It is estimated that during the first half of the 19th century upwards of 100,000 slaves escaped slavery along the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was a secret network shepherding African-Americans north, away from formal chattel slavery. Professor Melvin Sylvester of the CW Post Campus of Long Island University asserts that by 1800 there were 700,000 slaves in America. In South Carolina, alone, there were more Africans then Europeans and in Maryland and Virginia the population demographic was split 50/50. Since there is little or no existing evidence of runaways, we are left with only legends, tales, and oral histories. There is no way to know if the estimate of 100,000 runaways is low, high, or close to accurate. The amount of hysteria caused by stories of the clandestine network igniting the suspicions and hope of slave society might lead one to think that maybe this number is a low estimate. There is no way to know. The hysteria could have simply been a young nation desperately trying to protect the backbone of its economy and burgeoning prosperity. Regardless we are left with only the accounts of decedents.
The Lorraine Motel, where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, which is now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum.
Stax recoding studio. Now a museum of Soul music.
This week StoryCorps Griot concluded a six week stay in Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis is a city defined by proud and storied neighborhoods like Orange Mound and South Memphis (a.k.a. Funky Town), legendary musicians from WC Handy to Issac Hayes to Three 6 Mafia, triumphant moments – Dr. King’s Mountaintop Speech, and deep sorrow – Dr. King’s assassination.
Between the lines of news-makers and note-worthies stand the people whose pulse has given endless life and vibrancy to the city, its triumphs and sorrows. The news-makers and note-worthies are worthless without the shoulders they stand on. They stand on the shoulders of the people you pass on the street, stand behind in line, and celebrate with on holidays. It is the people who were driven from their rural homes by racist brutality, refugees in a strange city called Memphis. They stand on the shoulders of the first family member to attend a newly segregated school, swim in a pool or use the front door of a restaurant. History is made and the future is paved by everyone striving to eat and raise their children with love, compassion and the tools to triumph in a wicked world, and all those others who don’t quite make it but we can’t help but love anyway. So often people insist they don’t have anything to share. But anyone who has lived long enough to hold a memory has something to share. What seems mundane to you will become monumental to a relative who hears your voice years from now.
Robyn R. Stone (L) hugs her mother Christine Cowan (R)
On Thursday, November 29 Robyn Stone and her mother Christine came to the StoryCorps Griot booth in Memphis, Tennessee. In the quiet of the booth Mrs. Cowan revealed to her daughter deep reflections on her life. Like all StoryCorps participants, they left with a CD recording of their conversation.
On Monday, December 3 Christine Cowan had a stroke. Luckily, the stroke was minor, not affecting her speech or memory. But it could have been much worse.
Later that week Mrs. Stone came to the booth to share what had happened: “I learned so much about her and her past. We spoke about family, history and aspirations for the future generations. I can’t tell you the number of times I have replayed the CD and smiled. . . I can’t tell you how overwhelmed I feel having her voice professionally recorded.”
We are happy we could provide a place for Mrs Cowan and her daughter to enjoy a recorded conversation. We wish you and your family all the best and years of good health.
Just blocks from StoryCorps’ set up on the Third Street Promenade is one of Santa Monica’s holiday attractions: an outdoor ice skating rink. So what if it’s almost 70 degrees? Bundle up Californians… let’s go skating!
Providing sustenance to skaters is a familiar sight: an Airstream! Perhaps this is MobileBooth West’s long lost cousin. Nothing says winter like eating hot dogs in the sun, reflected off a shiny silver trailer.
Dr. David Acey
” . . . I moved from being Black to Colored to Negro from Colored to Black to African to African American. . . “
We do not always have the opportunity to sit and speak to those who have blazed the trail that we now walk. Thanks in part to the StoryCorps Griot initiative one young man was blessed with the opportunity to listen closely – with undivided attention – to one of the countless individuals who is responsible for helping to lift the torch that the younger generation must continue to carry. Only by listening to those who have carved our path can we expect to pick up where they left off.
What’s in a name?
Hang glidin’ Paul Shaffer.
Paul Shaffer came to the MobileBooth to talk about life before his work in programming and computers. He was excited to have his interview archived at the Library of Congress as a way of passing on his legacy to future generations.
At age 17, Paul was the youngest private pilot in the nation and was flying before he could drive. He later became an avid hang glider, and was one of the first people ever to use a powered hang glider. Unfortunately, Paul was never able to realize his dreams of making a career out of the hobby by advertising and doing special promotions for malls and other businesses. However, about once year, he still takes to the sky for an adventure on his hang glider.
