Chronicling the Trip

By Bryant Blount, Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Students:

When I was invited to accompany Joe Richman’s Audio Journalism class on their fall break trip, with only the context of a civil rights tour in the deep south, two thoughts flashed through my mind:  First – how did I get tapped for this?  Then, almost as quickly – I have to do it!

As an assistant dean at Princeton University, my work is almost exclusively the support of students in non-academic and co-curricular contexts.  While my colleagues and I often assist students in the pursuit of activities and events that run adjacent to their academic interests, I can’t say I’ve had much, if any, proximity to credit-bearing work since I was last a student.  Having supported traveling Princeton groups in the past, the opportunity to travel with this class on this unique excursion to Mound Bayou, Mississippi was altogether new.  In addition to making sure we left Princeton’s campus with ten students (and perhaps more importantly, could account for all ten upon our return!), I hoped to be useful by picking up loose ends (or restaurant checks), taking advantage of the rich and deeply embedded lessons of the past found in the region (lapsed history major here), and perhaps most crucially, by documenting the experience.

To this end, I shadowed the news team, taking photographs, some of which have been featured in this blog.  I also captured video of the memorials, interviews, and people that made this trip an indelible one, in order to craft an audio/visual highlight that I hope will live on long beyond the week’s exploits.  While the students in this class have a lot of work ahead of them as they drive toward their goal of producing a podcast series at semester’s end, this trip was more than the miles of bus rides, years of history, or hours of recordings that will be left on the cutting room floor.  I hope that this video helps lift up their experience in fuller detail.

Our First Attempt at Line Dancing

By Katie Heinzer

Dr. Yolanda Clarke is a Mound Bayou native, an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Community Development at Delta State University and a highly experienced line dancing instructor.

So when she graciously extended to us an invitation to her class, we were ecstatic. Who could miss out on the opportunity to line dance in the South, a social staple?

Three of us from the Princeton crew took Dr. Clarke up on her offer. We showed up to Renova’s City Hall on Thursday evening at 6 o’clock, ready to learn some moves with some of the town’s “more seasoned” population. Two of us were clad in jeans and sweaters, and all of us were expecting a fairly laid-back time.

How wrong we were.

We were sweating within minutes, striving to keep up with Dr. Clarke’s upbeat remixes, enthusiastic choreography, and a move she likes to call “the Beyoncé.” Much to our amazement, the mothers and grandmothers around us were astoundingly well-versed in these dances, with Dr. Clarke’s own mother the most proficient of them all. Even Renova’s mayor was giving it all he had, calling out the steps ahead of time (a saving grace to the three of us). With time and enthusiasm, we got the hang of the steps, and danced our hearts out alongside this welcoming community,

Our places of origin and status as visitors made no difference to our fellow dancers, who they welcomed us with hugs, laughter, and plenty of conversation. That’s the beauty of these Mississippi small towns: Even as an outsider looking in, you’re greeted with an incredible, genuine warmth, one that you’d have to actively search for in the Northeast. Even if we weren’t quite prepared for some of Dr. Clarke’s more advanced moves, we left Renova City Hall with a sense of satisfaction (and soreness).


Alabama’s Riverfront Park

By Rose Gilbert


Tuesday morning in Montgomery broke bright and sunny. All of us were still emotionally hungover from the immense solemnity and outrage embodied in the Lynching Memorial, and none of us were fully focused on our breakfast.

Before leaving the city, we stopped for a brief visit at the Montgomery Riverfront Park. It was the perfect place to enjoy the warm fall weather, with a wide, smooth walkway wrapped along the bank of the Alabama River, featuring a shaded pavillion, an amphitheatre, and a splash pad I can imagine kids love during summer. A replica steamboat, all decked out with fake cobwebs and orange bows for Halloween, was docked right by the park entrance.

Like my own hometown’s steamboat, the Louisville Belle, this replica riverboat is a trapping of a time gone by, something to remind residents of their history and enthrall tourists looking for vestiges of the romantic Old South. Looking at it nestled amongst the park’s sleek poured concrete and tall electric street lights, I could see the story of a city that was trying to grapple with its past — as we had that morning — and what role it could play in its identity today.

Tourists today aren’t coming to Montgomery nostalgic for a romanticized, Gone with the Wind version of the South. Since the April 2018 opening, hundreds of thousands (including us) have poured into the city to visit of the National Monument for Peace and Justice and the accompanying Legacy Museum, driving business for local hotels, eateries, and shops.

