Civil rights stories finally heard

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Carol Sorgen

When Shirley and John Billy married in 1958, interracial marriage was illegal in Maryland. They tell — and enact — their story of arrest, imprisonment and worse in “For All the World to Hear: Stories from the Struggle for Civil Rights,” an oral history and performance project sponsored by UMBC.
Photo by Meike Gentis

It was a happy “accident” that John and Shirley Billy met in the first place. A member of a black doo-wop group, John was performing at a local club in Baltimore in 1955 when he was given a note that a young woman wanted to dance with him.

He approached a table with two young women, and as luck — or fate — would have it, danced not with the woman who had written the note, but with her friend.

Fifty-seven years later, John, who is African American, and Shirley, who is Caucasian, are still together. That they have remained so is a testament to their love, of course, but also to a change in both a 275-year-old law and social mores.

“When we were married in 1958, interracial marriages were against the law,” recalled John, now 77, a retired truck driver and also a lifelong musician who performed with the recording artists the Honey Boys. Shirley, now 76, is retired from a career with Bank of America.

Though John and Shirley married in Washington, D.C., where such unions were legal, the City of Baltimore and State of Maryland, where they lived, did not recognize the marriage at the time. (A law repealing the ban on interracial marriages was passed in Maryland in 1967.)

Shirley was arrested and imprisoned. Their first-born child was taken from them and put up for adoption, but fortunately, the Billys were able to find him in South Carolina and get him back before the adoption was finalized.

So intent was the government on upholding the law banning interracial marriages that John was drafted into the Army in an effort to keep them apart.

“That didn’t work either,” John chuckled. “We survived it all. It’s sort of a miracle.”

John was born in Washington, D.C., and moved to Baltimore at the age of 6. Shirley, born in Arkansas to an Irish and English father and Irish mother, moved to Baltimore at the age of 4. Though they never met as children, they both grew up on the east side of town where they say they never encountered racism.

“We all came up together, played together and, for my part, I sang in White night clubs,” said John. “Neither one of us had ever experienced anything like what happened to us after we were married.” The couple has written a book about their experience, entitled Flavor: Faith, Love and Victory over Racism.

Giving voice to history

The Billys’ experience is just one of the compelling stories audiences can see and hear in “For All the World to Hear: Stories from the Struggle for Civil Rights,” an oral history, performance and digital humanities project of the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture (CADVC) at UMBC (University of Maryland Baltimore County).

Through the project, a dozen older adults from the Baltimore area tell, write, perform and digitally publish personal stories of their involvement in the struggle for civil rights.

The first part of “For All the World to Hear” brought seniors from interracial and interfaith backgrounds together for a series of oral history interview meetings. With guidance from local oral historian, dramaturge and performance director Harriet Lynn, their written accounts have resulted in a script that they will perform throughout February (Black History Month) before intergenerational audiences in the Baltimore area.

The second half of the project involves the same group of individuals, each of whom will work with a UMBC student to produce his or her story in digital video format. Those will be published to the Internet at UMBC’s digital story site, (www.umbc.edu/stories). The digital stories will ultimately be introduced and distributed via iTunes U to schools throughout Maryland and beyond.

Traveling museum exhibit, too

“For All the World to Hear” has been curated by CADVC director Sandra Abbott, who was inspired by the traveling exhibition and book, For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights, co-organized by CADVC and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and curated by UMBC Research Professor Maurice Berger.

Now on view through March 10 at UMBC, the exhibition has already been mounted at the International Center of Photography in New York, National Museum of American History, and National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Following its presentation at UMBC, the exhibition will travel to the Addison Gallery of America Art in Massachusetts.

This visual exhibition was inspired by a black and white photograph taken in September 1955. Shortly after Emmett Till was murdered by white supremacists in Money, Miss., his grieving mother, Mamie Till Bradley, distributed a gruesome photograph of his mutilated corpse to newspapers and magazines. 

Asked why she would do this, Mrs. Bradley explained that by witnessing with their own eyes the brutality of segregation and racism, Americans would be more likely to support the cause of racial justice and equality.

“Let the world see what I’ve seen,” was her reply. The publication of the photograph transformed the modern civil rights movement, inspiring a new generation of activists to join the cause.

