Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

The Sociohistorical Mandate for Literacy and Education in the Rural South: A Narrative Perspective

Academic journal article Research in the Teaching of English

The Sociohistorical Mandate for Literacy and Education in the Rural South: A Narrative Perspective

Article excerpt


I am from Pinesville;

It is 1965.

I hear Civil Rights workers from the North and the SCLC

came down to register black voters.

The newspapers report that 80 per cent of the black population

is registered to vote-

One of the highest percentages in the state,

Infuriating white folks.

They say:

Five black teachers at Howard School

lost their jobs due to their poor credit.

We say:

Poor credit? Really?

Those teachers lost their jobs

for participating in voter registration efforts,

for demanding quality schools,

and for insisting that the school superintendent

fulfill promises she once made to the black


I remember the SCLC led marches over the firing of our teachers,

Reinforcing the law that requires every public facility

be opened to use by blacks.

Martin Luther King, Jr., and Julian Bond

visit Friendship Baptist Church,

demanding integrated schools

and equal employment.

The local paper does not cover their visits.

The swimming pool at the park is integrated.

Stella's Café, the only restaurant, applies for private club status.


They say:

The SCLC's demonstrations are misdirected

and will only damage an already fragile economy.

We say:

Our economy suffers because of racism

and segregation.

White flight from Pinesville

will hurt its economy.

We demand equal rights, opportunity,

and quality of life.

The café closes.

The federal government intervenes

and forces desegregation.

The whites enroll in private schools

and their public school is closed.

It is the first time in history

that student transfers wipe out an entire student body of a school.

Howard School opens on time,

amidst protests of inferior conditions.

Some are arrested.

Some attend a "freedom school."

Some try to enter schools in a neighboring county

but are denied.

Black-belt whites are determined to keep power

at all costs.1

The above poem was constructed to represent, in the first-person voice, research data on civil rights activities that occurred in an African American majority, rural community (Pinesville2) in the southeastern United States. The people in this small community (population: 521; U.S. Census Bureau, 2010) played a critical role in the school desegregation efforts of the 1960s, receiving attention from both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the mid-2000s, I participated in professional development work at what is now the only school in the county, Pinesville Community School (PCS), an African American majority K-12 public charter school. This work, headed by my colleague Deborah Tippins, used literacy as a tool for engaging in community-based scientific inquiry. Using community-based practices (e.g., Arellano, Barcenal, Bilbao, Castellano, Nichols, & Tippins, 2001), we worked with teachers and students to identify funds of knowledge related to science and literacy. As a result, I became curious about the way this specific history of racism and civil rights activity intersected with persons' experiences with literacy. To learn more, I conducted life history interviews with persons in the community. In this article, I share findings from these interviews and engage with the following questions:

* How have African American persons who live in a rural community experienced literacy?

* What has been the relationship between salient sociohistorical factors and their experiences with literacy?

I use a series of data poems (Cahnmann, 2003; Eisner, 1997; Richardson, 1992) to share the life history of Miss Sally Harris, an African American woman from Pinesville. Miss Sally's life history highlights the "mandate" (Royster, 2000) for literacy and education within Pinesville, or how the sociohistorical context of the community has demanded that persons pursue literacy and education. …

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