A project is underway to collect and highlight the stories of Black women who were part of the civil rights movement in Houston County. Many of their stories and experiences have gone untold, said Perry native Fenika Miller, one of three women collaborating on the project. “The purpose of it really is to collect their images and their stories so that we can have it for our history,” said Miller.
The group is working to identify women who have stories to share of school integration, of sit-ins and marches when they were students, of being arrested and other experiences, said Miller, who’s served on the Warner Robins’ development authority and has run for the state House twice. They also want to hear from women who’d like to share the stories of family members who are no longer living, said Miller, who also has a small nonprofit, New Vision MSK, designed to help empower Black women and girls. She also has her own consulting business, Mist Rising. The stories, along with others collected, are expected to be featured in short form on a wall in a co-working space and business incubator for women of color that Miller is in the process of opening on Watson Boulevard. She’s dubbed the space, “Succeed,” and plans to partner with Operation Hope to offer free entrepreneur development classes. The project grew out of Miller’s initial idea for a wall in the co-working space. Already, more than a half-dozen stories have been collected, including experiences shared by two sisters in Perry whose mother was a civil rights activist, Miller said.
One of the sisters, now in her 60's, kept a diary as a young girl. An entry from the diary, Miller said, reads, “It’s Mother’s Day and my mom is still in jail.” The older sister, who was in college and also demonstrated, shared how the protests were organized — starting in one city, moving to another and picking up another crowd, Miller said. In addition to being featured in the co-working space, the stories and photos collected for the project are expected to be in a new book that Miller’s first-cousin, Gail Alexander, plans to self-publish. “I just want to cover all the ladies that we’re interviewing, their story and do a photo of them and then add the information I have found in newspaper articles that happened also during that era,” Alexander said.
Alexander, a Perry native who lives in an Atlanta suburb, previously self-published the book, “We Came in Chains,” on the lineage of Black families in Houston County and in Fort Valley in neighboring Peach County. “I was chasing the history of my family and then while I was doing that I kept running across all these other families and names that I grew up with and lived around and knew about,” Alexander said of her book. “So I decided while I’m going through, digging ... not to leave that history behind.” Alexander also founded the nonprofit, Houston County Black Heritage, and produces which a bi-monthly newsletter. “There’s not a lot of history on the Black people of Houston County in any of the libraries or just about anywhere else for that matter because I would have found it by now,” said Alexander, who combed through newspaper archives to gather information for her book.
Alexander is conducting the interviews with the women for the project. She also wants to look into having the recordings of the women archived with the University of Georgia. “With all my research that I’ve done in Houston County during that era, they’re only mentioning the men ... They never mention the women who were behind the scenes .. the women who prepared the sandwiches ... the women that actually took place in the march, the women that went to jail ... Women are not mentioned in the newspaper articles. So this is our way of documenting their stories,” said Alexander, a paralegal for a defense law firm in Atlanta.
SHARING STORIES IN PERSON
An informal drop-in for women to share their stories for the project was held last month, and another one is planned from 1 to 3 p.m. Sept. 19 at the co-working space at 1302 Watson Blvd. Masks and hand sanitizer will be available on site due to COVID-19. Ida Gary, who grew up in Perry, is the photographer and videographer for the project.
“It was very fascinating to listen to the women (recall) their experience during the civil rights movement,” said Gary, advocate coordinator for CASA of Houston County. “What was really key for me was the integration of schools.
“I didn’t think about it because, again, it’s one of those things that you think about on a national level because that’s what we get: the history that was happening across the United States, and you don’t understand the impact that it has on those communities,” said Gary, who has small clothing business, Purpose Threads Apparel. “Houston County ... had to integrate those schools, and these women were the first. Those group of kids that integrated the public school system. And then they were sharing their experience and what they remember and even doing the boycott. There were locals here and they remember whites only signs and how segregated everything was in the county,” she said. Gary also listened to their stories of being arrested and jailed in different locations during a mass incarceration of those who participated in boycotts.
“It was eye-opening,” Gary said. “It was one of those aha moments where you hear things but then to actually connect the pieces.
“It felt like it was tangible. You could actually really touch history, and that what we’ve done and what’s been accomplished really has made a difference in where we are today. Yet, still, there’s so much work to be done,” she said. For more information about the project, email Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org or email Alexander email@example.com or call her at 404-953-2408.