History’s Voices Come Alive

Allan Appel PhotoJosephine Baker offering her impassioned political advice to Martin Luther King back in 1964. Actress Viola Davis’s Emmy acceptance speech last year, bemoaning the lack of good roles for African-American women.

Eleanor Roosevelt protesting the Daughters of the American Revolution’s decision to bar singer Marion Anderson from performing at its Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 26, 1936.

And the official letter of incorporation that was read aloud on the dedication of the first Dixwell Community House back in November 1924.

Those were among the voices of the past read aloud and brought alive by contemporaries in the community room of the Wilson Branch library in a “history slam” that absorbed two dozen participants Tuesday night.

The program, a collaboration between the New Haven Free Public Library and the Long Wharf Theatre, featured readings of documentary material on African-American and general New Haven history culled from the New Haven Free Public Library’s local history room files.

It was the fourth in a series of programs to engage the community in themes derived from Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.

The play, currently at Long Wharf, is a homey but insightful and quietly hard-hitting biodrama of the lives of two remarkable centenarian sisters, the children of a slave, and their journey through the Jim Crow era down through the Civil Rights years.

Following a selection from the play read by Anne Greene and Aleta Staton, Beaver Hills resident Linda Meadows took the audience back to Dec. 17, 1957, through a letter from Daisy Bates. Bates was one of the main organizers of the Little Rock Nine, the courageous kids (and their families) who were the focal point of the integration of Arkansas public schools. Her letter was to Roy Wilkins, then the NAACP’s executive director.

One of the students, the letter reported, was on the receiving end of kicking, spitting, and general abuse from several white boys, and Bates asked Wilkins to have FBI agents placed in the school for the kids’ protection.

After Meadows read, she held up a photograph of the young students to the audience and declared, “They were all scholars and they made history.”

Showing that he still has some of the political mojo that propelled him into a run for town clerk back in 2013, former Westville Alder Sergio Rodriguez wowed the participants with his reading.

It was a passionate performance of some sections of President Obama’s recent address calling for common-sense gun safety reforms.

Also present in the readings of other participants in the slam were the voices of William Lepre Houston, an early 20th century lawyer and civic organizer, and Booker T. Washington exchanging letters in 1909 on the need to raise funds to preserve the Frederick Douglass home in Anacostia, in Washington D.C.

Those letters were read by Michael P. Cobb., back in town after recently graduating from Morgan State University.

And nobody, not even for a second, doubted that Eleanor Roosevelt had come back to life in the voice of Wilson Branch Librarian John Jessen when he read her letter of protest regarding opera singer Marion Anderson.

The result — not of Jessen’s reading, but of the original protest letter: Anderson sang not to the D.A.R., but to 75,000 Americans on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in one of the red-letter moments of the early struggle for civil rights.

The next community engagement event based on Having Our Say takes place at the Stetson Branch Library in Dixwell on Saturday from 2:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.

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posted by: Linda Meadows on February 25, 2016  8:11pm

It’s not often that we collectively have an opportunity to stop for a moment, reflect on single acts in history (especially those having great implications) and possibly listen, learn about the “back stories”, imagine such events,obtain letters, legal documents, speeches, news articles etc. , savor and read these chronicles which impacted many mindsets, birthed bold causes- ultimately spearheading change which effects us even today! Tuesday evening was such a gift!  Our participating in the History Slam (thanks Elizabeth) was a novel endeavor which sparked the realization that individually we too can be history’s movers and shakers in our own spheres. That evening at New Haven’s Wilson Library, was a wonderful gathering of history lovers, library goers, and “Community Ambassadors” cohosted with Elizabeth Nearing of The Long Wharf Theater. Was it ever an excellent evening of sheer enlightenment and enthusiasm of learning, sharing and growth! I trust from our “talk -back” we are looking forward to future History Slams! Can’t wait!