Monday, August 17, 2009

Community History Intern Project: Summer 2009

This summer Ellen and I spent about four weeks working with a group of low-income minority teenagers in a community history project in Covington, Georgia. This stimulus-funded project was a collaborative partnership between the Washington Street Community Center and the African-American Historical Association of Newton County, on whose board of directors I serve.

The first week, my involvement with the project was at a distance, and the six young people were directly supervised by local activists Forrest Sawyer, Jr. and Flemmie Pitts, who are civil rights activists with long standing interesting in community history and youth empowerment in Newton County. The teens concentrated on building up the Association's wiki, researching local African-American church histories and sport histories as well as their own family histories. Carlus for instance explored the fascinating history of the Goss Family, researching its roots in nearby Walton County. In this work, the teens received a great deal of help from staff and volunteers at the Newton County Public Library in Covington, and began to learn how to use the wonderful resources in the library's Georgia History room.

When Ellen and I arrived, we introduced the young people to video shooting and editing techniques, and helped them set up and administer a YouTube channel for the African-American Historical Association. We had a great session in Covington's two major African American cemeteries (Westview and the city cemetery) with Ms. Emogene Williams, one of the leading community historians. (The above photograph shows us in the City Cemetery with Ms. Williams, near the grave of Rev. Toney Baker, one of Ms. Williams' ancestors.) Carlus took us to meet her wonderful grandmother, Ms. Bertha Goss, the founder of a noted local beauty salon; the group made their first YouTube video about this visit.

We also worked closely with Deacon Richard Johnson, who had been a prominent activist in the County during the Civil Rights movement. The students shot and edited a brief video of him sharing memories of the movement standing in Covington square, where the local desegregation struggle had culminated in the spring of 1970. In this and the videos that followed, the young people edited in some music, sung by themselves and their friends at the Washington Street Community Center,and recorded themselves doing introductions and wrap up clips. They also did several fascinating video sessions inside the old County jail, videoing former SCLC activist Tyrone Brooks (now a George State Representative) and Deacon Johnson, sharing their memories of incarceration during the Freedom Struggle.

The young men interns, who were fascinated by local sports history, also did an interview with Deacon Sawyer on his season as quarterback with the Wolverines Football Team during the 1967 season. (The young women had a good deal of fun with their friends organizing and recording football cheers for this segment) The group later shot another video at the site of R.L. Cousins high school, where the Wolverines won an outstanding victory. In addtion to the video footage shot in the field, the group conceived of the idea of creating a YouTube TV studio at the Washington Street Community Center, which they termed the "Washington Street Community History Network," inviting community members to be interviewed about various aspects of community history. The young men interviewed such prominent figures as Mr. J.P. Godfrey, Jr. about his experiences in the Armed Forces and his memories of Jim Crow in and out of the service.

The young woman, in turn, concentrated on video documentation of African-American women leaders in the county. These included:

We also did work with slavery-related records in the county's Judicial Center, concentrating on the records in Probate Court and in real estate deeds. Carlus became fascinated with the story of an enslaved group of people owned by Benjamin Overby and sold apart from one another after his death. Jasmine and Michah were especially intrigued by the story of a free woman of color known as Susan Ivey, who in December 1863 petitioned the Inferior Court for the right to be made a slave, designating the white woman she wished to be her mistress and owner. We were, with help from Walton County activist Bobby Howard, able to locate and interview Susan Ivey's living descendants, who were able to fill in some of the gaps in the historical documentary record. Working with the extraordinary local storyteller and performer Andy Irwin, the thre young woman scripted and workshopped a play about Susan Ivey, in which they speculated on the series of events that led her to take this unusual step. They did several wonderful workshop performances of the play in Covington, including a memorable one at Bethlehem Baptist Church (the County's oldest African American house of worship). We hope they'll be able to do a full performance for the community at some point this Fall.

The young women interns decided to name themselves "The I.N.D.E.P.E.N.D.E.N.T 3" and created a wrap up video about their summer experiences on the project.

Along the way, the interns also developed concepts for Historic Markers throughout the County, marking significant sites in local African-American history, including church history and the Freedom Struggle.

We received an enormous amount of help from community members during the summer. We are grateful in particular for support from Ms. Cherly Delk, Special Projects Coordinator for the county, who made it possible for the young people to use excellent video and recording equipment; to Ms. Bea Jackson, the Director of the Washington Street Community Center; which generously hosted the project, Bob Fernard, who instructed the young people in video shooting and editing; Betsy Morehouse (who kindly hosted our visit to historic Burge Plantation); Bobby Howard and Waymand Mundy (Moore's Ford Memorial Committee), who took us around historic sites in Walton County; Rev. Avis Williams, the artist Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier; and to many, many others.

We're still assessing the strengths and limitations of the program, and thinking about how to make the program better the next time around. There's no question that we need to do a better job of direct, hands on supervision. There were times when many of the interns, most of whom had not held regular jobs before, felt they were at loose ends at times. Sometimes the level of "creative chaos" in the project, especially in the video studio, got a little too intense for productive work (although at times, the informal give and take yielded wonderful results.) In some cases, there simply wasn't time to follow through on many of the interns' excellent ideas, including their desire to present their proposals for inclusive Historic Markers to the County Board of Commissioners. But all in all I remain deeply grateful to the young people who worked so hard, and to the many volunteers who gave some generously of their time during the summer.

I'm eager to bring some of my Cultural Production graduate students, as well as my undergraduate students from Brandeis, back to Covington at some point to continue this collaborative work in public history.

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