StoryCorps 495: GRIOT
Michael Garofalo MG: 10 years ago StoryCorps started building a collection of interviews about African American life. It’s called StoryCorps Griot and to date we’ve recorded nearly ten thousand conversations as part of this project.
In this episode we’re sampling stories from the Griot collection and these are stories that cover everything from family characters.
Ellaraino (E): When the civil war ended she was 16. And I just did not want to be spending my time with a senile old woman.
MG: To what it was like being a black soldier during WWII.
Sam Harmon (SH): She punched the machine. I reached my hand to get the ticket and lay down the money and she pulled it back.
MG: We even memories of NASCAR’s first African American hall of fame driver.
Frank Scott (FS): You know, it was like Picasso. Like a great artist doing his work. And he was in that car, and he was doing his work.
MG: We’re celebrating a decade of StoryCorps Griot. I’m Michael Garofalo and this is the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. Stay with us.
[MUSIC “A Bright Day ” by Gramatik]
MG: Welcome back. If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you’ve heard me talk about StoryCorps initiatives.
These are large scale efforts to collect interviews with a specific group of people. We’re always paying attention to who’s recording StoryCorps interviews so that we can make sure that our archive truly represents the population of the US. And through initiatives, people who have often been left out of the story of our country have a chance to be heard.
You know what I mean, ‘cause on this podcast we’ve brought you stories of LGBTQ life from the Outloud Initiative or stories from veterans and their families as part of Military Voices.
But the first nationwide, large-scale initiative like this was StoryCorps Griot. It launched 10 years ago with a national recording tour and an archive partnership with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. That was year 1 but Griot still continues to this day and we’re still partnered with the museum. So, if you’re African American and you record a StoryCorps interview you’ll have the option to share your recording not only with the Library of Congress, but also with the Smithsonian.
MG: Now, let’s go back to the beginning. February 2007.
I’m sitting here with Melvin Reeves, who is the person who designed and launched StoryCorps Griot ten years ago. Thanks for joining us, Melvin.
Melvin Reeves (MR): You’re welcome.
MG: So, can we start with the name Griot. Can you talk about what that means and why you chose it for this?
MR: Sure. A Griot in West African culture is the holder of a community’s history. And some of them are able to recite the history going way way back to the present day. So it just seemed sensible to use it as a way to frame what we were trying to achieve.
MG: So, the Griot tour had its own mobile recording booth.
MG: And where did you go in that first year? Where was the tour?
MR: Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, Newark, Oakland. We went to a total of about 22 places. So for example somewhere down south we went, two hours away was this place called Mount Bayou. Mount Bayou was the first town incorporated in America by black people. So I said we’ll go over there and interview them. You know what I mean?
MG: Were people eager to work with you?
MR: People were eager to work with us because they understood the importance of being included in the American narrative. Now, black people, I’ll tell you what somebody told me. Somebody I work with in New York. She said, “Melvin, you better do it right ‘cause you know you only get once chance.” [laughs] So, so for the black people I had to get it right, you know?
MG: Did you feel a lot of pressure? Or a lot of responsibility?
MR: Well I felt like what we were doing is important and I had confidence that we were gonna do it reasonably well.
MG: Well I say you did. What was it 1867 interviews?
MR: Yeah that’s exactly right.
MG: Let’s go to our first piece of tape. It’s a story from from a woman named Ellaraino.
She’s 77 years-old, but this story takes place when she’s 16. And she only had one thing on her mind. A boy.
Ellaraino (E): I was in love with Tyrone. My relationship was heating up. (laughing) And my parents knew that, so they had to take charge. Mother told me we would be spending the summer in the South. And that’s where I was going to be introduced to my great-grandmother Silvia. She was 106 years old. And I just did not want to spend time with a senile old woman. But four days later, we were in Farmerville, Louisiana. Driving on this old road I saw this log cabin. And I noticed on the front porch that was her. She had a slender, you know, almost frail frame. But I still found her to be regal looking. And at night she would tell her stories.
When the Civil War ended, she was my age. She was 16. She said even though she had freedom, not knowing how to read and write made her feel like a jig-saw puzzle with some of the pieces missing. And when she was 85 years old, she said, ”It stops here.” She got help from grown-ups, and you know, and sometimes from children. And she would study on her own. And then she told me she had something special to show me. She went to a cedar chest at the foot of her bed and opened it up and when I saw what it was I was wondering, Why is she bringing me this old, tattered church fan? But when she turned it over, scrawled on the back of that fan she had printed ”Silvia.” She had told me that when she could spell her name that was when she got her freedom.
