An Archive of Understanding
By Rachel L. Stinson ’08
The Rev. Billy Kyles stood on the balcony of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel when a rifle crack from a few hundred yards away ended the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Kyles was there to take King to dinner at his home that evening. The next day, the two were to have marched with thousands of others in support of the sanitation workers’ strike. The pastor of Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis, Kyles lived in an era when civil rights protests were often silenced. Now, thanks to a Rhodes-led digital archive project, voices like his from the civil rights movement cannot be silenced again.
Russ Wigginton ’88 and Suzanne Bonefas know that to affect the future, one must recall the past.Crossroads to Freedom is doing just that.
The digital archive (crossroadstofreedom.org) covers the movement that changed history and the people who witnessed that change. Their words are captured on tape, and historically significant documents are available for viewing on the computer. Crossroads aims to ignite conversation because, according to Wigginton, talking is what ultimately leads to change.
Such conversation about how the past impacts the present—and the future—began with the archive’s launch in April 2007. This year, a national conversation led by Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Benjamin Hooks was scheduled on campus to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday.
Wigginton, vice president for college relations, and Suzanne Bonefas, director of special projects, lead the Crossroads effort.
“The original idea was how Rhodes could contribute to learning about the civil rights movement,” says Wigginton, who is a scholar of African-American history, author of the book The Strange Career of the Black Athlete and former Rhodes history professor and Hearst fellow. “Given the fact that we are in a city that’s so connected to the civil rights movement, we thought we were a legitimate candidate.”
Students agreed and signed on to assist with the project. Since summer 2005, a total of 19 students—12 from Rhodes—have worked on the project. Five are from Central High School, the remaining two from other colleges. Of the current six Rhodes students working on the project, three are Rhodes student associates, who work during the school year, and three are Crossroads fellows, who also work during the summer.
“Students do all of the project management,” Bonefas says. “In consultation with their project faculty and staff, they determine whom to interview, set up the interview, conduct the interview and digitize it.”
The students are trained in oral history interviewing, but when mastering skills such as successful interviewing techniques, they perhaps learn the most from each other.
Students work in teams while they execute specific assignments from start to finish. For this reason, Wigginton and Bonefas believe that the experience of creating a digital archive will benefit students beyond their undergraduate studies.
“They not only see those processes; they’re developing them all and learning the complexity of what it takes to make a digital archive,” Bonefas says. “We meet weekly, and they all share what they’re working on and what their challenges have been. They do a lot of group problem solving.”
Students interview well-known civil rights activists, such as Kyles, in addition to everyday people. These “common” people not only witnessed the civil rights movement, they lived it.
“This period had an overwhelming impact on them, and the archive gives them a safe space to share those experiences,” says Bonefas.
In addition to interviews, the digital archive holds publications and other print materials significant to civil rights. Among those is a 20-year run of The Memphis World, an African-American newspaper no longer in publication. All archived materials are searchable by date, subject and key words.
“We have a couple of special collections,” Bonefas adds. “One is about the desegregation of the Hoxie, AR, schools in 1955, which was our prototype collection. We also have a collection of papers from Judge Russell Sugarmon.” Sugarmon is a prominent Memphian who practiced law in one of the nation’s first integrated law firms and ran successfully for the state senate.
Wigginton is especially proud of one addition to the archive: The Civil Rights Commission Report from 1962, a 500-page document.
Through such significant interviews and documents, Crossroads aims to benefit not only Rhodes students but middle- and high-school students at Memphis City Schools.
But Bonefas and Wigginton hope the archive’s impact doesn’t stop at Memphis’ city lines.
“We’re absolutely hoping to branch out,” Wigginton says, with Bonefas adding, “We feel it will initially be of interest in particular in Memphis, but others who are interested in the civil rights movement will have a lot to gain from it.”
Wigginton believes that civil rights movement researchers can benefit from the archive because it provides a wide variety of hard-to-find information. It incorporates only primary sources, “without our added analysis.”
He explains, “Our goal is to present a wide variety of information related to this period—approximately 1950-70—so that there is an array of perspectives. Once you visit this archive, it’ll be hard to make many snap judgments related to the civil rights movement. We want to create a venue through which people—Memphians and beyond—can engage in civil discourse about a not-always civil part of our history.”
Hearing the reality of the past can positively alter the future, Wigginton believes.
“In order to effect progress, we can’t take the road we’ve already traveled. The next generation of leaders won’t recall how today was shaped and framed by the civil rights era. This era influenced Memphis, so it’s not just learning about the past. It’s real and connected to today.”
Wigginton himself was able to make that connection through the realization of an eerie fact: In very recent Memphis history, legal segregation was everyday life.
“In the big scheme of things, it was like yesterday,” he says. “And partly because of that, these issues are still very much a part of the people in our society. Coming to terms with that is not going to happen unless we continue to find avenues in which to engage this material. It’s personal, and it’s emotional.”
