Talk To Me 

College students collect oral histories in Hyde Park.

click to enlarge Sylvester Fulton
  • Sylvester Fulton

Recent Rhodes College graduate Elizabeth Saba was taught that integration of public schools during the Civil Rights era was a positive move toward better race relations.

And though most would agree that integration has made a huge difference, Saba received a new perspective from 50-year-old Sylvester Fulton, a native of the Hyde Park community in north Midtown.

"From his experience, integration broke up communities," Saba says. "His former school was closer to his community, and he was being bused to another school. Parents couldn't travel to PTA meetings, and there was a major decline in community pride." Saba collected Fulton's oral history earlier this month for Rhodes' Crossroads to Freedom Digital Archive program.

Saba and four other college students and recent graduates have spent their summer recording interviews with residents of north Midtown about life during Civil Rights era Memphis. The interviews as well as photographs and documents from the 1950s and 1960s are available at CrossroadsToFreedom.org.

"We look for people who have either gone through integration or remember segregation, but not people, like our generation, who have only read about it in the history books," says Paris Westbrook, who will begin her third year at Nashville's Fisk University in the fall.

"The project is really about bringing all this information together so we can have conversations about the impact of the Civil Rights era on Memphis today," says Suzanne Bonefas, director of special projects at Rhodes.

Crossroads to Freedom has been around since 2005, but this marks the first year the project has focused on a single Memphis neighborhood.

"In year's past, we focused a lot on church leaders, former city councilmen, and people who knew Dr. [Martin Luther] King," says Daniel Saba, who will enter college at American University in Washington, D.C., in the fall. "This year, we're focusing on the history of communities, like Hyde Park."

In order to build rapport with interview subjects, the five students working in north Midtown have spent time at the Hollywood Community Center.

"People in the Hollywood community don't know us from the average person on the street, so for us to come in and say, 'Hey, we want your story,' makes people a little uncomfortable. Some people are very reserved with their stories," Westbrook says.

Once that trust is gained, the subjects talk about life in the Boss Crump era or their experiences with segregation.

"I spoke to a woman who had grown up very sheltered from race issues, but the first time it sunk in was when she went to the movies to see King Kong," Daniel Saba says. "She'd been waiting in line for it and noticed everyone else in line was white. When she got to the front of the line, they said she'd have to go to a different line and sit at the top of the theater."

By the end of the summer, the students will have interviewed 20 residents of north Midtown. Those interviews will be transcribed and added to the other 9,000 documents on the Crossroads website.

Another Crossroads student team is working at the Memphis Public Library to digitize a set of interviews that MIFA conducted in the Evergreen neighborhood in the 1970s.

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