You know, she passed in 1965. But Grandma Silvia is living on in my heart.
[MUSIC “She’s Just Miss Popular Hybrid” by Charles Mingus]
MG: So Melvin, the mission statement of Griot is “to ensure that the voices, experiences, and life stories of African Americans will be preserved and presented with dignity.” Could you talk a little bit about why that last part — with dignity — was important for you to have in there?
MR: Yes. Ultimately the whole reason I work at StoryCorps is to have the opportunity to do something about representation. I think that there’s a flow from how people are represented to how people understand specific cultures, and that’s what I would say about Griot. That, um, that’s some of the thinking that goes into what we are trying to do.
MG: That way of thinking, did that inform the questions that were asked in the interviews?
MR: Yes it did. In fact we um, created the questions in collaboration with folks from the National Museum of African American History and Culture. So one of the kinds of questions had to do with how did you feel when you wore that uniform of a US Arms Services staff person?
MG: And this next story comes from a WWII veteran named Sam Harmon. He was interviewed by his grandson Ezra Awumey in Washington DC.
Ezra Awumey (EA): What was the saddest moment of your life?
Sam Harmon (SH): Early in the navy, I was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, one day my shipmates and I decided to come to Washington to visit the capitol. I drove the car. I didn’t drink at the time so they always used me to be the designated driver.
While they were at the bars I decided to sight-see. I walked around the monuments all day and was just tired out and decided that I would go to a movie, rest and then pick them up later.
It was right here on Pennsylvania Avenue. There was a movie house there and I went up to buy a ticket, there was a glass there, the ticket seller behind it, and off of the glass reflected the capitol dome and I just thought to myself, “What a great way to end the day… drinking in all of this democracy”.
I called for the ticket, she was reading, she punched the machine, I reached my hand to get the ticket and lay down the money, and she pulled it back. And said, “You can’t come in here.” She saw my black hand. And refused to sell me a ticket.
The capitol dome was superimposed on her angry face, angered that I would have the temerity to ask to buy a ticket. And I just walked the streets crying all night. My country could draft me, force me to fight a war, but, you’re not a good enough citizen to come to a movie. That’s the saddest, without any exception, it’s the most painful recollection of anything that’s ever happened to me that I have.
[MUSIC “Myself When I Am Real” by Charles Mingus]
MG: Melivn, what sort of other things were on that question list?
MR: Another questions that I inserted in there has to do with the fact that most black people I know have a story about someone in their family who was the first in something. Every black person I know has stories like that. So, we put a question that said someone in your family that experienced the first can you please tell us a story about that?
MG: Let’s listen to one of those stories. It’s about Wendell Scott. He was a racecar driver during the Jim Crow era and he was the first African American to win a race at NASCAR’s elite major league level.
Scott’s racing team was his family. They’d travel to races together from their home in Virginia and his sons served as his pit crew.
Wendell Scott died in 1990 but his son Frank and grandson Warrick sat down for this conversation.
Frank Scott (FS): He started racing in 1952. And you know, it was like Picasso. Like a great artist doing his work. And he was in that car, and he was doing his work. And as children we didn’t have that leisure time, you know, we couldn’t go to the playground. He said to us, ’I need you at the garage.’ I can remember him getting injured and he’d just take axle grease and put it in the cut and keep working. But he wasn’t allowed to race at certain speedways. He had death threats not to come to Atlanta. And Daddy said, ’Look. If I leave in a pine box, that’s what I gotta do. But I’m gonna race.’ I can remember him racing in Jacksonville and he beat them all. But they wouldn’t drop the checkered flag. And then when they did drop the checkered flag, they had my father in 3rd place. One of the main reasons that they gave was there was a white beauty queen and they always kissed the driver.
WS: Did he ever consider not racing anymore?
FS: Never. That was one of my daddy’s sayings, ’When it’s too tough for everybody else, it’s just right for me.’ Like I can remember one time when we were racing the Atlanta 500 and, um, he was sick. He needed an operation. And I said, ’Daddy, we don’t have to race today.’ He whispered to me and said, ’Lift my legs up and put me in the car.’ So, I took my arms and put behind his legs and I kind of acted like I was hugging him and helped him into the car. He drove 500 miles that day.
