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Stories recall past during first PAA reading event
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Connie Lewis (seated right) dressed as Harriet Tubman to read for children Saturday at Piedmont Arts’ first African-American Read-In. The event, part of the 25th National African American Read-In, also evoked poignant personal memories from some of the readers and reciters. About 30 people attended the event. Kathy Rogers, executive director of Piedmont Arts, said, “It was an amazing day. I think ... it will just grow (in the future).” (Bulletin photos)
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Monday, February 10, 2014

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

Words of and stories about renowned, and some not so famous, African-Americans filled Piedmont Arts on Saturday at its first African American Read-In.

The event, part of the 25th National African American Read-In, also evoked poignant personal memories from some of the readers and reciters.

Connie Lewis of Martinsville dramatized the life of Harriet Tubman and read “Henry’s Freedom Box” by Ellen Levine.

According to Lewis and the Library of Congress, Tubman, 1820-1913, was a runaway slave from Maryland. She led 300 slaves north to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a secret network of safe houses.

Lewis wore a big hat, ankle-length skirt, coat and cape, under which she would have been able to hide a pistol — as Tubman would have worn leading slaves to freedom.

“If anyone ever wanted to change his or her mind during the journey to freedom and return, Tubman pulled out a gun and said, ‘You'll be free or die a slave!’ according to the Library of Congress. It added, “Tubman knew that if anyone turned back, it would put her and the other escaping slaves in danger of discovery, capture or even death.”

Lewis said that line, “You’ll be free or die,” during her dramatization.

“They had a a $40,000 bounty on my head for my capture,” she said, portraying Tubman.

She also told how Tubman and the runaway slaves would look up at the North Star and the Big Dipper to help navigate.

Lewis explained some of the code words used at safe houses along the Underground Railroad. Tubman would knock on the door of a safe house (called a station) and the station master would ask who was there? Tubman would say, “A friend with some friends,” meaning it was Tubman with some runaway slaves, Lewis said.

The slaves would be hidden at the safe house temporarily and be given food before moving along the Underground Railroad, Lewis explained.

Lewis described some of the brutality Tubman saw growing up when plantation overseers beat members of her family. She was one of 11 children. The Library of Congress website says Araminta Harriet Ross (Tubman’s original name) was physically scarred when she refused to help an overseer punish another slave. She was hit in the head by an iron weight that the overseer threw at the young man. She suffered seizures for life.

Lewis stayed in character as she read “Henry’s Freedom Box,” the story of the slave Henry Brown, who, with the help of a white doctor who thought slavery was wrong, mailed Brown in a box up North to freedom.

Children sat on the floor in front of Lewis, and she asked them questions at times throughout her presentation. She also raised and lowered her voice for dramatic effect. She ended her performance by leaving the room singing, “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.”

The next children’s reader, Jean Hairston, read “Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters” by President Barack Obama — a tribute to 13 groundbreaking Americans, including civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., singer Billie Holiday and Jackie Robinson, who helped break the color line in Major League Baseball. The book is about the potential within Obama’s children and America’s children to pursue their dreams.

“The concept of reading to another person is powerful,” Hairston said, and she encouraged children and adults to read.

Cedrick Draper of Martinsville and his sons, Caesar, 5, and Tahli, 3, were in the audience. Cedrick said Lewis’ and Hairston’s presentations provided a history lesson and encouraged him to read more. Caesar said he liked learning about history.

Before reading her chosen selections to adults in a different gallery, Carolyn Drew told how she learned about segregation when she was a girl. Her family lived in a neighborhood in Abingdon with both black and white residents who got along well, she said.

But, she added, when she began school, she couldn’t go to a white school with her white friends but had to go to a black school. She cried when she got home from school that day and asked her mother why. Her mother tried to comfort her, sang to her in her in a beautiful voice and explained to her about segregation.

Drew read selections about Thomas Jennings, the first African American to receive a patent (his was for a dry cleaning process called “dry scouring”) and Charles Tindley. According to Drew and, Jennings, the son of slaves, went on to become pastor of a large church in Philadelphia. He was known as one of the founding fathers of American gospel music and his “I’ll Overcome Some Day” became the basis for “We Shall Overcome.”

David Martin, president of the Piedmont Arts board and former superintendent of Henry County Public Schools, read the children’s book “The Other Side” by Jacqueline Woodson. He said he often reads children’s books to adults because of their insights.

Goodreads summarizes the book: “Clover’s mom says it isn’t safe to cross the fence that segregates their African-American side of town from the white side where Anna lives. But the two girls strike up a friendship, and get around the grown-ups’ rules by sitting on top of the fence together.”

Martin said if he were reading that book in a public school, he might ask students to think about where they live, where other people live and things that separate or divide people.

Pat Grant, Virginia Commonwealth University faculty/director of criminal justice program at New College Institute, read a selection from “Thurgood Marshall: Fight for Justice” by Lewis H. Fenderson. Marshall worked as a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, helping win the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. He went on to serve as the first African-American member of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Grant said she grew up in Martinsville and graduated from school in 1971. Henry County Schools fully integrated in 1972, she said, adding, “I held it dearly to my heart.”

Chad Martin recited a poem he had written in college about the pivotal role of black women.

His mother, Joyce Martin, later sang a song, including lyrics about joy and peace down by the river.

There also were selections from or about Harlem Renaissance writers Langston Hughes, Dorothy West and Henry County-born Anne Spencer, a poet, civil rights activist, librarian, wife, mother and gardener.

There also was a reading from Oris Cross’ book “The Lord Laid His Hands on Me” about her being denied admission to a Virginia university in 1954 because of state segregation laws.

The other readers included Barbara Parker of Piedmont Arts; Joyce Staples, a professor at Patrick Henry Community College and former board president of Piedmont Arts; Imogene Draper; and Tammy Forbes, writing center coordinator at PHCC.

Attendee Bernell Thomas called the read-in, “inspiring... .”

Attendee Tonya Jones said it’s good to celebrate black history, which is “rich.”

About 30 people attended the event. Kathy Rogers, executive director of Piedmont Arts, said, “It was an amazing day. I think ... it will just grow (in the future).”


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