Joanne Bland uses oral history to get African-American history straight.
Her appearance in Foley last week encompassed school students, a luncheon with community leaders and a late-afternoon meeting with Baldwin County teachers. Bland is a civil rights and human rights activist who grew up in Selma. She owns Journeys for the Soul, a touring agency focusing on civil rights history and Selma.
Bland’s message: As a matter of self-worth, children descended from slaves need to know the truth, however ugly, about the days of slavery and the fight for civil rights. White children need to know the truth, too, and they don’t necessarily get it in school.
“Ain’t no such thing as a happy slave,” she told the teachers. “Slavery happened. It happened. It’s a part of our history. It wasn’t a good part of our history, I don’t think, but it happened. You cannot deny it happened. But you cannot sugarcoat it and act like it was right.”
Teachers need to be creative to overcome sugarcoated standard curriculums. Young children, who often idolize their teachers, learn self-esteem from their own history. For example, blacks were civil rights heroes, and slaves built the homes and infrastructure in the early years of this nation.
“When you talk about World War II, you need to mention some Negroes; you need to mention some brown people. You need to mention some yellow people, because a rainbow fought that war. But it’s taught like only white people did everything. And our children grow up with no self worth,” Bland said.
“If we don’t teach them where we’ve been as a nation, how are they going to take us to where we need to be?”
Blands’ own involvement in the Civil Rights movement started with Carter’s Drug Store. Her grandmother told her she could not sit at the counter where the white children were eating ice cream.
“Every time I passed that store I saw white kids sitting at that counter, licking those ice creams, drinking those milkshakes from those beautiful glasses, and I’d wish it was me,” Bland said.
As the movement escalated in Selma, one day her grandmother said, “When we get our freedom you can do that, too. I became a freedom fighter that day, at that exact moment.”
Still a child, Bland became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She remembers being rounded up, loaded onto a yellow school bus and crammed into jail cells with 40 or 50 people and one toilet.
“By the time I was 11 years old I had been in jail 13 documented times. And I was not the youngest.”
Then came the marches over the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Bland marched on “Bloody Sunday,” “Turn Around Tuesday” and the first leg of the march from Selma to Montgomery. From the rear of the crowd, she saw leaders ask permission to cross the bridge that was lined with law enforcement officers. Denied, they would kneel to pray and then retreat.
“I was standing there waiting for the front to go down, when suddenly I heard gunshots and screams,” Bland recalled. The shots turned out to be not bullets but tear-gas canisters. Police began beating the marchers. She remembers a mounted officer trampling a woman with his horse, and the sound the woman’s head made when it hit the ground. The next thing Bland remembers is waking up in the lap of her 14-year-old sister, who was bleeding and needed 28 stitches.
Bland urges parents to share oral history with their children, even if their own history is not as dramatic as hers.
Her visit to Foley was sponsored by Frances Holk-Jones State Farm, Wolf Bay Restaurant and Catering, and the Jennifer Claire Moore Foundation.