Yet, people want to talk about the civil rights movement. Wigginton largely credits people’s openness to Crossroads’ approach to facilitating conversation.
“They view this as a place where they can talk,” he says. “When people aren’t asked to choose sides but to talk about how segregation impacted them, it’s less about putting them in a certain category. It’s a part of their identity. It’s a part of their family legacy and history. And it’s a part of the community in which they live. They want to talk about it because it’s life.”
Davis Falvey, Snowden School
Snowden School seventh-grade teacher Davis Falvey showed his students the Crossroads interview with Maxine Smith, who was executive secretary of the Memphis NAACP for more than 40 years. Then the students listened to Smith speak in person.
“Watching the interview helped students prepare appropriate, informed questions about her role in the desegregation of Memphis City Schools,” Falvey says.
Falvey incorporates Crossroads into his teaching curriculum, and, as a result, has noted spiked student interest in the historical material.
“The students have enjoyed learning about the freedom struggle in Memphis history by exploring the archive,” he says. “They seem more engaged and interested in learning from personal stories and recollections rather than from secondary sources.”
He says that interest can be attributed, in part, to “a more natural and familiar way of learning” in listening to stories. Listening as a learning tool is especially helpful for students who are not strong readers. Crossroads benefits students through its “ease of access and the ability to search transcripts for key words.”
In addition, Falvey is using Crossroads as a model for Snowden’s own history project, Connecting Generations, with seventh- and eighth-graders.
“Crossroads is a fantastic archive of primary source material for students and teachers,” Falvey says. “The whole community benefits from Crossroads, especially educators who are looking for innovative ways to engage their students in historical research.”
As for the teacher himself, “It has helped me understand the local struggles on a more personal level so that I can teach more effectively about the civil rights era.”
According to Falvey, Crossroads isn’t just an archive for the past; it’s an archive that relates to the present. He explains, “The struggle for equality is ongoing, and we study past examples of social movement in order to continue the modern-day struggle to continually improve our society. Memories must be preserved because they connect us with our past and help guide us in the future.”
Francesca Davis ’08
Francesca Davis ’08 explored cultural differences in Memphis before doing the same overseas.
As lead Crossroads fellow, Davis was responsible for coordinating, organizing and executing various projects with a team of nine others. The group’s projects included scheduling and conducting interviews and scanning documents from the Sugarmon collection for the archive.
“I definitely liked working with a team of people who contributed such great energy and ideas to the project,” Davis says. “Working with different personalities and perspectives kept things interesting last summer.”
In fall 2007, Davis left for Denmark to study psychology and child development in a cultural context.
“The preschool where I work has a handful of ethnic children whose parents do not speak Danish,” she says. “So I am learning first-hand how teachers are handling cultural differences.”
About studying cultural differences back home, she explains, “As a Memphian, my participation in the project means that I am learning about my heritage, about myself. When we interview people, they share many painful memories of a not-so-pleasant time in our city’s history. They open themselves up to perfect strangers, yet every one of them does it with such incredible strength and resolve because they know the importance of passing that history along.”
Those people include Jim Lanier, professor emeritus of history who taught during the sanitation workers’ strike and later marched through downtown Memphis with Dr. King, and Lynne Turley, a white music teacher in segregated Memphis City Schools who incorporated African-American folk songs and spirituals into her lessons.
Davis comments, “They built for us a strong foundation of activism, of political and social awareness, of hope. They taught me that activism does not necessarily mean participating in marches; it can mean critically examining one’s surroundings and taking a stand.”
Davis believes that understanding the past is imperative to understanding the present. Rather than trying to tell people the story of the movement, Crossroads aims to provide the tools for critical examination of Memphis culture.
“The project is meant to get people to ask themselves and others questions about the period,” Davis says.
The archive can educate any viewer, from young to old, and “could also bridge the gap between generations of people in a constructive and positive way,” she says. For example, Davis explains, after watching an interview, a high-schooler might ask his or her grandparents about their experiences during the period. “The opportunities to utilize the project,” she says, “are countless.”
When she met people who experienced the civil rights movement, Davis encountered an array of emotions. Talking about the movement unearths memories of hatred and violence that only a survivor can understand, she says.
“I think that completely different feelings and emotions come from those who lived in the civil rights movement and the people who learn about it second-hand,” Davis explains. “I could never be able to truly understand what it was like for Eddie Mae Hawkins (a cook at the Lorraine Motel in the years after Dr. King’s assassination) to see, smell and taste the tear gas that was thrown into a group of marching people in downtown Memphis. I could never feel what it is like to send your child to school escorted by police every day like the Rev. Billy Kyles. Now, I am able to hear these stories.” And now, so are others.
Daniel Jacobs ’09
“History isn’t just the study of the big leaders,” says Daniel Jacobs ’09. “It’s the study of the common people and what they think.”