Paul kindly invited Mike and Yuki to visit him at the University of Pennsylvania where he is curator of the ENIAC, first unveiled in 1946 and argued by some to be the first computer.
Yuki Aizawa and Paul Shaffer holding a piece of history.
Lane College student Travon Whitemore listening closely to his partner.
StoryCorps Griot ended last week with a two day trip to Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee. Lane College is a small, private institution that is proudly one of many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in the South. HBCUs are defined as colleges or universities established before 1964 with the intention of serving African-Americans. These institutions are a source of great pride. Over the years they have made extraordinary untold contributions to American culture and society.
Spencer Wright (L) and "Max The Barber" (R).
Big Brothers Big Sisters is one of StoryCorps’ many outreach partners. Two Big Brothers, Arthur J. "Maxamillion" Wells III and Spencer Wright, came to talk when our booth was in Philadelphia. Max is a barber, Spencer a recruiter for Big Brother Big Sister. Ironically though, Max was the one who originally recruited Spencer.
Maxamillion’s Gentlemen’s Quarter Barber Parlor is a barber shop that is truly for gentlemen– no cellphones and no cursing please. On the walls, there are pictures of clients from celebrities like comedian Steve Harvey to Max’s Little Brother, Aaquil. But it’s not just a barber shop. Max thinks of the shop as a community networking hub, and is something of an unofficial spokesman for Big Brother Big Sister. After many years of hearing about the program from Max, Spencer finally decided to try it out. He ended up liking it so much that he took a job with the organization!
Facilitator Mike Rauch visited Max for a cut. Sorry, no pictures of the results, but suffice it to say that Mike’s beard is looking the best it ever has. Thanks Max!
In the barber shop. Future Big Brother?
Theresa Franklin (L) and Maggie Conway (R)
When Maggie Conway read in a local Memphis newspaper that StoryCorps Griot was in town, she was ecstatic. Immediately she began to make arrangements to bring StoryCorps Griot to her church so that her friends and fellow parishioners could share their stories. Mrs. Conway is a member of Saint Therese-Little Flower Catholic Church. The church is located roughly between downtown and north Memphis, in a neighborhood referred to as the Vollintine Evergreen community.
South Street pioneers Isaiah and Julia Zagar.
Isaiah and Julia Zagar came to the StoryCorps booth and talked about how they got married and started in their lives’ work. The couple first met as young artists living on the Lower East Side of New York City. Three months later, they were married and living together. "That gave me a year before I would have to be arrested and put in jail," said Isaiah, who was denied status as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
In their first year as a married couple, Julia and Isaiah joined the PeaceCorps. They were sent to Peru where they met artists and craftspeople who they helped to set up systems through which to sell their work. By the time the Zagars moved back to the United States, Isaiah’s conscientious objector status had been approved and the pair moved into a building on the then rundown South Street in Philadelphia, PA. "It was the only place that would take us," said Isaiah.
Isaiah and Julia lived in the top half of the building and opened the Eye’s Gallery in the bottom half. The shop was stocked with textiles, ceramics, and woodcarvings that they had collected while living abroad. For his part, Isaiah began creating mosaic murals using discarded materials, especially glass, from abandoned warehouses in the neighborhood. Forty years later, the shop has expanded to three floors and now carries crafts and folk art from all over the world, while Isaiah has truly transformed South Street into an outdoor museum. StoryCorps facilitators Mike and Yuki visited Isaiah at his studio and toured his "Magic Garden", an art environment he began in 1994.
Taborian Hospital November 2007
Thanksgiving is a time to come together with family and friends – celebrating our community and counting our blessings. During this time of thanks giving StoryCorps Griot would like to give thanks to Taborian Hospital, an institution that played a pivotal role in the lives of thousands of African-Americans in the Mississippi Delta, and throughout the state, from its opening in 1942 until its closing in the mid 1960s. Purportedly, the hospital cared for over 135,000 area residents. Many StoryCorps Griot participants were born or received necessary care from the hospital’s services. This was during a time when African-Americans were refused access to medical facilities across the country.
While half the StoryCorps Griot team traveled to visit family, facilitators Michael Premo and Brianna Hyneman stayed behind in Memphis. We enjoyed the holiday relaxing, giving thanks, and of course enjoying a big home cooked meal. Our meal was a little non-traditional, in what turned out to be an unintended celeberation of all the places these two facilitators have traveled. But, our meal wouldn’t have been complete without the cranberries and stuffing, with plenty of fresh herbs. It was great to spend a day at home eating, napping and eating again. Here’s some of what we had:
Former location of punk rock shop, Zipperhead.