There on the riverfront, I could see something of a lag in how the city is choosing to present their history, and nowhere was this more apparent than the historical markers scattered throughout the park. Some seemed like they could have fit in in any city: a plaque commemorating a local war hero, a high water marker remembering a long-ago flood. But it was a small exhibit on the history of Montgomery’s riverfront that caught my eye.

One of the markers, which detailed the history of the riverfront’s importance in trade, had been defaced; or rather, corrected. In the section explaining how the riverfront had made Montgomery a vital site for the trading, transport, and storage of “cotton and other important commodities,” one visitor had crossed out the word “commodities,” and replaced it with “slaves.” The correction was written in black Sharpie, and only visible against the sign’s dark background, like the editor couldn’t bear to leave the marker the way it was a moment longer and used whatever they had on them to fix it.

Arriving in Alabama

By: Mallory Williamson

After touching down in Montgomery on Sunday, our class didn’t waste much time before beginning the Civil Rights-era tour part of our Southern journey. Our first stop after getting lunch was at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. 

Also known as the Lynching Memorial, the site dedicated to known and unknown victims of lynching in the U.S. is considered a sacred place and is closely monitored by security officials. Once inside, we walked through spirals of hanging ‘coffins’ labeled with the name of a state or a county that list the names and death dates of all known lynching victims in that locality. 

Across the street from the memorial was a small visitors’ center with rows of jars along its walls, each one filled with dirt from a lynching site and labeled with the victim’s name. Just as the county names on the hanging coffins give each lynching a haunting sense of place, the dirt from the lynching sites serves as a reminder that we unthinkingly walk on the same land where such atrocities might have occurred. 

As someone whose roots are in the South—and whose hometown had a hanging coffin with three lynching victims listed—visiting the Lynching Memorial was a horrifying experience. The notion that the soil where my house stands and the woods where I played as a child could have been (and at least, were near) the site of something so horrendous was sobering. It is one thing to know in the abstract that our country was built on the backs of racial terror and another to confront that it’s happened in my neighborhood. 

I am not particularly prone to outward displays of emotion, but I gasped audibly when I saw the name of the county where I’ve lived my whole life—and the ones where my parents, and their parents, spent their childhoods—listed among the hanging coffins. I’d realized fairly quickly upon entering the memorial that it was a possibility, but the irrefutable presentation that the fairly inconspicuous place where I grew up has such a dark, unerasable history rocked me. 

It’s a privilege, as a young white woman with Southern heritage, to first think about football and sweet tea and orange leaves when I consider my roots. It’s also an incomplete thought—racial tension and terror are as entrenched in the South as the SEC — and I was reminded at the memorial that it’s necessary to temper my love for my home with the knowledge that its establishment is owed in no small part to forced labor and brutal discrimination. 

I sent some friends of mine from home photos of the memorial soon after we’d left with a short explanation of what the names inscribed represented. After I’d sent the messages, though, I realized even the photos wouldn’t adequately convey the horror. I think it was the juxtaposition between the beautiful blue sky and green grass outside—the same kind of weather I most strongly associate with home—and the hanging reminders of what deep evil can transpire even on similarly gorgeous days that struck me most thoroughly. 

Just as my subconscious knowledge that my South was the same South which fought a war to keep slavery had never truly been enough to make me consider the legacy of the land where I grew up, sending a photo or two in the high school group chat wasn’t likely going to be enough to make an impact.  

Our visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, while horrifying, provided crucial historical context for the continuing oppression faced by Black people and communities which may feature centrally in the stories our class reports from Mound Bayou. 


Journey to the Jewel of the Delta

As part of their Audio Journalism class, ten Princeton students traveled to the Deep South during Fall Break to report on the town of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Along with Professor Joe Richman, Professor Errin Haines and Assistant Dean Bryant Blount, they were immersed in the region’s rich history, from the terror of Jim Crow to major sites of the Civil Rights Movement before arriving in Mound Bayou. Known as “the jewel of the Delta,” it is the oldest black township in the country, founded by formerly enslaved men and women just after the end of the Civil War. 

Over several days, the students fanned out across Mound Bayou, conducting dozens of interviews and logging hundreds of hours of tape on topics ranging from farming, to education, to football, to healthcare, to food insecurity to cultural tourism. Among the people they met were citizens whose families go back generations in the town, including the current mayor, principal of the recently-consolidated high school, a second-grade class learning Mound Bayou’s history, the owner of a world-renowned pottery compound and a local restaurant owner. In their down time, there were visits to a juke joint, line dancing, a Harvest festival, and a canoe trip down the Mississippi River.

The students’ work will culminate in a 10-story podcast to air at the end of the semester, but first, read more about their behind-the-scenes experiences, documented on this blog.