I’ve been extremely busy these past couple of days, working on some exciting projects! But in the midst of planning and preparing for future endeavors, I’m still reflecting and processing this more recent trip to Mississippi. It is still unreal to know that I’m not going to be heading back for an extended period of time. But alas, I still have plenty of memories to share and explore that only scratched the surface of my continuing introduction to the south.
I spent two weeks in Mississippi, starting right after graduation on June 14th-June 29th. In that time I was a social media intern and a mentor for a summer youth program called SYI (Summer Youth Institute) at an amazing place called the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation located at the University of Mississippi. A mouthful of words, I know. But this is a very special place. Very special. This is a place that is dedicated and committed to actually working to build a better society and addressing social inequalities. And they are starting from the most important place, exactly where they are. SYI is a great program that is dedicated in bringing forth rising 9th and 10th graders from around the state and implementing leadership skills through a lens and focus of local and national civil rights history.
There were two programs I had the pleasure of working in: a session with new students and a session with returning students. One of the things that I absolutely loved about this program is how much I am being exposed to the state’s history and furthermore the experiences of the students and how much they’ve taught me. These kids, gosh these kids are amazing. So bright and aware of what is going on in their schools with the lack of funding and their communities with the continuation of segregated neighborhoods. I swear I learned more from them than they did from me. But a particular moment I will never forget was when we visited a nearby city called Holly Springs, MS.
Holly Springs is just one place in Mississippi that has big grand colonial and antebellum houses spread around. But what is truly captivating about this place is the preservation of the plantation houses. Often referred to as “The Big House” these houses display both beautiful and eerie images of the past. And when I say beautiful I mean the beautiful constructions of the homes and their grand architecture. And as for the eerie part, I hope I don’t have to go very far in-depth about whose backs these houses were built on and whose backs maintained them, the families that lived in them and the fields owned by the plantation owners. Enslaved Africans. Each spring there is a surge of visitors who come and visit these homes and tour them. The unfortunate part about this is that when we talk about our history, we often portray the dominant side and leave out the rest. Luckily, we didn’t experience that. The Winter Institute, being the awesome place that it is, made sure that when we discuss our histories, we uplift the stories that haven’t been heard and the unsung heroes that our textbooks leave out.
That day with the students, we met with a group of community members and a University of Mississippi African American studies professor, Dr. Jodi Skipper who have all contributed immensely to showing the other side of the plantation house that many have never been exposed to, the slave quarters. A tour that is led every spring under the name “Behind the Big House,” is manifested in the passion of the tour guides who realize the importance and need to preserve the history of those who were in bondage and were disgraced from society. We toured three houses each with their own, sometimes separate and sometimes not, rooms where the plantation owner’s slaves would reside. These rooms were set up with various pieces of furniture, some decorated with artificial food, cups, tableware and antiques. The tour guides made it clear that they had no idea how these rooms looked during that time. They only constructed what they imagined these spaces would look like. Some quarters were constructed better than others but when asked why that was the case, the answer had more to do with keeping up appearances for the slave-owner’s family rather than the wellbeing of the property’s slaves.
A lot of my emotions dealt with the disbelief that this was reality. That these houses, which really looked like any other house on the block, served and represented a house of oppression. A house of segregation. A house of abuse. A house that replenished itself on the blood, sweat and tears shed by black lives. A house that slowly killed black lives. At the same time, I was happy and proud that a group of committed people knew the value in preserving and telling the stories of those lost lives. Of those who sacrificed themselves, provided for their own families the best they could while they served as property to the upper class. But what propelled me into a space of true pride was something that Dr. Jodi Skipper had said at the end of our tour. She said that these were not just enslaved African Americans. These people were inventors, electricians, metal smiths, doctors, teachers, chefs, botanists and so much more. Their innovations and creativity built these homes, towns, cities and our country. So be proud of your ancestors, because in spite of their conditions they were able and continued to become all of these different professions. The ways in which these students embraced that message was incredible. They shared with us later that they are proud of their histories and were eager to take those stories back into their classrooms. One student even mentioned how whenever slavery or black history ever came up in her class people would always look to her to see her reaction. Well now, she said, she’s got something to say.