In the 1960′s, it was proposed that Philadelphia’s South Street be replaced by the "Crosstown Expressway", to create a connection between I-76 and I-95. The expressway would have cut through Philadelphia, separating Center City and South Philly. However, amidst turbulent times in the city, a group of artists and entrepreneurs had begun to transform the rundown street into a culturally vibrant community. They dug their heels in and successfully managed to defeat the proposal. The "South Street Renaissance" had begun.
South Street became known as a bohemian hot-spot, and, among other things, was notable in the punk rock scene. Zipperhead, a store selling punk rock clothing and accessories is still operating today on 4th Street, just around the corner from it’s original South Street location. The reputation of South Street spread and it has since become a popular destination, especially among tourists. Unfortunately, with the popularity of South Street came rising real estate values and consequently a disintegration of the neighborhood as it had been known.
Of the many shops, galleries, and restaurants like The Crooked Mirror Coffee Shop, the Gazoo, Yas Restaurant, The Works Craft Gallery, and The Painted Bride Art Center that once called South Street home, only a few remain. Today, on South Street you’ll find more chain stores than chain-wearing punk rockers, but there are still some special people and places that will give you a taste of 1960′s and 70′s South Street. Julia and Isaiah Zagar are two such people. Since 1969, the couple have been running The Eye’s Gallery at 402 South Street. Meanwhile, Isaiah has been busy turning the streets of Philadelphia into a mosaic museum.
StoryCorps facilitators Mike Rauch and Yuki Aizawa recently visited The Eye’s Gallery, former home of the Zagar’s and one of Isaiah’s ongoing mosaic installations. The shop, offering crafts, folk art, and unique clothing from around the world, is part museum, part gallery, part toy store, and packed with treasures in every corner.
After leaving the shop, Mike and Yuki visited Isaiah’s "Magic Garden", one of about 30 sites around the South Street area that feature Mr. Zagar’s mosaic murals. Unfortunately, it was closing time and they could only peer through the fence for a glimpse of an artwork 13 years in the making. Check back for pictures from a return visit to the Magic Garden and details on the Zagar’s StoryCorps interview!
Fence surrounding Philadelphia’s Magic Garden.
Facilitator Mike Rauch outside the East Booth, now parked on 6th Street, right in front of our partner station, WHYY. The booth’s current home is just across the street from the National Constitution Center and a few blocks from The Liberty Bell and Congress Hall, where U.S. Congress met from 1790-1800.
Below: A marker on 6th street describes what once stood in this spot over 150 years ago.
In early November, facilitators Hilary Marshall and Soo Na Pak met up in Ft. Worth, TX, and headed west towards California, taking advantage of the 4 day journey to get to know each other. Before we knew it, we’d arrived in sunny Santa Monica, where we began setting up the MobileBooth for a month-long stay on the Third Street Promenade. Below, Hilary buffs the booth to a sassy shine.
Despite the many distractions nearby (sun overhead, palm trees swaying, and the ocean just blocks away…) the Booth was set up in no time, thanks to a little elbow grease. Bring on the stories, California!
StoryCorps Griot spent the last several Saturdays at Clayborn Temple A.M.E. Church. This historic church has been a rock in the community for decades. Clayborn is a house of worship, a sanctuary, a meeting place, and a great space for music and speakers. Wonderful acoustics and a large sanctuary made it an ideal place for gospel groups and artists like Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke, to perform. Two different participants fondly recalled seeing Ms. Jackson trip and stumble into the arms of one of her entourage as she got out of her limo. It was almost as if for a moment two little children got to see that a superstar wasn’t that different from them when coming home to Clayborn Temple.
(LtoR) Ford Sylverna, Dr. Beverly Bond and Carlissa Graham
A wonderful attribute of the Story Corps experience is the opportunity it provides for people to have an undisturbed conversation with a member of their immediate community – friends, colleagues, spouses, relatives, etc. Last week Story Corps Griot spent two days at the University of Memphis. Our visit was coordinated by Dr. Beverly Bond and student leader Carlissa Graham. Almost all the participant pairs invited by our coordinators featured a younger member of the community partnered with an older member, from a slightly earlier generation. The youth and their elders; sharing, and communicating. For sure the ancestors are smiling. Whether this was conscious, or not, it is a wonderful testament to the atmosphere of education and understanding fostered by griot Dr. Beverly Bond. It was an amazing two days of interviews.