I returned a few days ago from a trip to the South with my wife and four old friends. We visited important civil rights sites in Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, Jackson, and Memphis. It was a deeply moving, deeply informative, deeply disturbing, and deeply uplifting trip. There were many highlights, with the Equal Justice Initiative’s museum and lynching memorial in Montgomery among the most moving. Both, in different ways, told the story of the hundreds of years of enslavement and racial terrorism that African Americans have endured in this country. EJI has documented more than 4,000 cases of lynching and underscored that one of the most important motivating factors behind the Great Migration of some 6 million Blacks from the South was the desire to flee racial terror and endemic violence. It is a history that most Americans either don’t know or choose to ignore.
Other sites and museums documented the astonishing efforts of hundreds and thousands of (mostly) unnamed individuals who fought enslavement, Jim Crow, and racial terrorism. In each city, we stopped to read the plaques and remembrances of those who were part of that struggle, soldiers in a battle for equality and dignity. In Montgomery, we read the plaque (left) dedicated to Charles Oscar Harris, African American Community Leader, who was one of the longest active Republicans in Alabama. “On March 11, 1875,” the marker noted, “Harris and other prominent Montgomery African Americans tested the Civil Rights Act of 1875 by purchasing tickets to the white-only section of the Montgomery Theatre. Being denied seats, they pursued their rights in court.” He raised 10 children with his wife, Ellen Hassell Hardaway, 9 of whom attended college (the 10th died in childhood). Mr. Harris, the plaque informed, attended Oberlin College.
In the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, we learned about Emily & Mary Edmonson (right), who “were just 16 and 13 respectively in 1848 when they snuck aboard The Pearl in Washington DC,” hoping to sail north to freedom. They were caught, but “white abolitionists helped their father, a free black, buy their freedom before they could be sold into prostitution. Educated at Oberlin, the girls became abolitionists.”
Walking on, we came on a tribute to Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, “one of the first African American women to earn a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree.” Dr. Cooper graduated from Oberlin in 1884. Continue reading