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.
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?
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.
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.
Facilitators work 6 days a week, tirelessly cris-crossing the country listening and listening. They assist participants through the process of sharing their stories then prepare the interview to be archived at the Library of Congress and Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture.
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:
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.
Yesterday, StoryCorps Griot traveled south on old Route 61 into Mississippi to record interviews in Mound Bayou. The city, proudly described by local residents as “Jewel of the Delta,” is the oldest all black municipality in the United States. It was founded in 1887 by Isaiah T. Montgomery and his cousin, Benjamin T. Green. Montgomery and Green were both former slaves of Joseph Davis, brother of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Isaiah T. Montgomery was elected as the first mayor. He started a tradition of black government that persists to the present day. Mound Bayou was founded to serve as a sanctuary for African- American families and culture. The Founders helped to make the dream of creating a successful, self-sufficient and cooperative community of freedmen a reality. By the turn of the century Mound Bayou was exporting $30,000 in cotton a year. Its residents owned 5,000 acres of rich, prime farm and timber land, with an estimated worth of $20,000.
Mound Bayou was an oasis in turbulent times.
Two different sets of participants came into the Griot Booth yesterday with beautiful, powerful stories about being with Dr. Martin Luther King during the last hours of his
life. Mr. Fred Davis and Rev. James Netters were both in the first class of black City Council members in Memphis. They are both good friends of Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks (whom the library the Griot booth is parked at is named after), and were working along with Dr. King to resolve the Sanitation Workers’ Strike which had brought Dr. King to Memphis when he was assassinated.
Mr. Davis was interviewed by his friend, Timothy L. Russell. He was on the stage at Mason Temple when King gave the “I Have Been to the Mountaintop”
speech. He recalled how Ralph Abernathy wanted to preach, but the crowd
was too impatient for him. Mr. Davis also recalled a little known detail about that fateful evening, that Stokely Carmichael also spoke very briefly before Dr. King, raising his right fist in the air in the symbol of Black Power.
StoryCorps records, in sound, the stories of everyday people. Community partners are integral to our ability to connect to communities across the country. Marvin Stockwell (r) and Jeff Hulett (l) organized a few days of interviews at Church Health Center.
Former pastor of historic Clayborn Temple Irene W. Booker (l) talks with Charita Johnson-Burgess (r), as Rev. Booker’s grandson Shawn gets a taste for what it’s like to be a StoryCorps Griot Facilitator.
Everyone has a story to share! Come share yours with a loved one at the GriotBooth, so generations to come can hear our stories in our own words.
Click on the picture below for a Virtual Tour of the StoryCorps GriotBooth, parked at the Central Public Library in Memphis until December 8th.
Pictures courtesy Melvin Reeves
Our first interview in Memphis was with Frances Hooks, civil rights and school reform leader and wife of Dr. Benjamin Hooks. Next week, the Hooks will be in Washington D.C., where Dr. Hooks will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom–the nation’s highest civil award–for his "efforts to extend the full promise of America to all its citizens." Above, Mrs. Hooks speaks about her life with "Benny" at our opening press conference.
StoryCorps facilitators for the Memphis leg of the tour are (l to r): Michael Premo, Sarah Geis, Steven Thrasher, and Brianna Hyneman. Come visit us outside the Central Library and say hi!