For Jacobs, working on the archive as a Rhodes student associate has emphasized that train of thought in particular. He has conducted some of the interviews that are now accessible through Crossroads.
“The archive will be helpful to anyone interested in the civil rights movement,” he says. “It’s more open-ended than some other Web sites because it’s not about civil rights heroes; it’s about all different kinds of people who were just here in Memphis during that time period.
“I definitely learned something about Memphis,” Jacobs states. “It’s kind of hard to put it into words. I learned about the massive amount of work that went into the civil rights movement. You read about events like the march on Washington or the King assassination here or the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that was the beginning of the end of school segregation. Doing this project has shown me how many tiny things also went into the movement. I’ve gained a better understanding of Memphis civil rights history and a better understanding of how to work with a historical archive.”
Before working on the project, Jacobs didn’t realize the amount of work that a digital archive requires. Now, however, “I know all the intricate details that go into obtaining and classifying materials and putting them out there.”
In addition to interviews with everyday people, he says, “We’re slowly trying to have interviews with people who were opposed to the civil rights movement. And I think that’s important because if we want to learn from our history, we need to understand why people would have those opinions, why people would be opposed to integration, so we can learn how to prevent that kind of thing in the future.”
Jacobs explains that the archive gives viewers “a better look at their background and all the important events that were happening in Memphis 40 years ago.” Simultaneously, the project allows Rhodes students, including non-history majors, to reach out into the community.
The civil rights movement may have ended decades ago, but its effects still ripple. Jacobs explains, “The movement still has an impact on Memphis today. Having a discussion about the civil rights movement in Memphis will help people work together better. If people look at the past through Crossroads, that might facilitate conversation about issues we face.”
Crystal Windless ’08
Crystal Windless’08, recipient of the Edgar Wiggin Francisco Scholarship, knows that Memphis has made substantial progress since the civil rights movement. But she also knows that there is much progress to be made.
“We live in Memphis, which is still a divided city,” she says. “If you look at a school like Rhodes, it’s enrolling more and more minority students, and having a project like this represents progress. But people still live in different parts of the city; people still have different types of friends, and that’s an effect that has not changed.”
In summer 2006, Windless began participating in Crossroads as a Rhodes student associate. Her joint internship consisted of working for Crossroads and Memphis’ Stax Museum, which is dedicated to African-American soul music and is situated at the site of the former Stax Records. Now, she collects oral history, researches, conducts interviews, puts information on the Web site and helps with Snowden’s project.
“When I was growing up in school, history seemed like it could be really cool, but it wasn’t cool because of the way it was taught,” she says. “But when it’s time for these Snowden students to go, they stick around to ask more questions.”
Meeting people who contributed to the movement also holds great significance to her: “Probably the most rewarding thing is just sitting down face-to-face with people who were active in the civil rights movement—people you read about or people your parents have talked about. You think, ‘We just talked about you in class,’ or ‘I just watched a movie about you, and now we’re sitting in your home.’”
But the reality of the movement also comes from lesser-known witnesses.
“To hear everyday people talking about their lives in the civil rights movement, you kind of get captured in it,” she explains. “You get a better picture of history, and it becomes real. Sometimes you go into an interview expecting one thing, but people will surprise you. When they give you a specific story about history, wow.”
Windless fondly recalls speaking with Henry Turley, a Memphis real estate developer who’s watched the city’s growth since childhood, and Johnnie Turner, who currently serves as executive director of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP. Windless says, “When I heard her story and all the things that she did and was responsible for, I thought, ‘This woman is more powerful than I ever knew.’”
Windless feels that, today, people remain uninformed about the movement. She and the Crossroads crew aim to end the ignorance.
“We want to enlighten people that this is a pivotal part of history, that this is not over. This is history being revisited. We need to think about it and get a clear understanding.”
As for why that understanding is necessary, Windless states, “The segregation rules and laws are gone, but the effects are still there. We’ll have only a chapter in our history book about the civil rights movement, and so many people still don’t know why it was crucial.”
One person who does understand is Charles Penix, son of the former Hoxie, AR, School Board attorney and Windless’ first interview.
“He’s white and grew up with black kids,” Windless explains, “but when he got to a certain age, he was told, ‘Okay, this is over. Now you’re different and better than blacks.’ And he was so confused. When he talked about the civil rights movement, he began to cry. I realized that African Americans were not the only people hurt.”
“We’re very pleased that Crossroads is performing critical roles—a historical one, and one that builds for the future,” says Wigginton. “It is a true credit to the visionary sponsors who provided the resources that helped us get this project under way. FedEx was an early partner in the effort as was the Mellon Foundation. And it’s gratifying that the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a federal agency that typically supports large, well-established libraries and museums, found Crossroads worthy of support. Last year, IMLS funded projects at only two liberal arts institutions—Rhodes and Williams.
“We’re also grateful to the heroes who shared their stories, and I hope the readers of Rhodes magazine will contact us if they have memories of the civil rights movement to share,” he says.