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Stories of Resilience in the Face of Segregation

New UMD Video Series Documents African American Life During Jim Crow

By Rachael Grahame ’17

Ernest Wilson laughs with other interviewees

Former UMD Professor Earnest Wilson, center (and father of Malik Wilson, a Faculty Fellow at UMD's Bahai Chair for World Peace), is one of 24 individuals to share their story of growing up during racial segregation in the United States as part of the new UMD series, African American Legacies.

Judy Belk remembers peering out her bus window at her neighborhood elementary school’s new playground equipment in the 1950s, not understanding why she couldn’t play on it. The school was a half-mile from her home in Alexandria, Va., but Belk traveled an additional eight miles each day to an all-Black school.

“The White House was just 10 miles away from my house, but my life was really impacted by the (people) in Richmond,” she said. “It was like peeking over a fence, because for me, things looked a lot better in the District than in Virginia.”

At 6 years old, she was one of a handful of Black students integrated into Alexandria’s white schools, a decision driven by her mother as part of a landmark court case spurred by the NAACP after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Recollections of that experience, and the tight-knit Black community she credits for her success as an adult, are part of a new University of Maryland video series on African American life during the segregation era known as Jim Crow.

African American Legacies: Remembering Resilient Communities,” a new project from UMD’s Baha’i Chair for World Peace, offers 24 first-person interviews with African Americans whose parents came of age during the era of Jim Crow and witnessed a dramatically changed world after segregation ended in the mid-1960s.

Speaking with the Baha’i Chair for World Peace, Professor Hoda Mahmoudi, the interviewees recall difficult experiences, such as being denied service at restaurants and stores. Karen Hudson, granddaughter of famed African American architect Paul Williams, shares how he had to learn to sketch upside-down for his mostly white clients, because he was forced to sit on the other side of the table.

But the interviewees, who include teachers, lawyers, janitors, doctors, government employees and nonprofit leaders, also describe dynamic and loving communities—of parents who sacrificed for a better future for their children and a rich network of support and advocacy that fueled their success.

“Despite all the doors, in the sense, being closed to them, these people found ways to open doors, and they did it by helping each other,” Mahmoudi said. “Instead of responding to some of the disgusting things that were said or done to them, these individuals decided they didn’t want to be like that. They found a different way to deal with the odds they were up against, and that way was all about their own dignity, their own respect, and their responsibility for their community.”

Understanding the nature of the community that thrived during segregation was the initial spark of the project, brought to Mahmoudi’s attention by Baha’i Chair Faculty Fellow Malik Wilson. Wilson’s parents, Ernest and Francille Wilson, were part of the last generation to experience both segregation and integration.

“My parents’ generation is the last generation who can recall that civilization of old, [in which] their parents and forebears stitched together a vibrant and warm and purposeful and full life not only without assistance, but oftentimes with direct resistance,” he said. “I hope viewers will be inspired by the story of a people, who, facing remarkable odds, leaned into the wind, surrounded by a warm and loving and cheering community. It’s a testament to human accomplishment, to faith and belief, and even to the promise of this country.”

The Abdolhossein and Guitty Ejtemai Foundation, which supports organizations furthering the promotion of arts, education and human rights, provided the Baha’i Chair with $25,000 to carry out the project.

“We at the Ejtemai Foundation are humbled to be a part of the African American Legacies Project,” said Guitty Ejtemai, foundation co-director. “By highlighting the achievements of the African American community, the chair has offered a blueprint for how the lessons of success and sustenance can be applied to the grand effort of creating a better world for all.”



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