WS: How did his racing career officially end?
FS: Well, finances. You know, he couldn’t get the support. Where other drivers that we were competing against had major sponsorships, providing them engineers, as many cars as they needed, he did everything that he did out of his own pocket. He always felt like someday he’s gonna get his big break. But, uh, for twenty years nobody mentioned Wendell Scott. At one point it was like he never existed. But he didn’t let it drive him crazy. I think that’s what made him so great. He chose to be a race car driver and he was going to race until he couldn’t race no more.
[MUSIC “[email protected] ” by Nicholas Payton]
MG: Frank Scott remembering his father, Wendell Scott, who is the first African American to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
MG: Looking back now, it’s hard to believe it’s been ten years, but after ten years how do you think that working on Griot changed you personally?
MR: Well it didn’t change me exactly. But I’ll say that it relates to a phenomenon of my life that once I actually learn there is such a thing as black history, which occurred in the biggest way for me as a college freshman. You know? That’s where I took a course in black literature and that started kind of a lifelong passion around that stuff. And what never fails to amaze me is the regularity with which i learn about significant accomplishments and other things to be proud of that I never knew about. And it’s like well, why were you surprised? Cause so regularly I’m learning about stuff that I didn’t know about! You know? That none of us know about and we all suffer from not knowing! And that is the big deal.
MG: Melvin Reeves, thanks for joining us.
MR: Thank you.
[MUSIC “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” by The Roots
MG: We’re going to leave you with one final conversation from the Griot collection. This one’s from Jackson, Mississippi. While our other stories have looked to the past, this one looks to the future.
MG: Here’s fourth grader Aidan Sykes with his father, Albert.
Aiden Sykes (AS): Do you remember what was going through your head when you first saw me?
Albert Sykes (AbS): I remember when the doctor pulled you out, the first thing I thought was that he was being too rough with you. And he actually held you like a little Sprite bottle and he was like, “Here’s your baby.” That was the most proud moment of my life. Don’t tell your brothers, ’cause there’s three of y’all. But it was like looking at a blank canvas, and just imagining what you want that painting to look like at the end, but also knowing you can’t control the paint strokes. You know, the fear was just, I gotta bring up a black boy in Mississippi, which is a tough place to bring up kids period, but there are statistics that say black boys born after the year 2002 have a one-in-three chance of going to prison. And all three of my sons were born after the year 2002.
AS: So dad, why do you take me to protests so much?
AbS: [Laughs] I think I take you for a bunch of reasons. One is that I want you to see what it looks like when people come together, but also that you understand that it’s not just about people that are familiar to you. It’s about everybody. Did you know the work that Martin Luther King was doing was for everybody and it wasn’t just for black people?
AS: Yes I understand that.
AbS: Yeah. So that’s how you gotta think. If you decide that you want to be a cab driver then you gotta be the most impactful cab driver that you can possibly be.
AS: Are you proud of me?
AbS: Of course. You my man! I—I just love everything about you. Period.
AS: The thing I love about you, you never give up on me. That’s one of the things I will always remember about my dad.
AbS: Wow, you said it like I’m on my way out of here…
AbS: …or like I’m already gone.
AS: So Dad, what are your dreams for me?
AbS: My dream is for you to live out your dreams. There’s an old proverb that talks about when children are born, children come out with their fists closed because that’s where they keep all their gifts. And as you grow, your hands learn to unfold, because you’re learning to release your gifts to the world. And so, for the rest of your life, I wanna see you live with your hands unfolded.
[MUSIC “Mannenberg Revisited” by Abdullah Ibrahim]
MG: That’s Albert and Aidan Sykes…
That’s all for this episode.
These stories were produced by Jasmyn Belcher-Morris, John White, Jud Esty-Kendall, Von Diaz, and me.
I produced the podcast along with Elisheba Eittoop.
For more stories from the Griot collection visit our website, StoryCorps dot Org.
Keep those reviews coming on itunes — we read them all! And thanks to all who have been calling in and leaving voicemails for people you heard on this show. If you’ve got a message for someone… give us a ring at 301-744-TALK, that’s 301-744-T-A-L-K.
For the StoryCorps podcast… I’m Michael Garofalo. Thanks for listening.