he had been to Tuskegee and he said it was a nice dry climate and it soothed my momma and daddy to know the climate was good," she told Roanoke College history professor Kelley Deetz earlier this year. "And so they said, we'll send she and her brother to Tuskegee."

    Deetz captured Harmon's testimony in the spring of 2013, just two weeks before Harmon died at the age of 99. The stories of Harmon, her daughter Marylen, and two Roanoke residents are told in "A Mosaic of Memories: Recalling Local Voices of the Movement," an exhibit that opened in September at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke.

    Consisting of interview and photographs, "A Mosaic of Memories" is a companion installation to "This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement," a larger exhibit that is touring the United States in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. "This Light of Ours" features the work of nine photographers who were active in the civil rights movement.

    "Part of the contract of having this exhibit is you have to have a local story as well," says Deetz. "Cindy Petersen, of Taubman's education department, contacted me and asked if I'd be willing to put together a student-led project. I decided to interview people and do black and white photography."

    The words and pictures tell the story of African Americans as they struggled through the era of segregation, followed by the civil rights movement and integration.

    Equality was just a distant hope in the late 1920s, when Lucy Martin and her brother, then about 13 and 14 years old, boarded a train in the predawn darkness, headed south for high school in Alabama.

    In Tuskegee she met Chauncey Harmon, whose family she had known back home. She later married him. She also met pioneering scientist George Washington Carver and served his meals.

    She came back to Virginia and was a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Pulaski County for equal pay for black teachers. The attorney was Thurgood Marshall, later the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court. He won the case.

    Harmon and her husband moved to Salem and raised a family. She taught first grade at G.W. Carver, then a first through 12th-grade school for blacks, using damaged textbooks that had been discarded by the white schools. Things started changing. She watched her daughter, Marylen , grow up to earn a Ph.D. and become a teacher in the integrated schools of Roanoke County.

    In 2008 came the day that she, a child of the Jim Crow South, never thought would happen when President Barack Obama was inaugurated. "My daddy always said be smart and learn your lessons," she told Deetz. "And he said one of these days we will have a president and he will be a black man and I laughed and said 'That will be the day.'"

    Deetz learned of Lucy Harmon after John Long '89, senior lecturer in history at Roanoke and director of the Salem Museum and Historical Society, introduced her to Marylen  Harmon, who produced a list of candidates for Deetz's project. Twelve were contacted but only four came forward.

    "This experience is so recent and it's very close to a lot of these folks' emotions and family," Deetz says. "To bare your emotions and your memories of a very hard time in your life is hard to do. And you're risking a lot in telling your story. Things haven't changed as much as they could have, so I think there's also possibly an element of fear."

    This did not surprise Deetz, an assistant professor of history who specializes in African American studies.

    Deetz grew up in Berkeley, Calif., which pioneered African American studies in the public schools. "Black history wasn't a February-only thing," she says. The field is increasingly diverse, with recent graduate school cohorts split between scholars with African and non-African ancestry.

    While Deetz's specialty is the archaeology of slave communities, she was happy to undertake a project involving living witnesses. "It was very powerful, very moving,  providing them a platform to have a voice," she says.

    The interviews and transcriptions were done with the help of history students Catherine Bonilla '14 and Jason Garst '13.

    Dr. Deetz and Catherine Bonilla

    Dr. Deetz and Catherine Bonilla

    "I wanted to do something different than just the classwork I was doing, so my advisor sent me to Dr. Deetz," says Bonilla, who is majoring in international relations and history.  She worked on "Mosaic" as an intern in the Public History program.

    A common lament among the interviewees was young people's unawareness of the sacrifices of the civil rights activists, some of whom lost their lives in the battle.

    Chauncey Harmon was in Birmingham recruiting teachers at the time of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. "We saw it on television one morning," Marylen Harmon told Deetz in a recorded interview. "We saw it burning and the scariness of it. And I said to Momma, 'Is Daddy going to die?' and she said 'No.' She was sweating bullets, I found out later." A cab driver had to put Chauncey Harmon in the front seat so he would pass unnoticed as a chauffeur.

    "Their own children don't understand what they went through," says Deetz. "Seeing the sadness of that was very moving, because it wasn't that long ago that the civil rights movement happened."

    "A Mosaic of Memories" will rotate to other museums after Taubman, helping educate young and old alike. Education, Lucy Harmon knew, is worth fighting for.

    "A Mosaic of Memories" and "This Light of Ours" are on display at the Taubman Museum until Jan. 18. Admission is free. See www.taubmanmuseum.org for directions and hours.

    Story and photos by Randolph Walker.

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