“For All the World to See” is the first comprehensive museum exhibition to explore the historical role played by visual images in the fight for civil rights in the United States. The exhibition includes more than 250 objects — including posters, photographs, graphic art, magazines, newspapers, books, pamphlets, political buttons, comic books, toys, postcards, and clips from film, newsreels and television.

Explaining how the idea for the oral history project grew out of the visual exhibition, Abbott said, “I knew there would be plenty in the gallery to see, but I wanted to engage our immediate community — especially seniors — since they are all around us and available to pass on their first-person accounts directly to the next generation.”

UMBC is located near Charlestown Retirement Community and the two share many programs.

Getting their say

Abbott said her vision behind “For All the World to Hear”— which has been selected to be a featured session at the American Alliance of Museums National Conference this spring in Baltimore — was to create a safe place for the participants’ stories to come out in preparation for the performances, while at the same time creating an intergenerational community among the storytellers and the student facilitators.

“So often I see seniors marginalized and their stories taken for granted,” said Abbott. “This project was a chance to channel a diversity of voices on the struggle for civil rights to the next generation. It also allows us a moment to pay respect and to honor their stories, the same as we would a precious artifact on display in a case in the gallery.”

As project director, Abbott functions as the producer of the live performances, but has worked closely with well-known director Harriet Lynn.

“Harriet not only combines programming and a safe harbor for the seniors themselves to grow as creative storytellers and writers, but she also makes them performers and takes the project quite literally, ‘from page to stage,’” said Abbott.

Abbott’s student staff assists as production crew and research assistants as needed, and are also working under Abbott’s direction for the other segments of the project — the creation of digital stories in collaboration with each of the seniors, and a film documenting the process and story of the entire project itself.

Several of these digital stories have already been collected as part of the pilot project for “For All the World to Hear.” Catonsville poet, editor and retired UMBC English professor Gloria Oden, who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1979, speaks about her experience, along with other Howard University students, of picketing a Washington, D.C., establishment that refused to serve blacks.

“Our signs read, ‘Our boys, our bonds, our brothers are fighting for you. Why can’t we eat here?’, and ‘We died together, why can’t we eat together?’,” Oden recalls in her video presentation. On the third day of the picketing, the owners of the restaurant changed their position.

“We won that battle, but the fight for integration…continued,” said Oden, who passed away after the pilot project was completed

In another digital production, Marie Bemkey relates her own civil rights experience. Then a nun assigned to a Catholic school in Washington, D.C., Bemkey encouraged one of her students to apply for a scholarship to a local business school.

The young girl, named Helen, wrote an essay titled, “What My Uniform Means to Me.” She submitted it with only a number as identification, not her name, and her essay was the winner. But as she walked up to receive her scholarship, the presenter changed his mind and awarded the prize to a white boy.

“I cried with her,” Bemkey said in her digital recollection. Bemkey asked her order for permission to make a sign protesting the decision, but she was denied. Young Helen eventually got pregnant, lost her boyfriend when he died in a game of Russian roulette, and moved to California.

“I lost contact with Helen,” said Bemkey, “but I’ve always wondered how her life would have changed if she’d gotten that scholarship.”

For John and Shirley Billy, participating in “For All the World to Hear” is an opportunity to tell their story and show how they triumphed over their adversity. John even requested a letter of apology from the City of Baltimore and the State of Maryland for what they put the couple through.

He’s proud to say that he received written letters from both the Mayor and the Governor. “That made me feel good,” he said.

The Billys have enjoyed taking part in “For All the World to Hear” and meeting the other participants. In the end, though, they and the other performers have just one goal.

“We want to be heard,” said John.

The most recent local presentation of “For All the World to Hear” took place on Dec. 12. Upcoming presentations include:

Sunday, Feb. 10, 2 p.m. at the Jewish Museum of Maryland; Tuesday, Feb. 12, 6 p.m., Maryland Historical Society; Friday, Feb. 15, 10:30 a.m., UMBC, Recital Hall, Fine Arts Building; and Saturday, Feb. 23, 2 p.m., Enoch Pratt Free Library, Main Branch.

All performances of “For All the World to Hear” are free; however, some venues themselves may have admission charges. Consult individual venues for admission policies.

For more information, visit www.foralltheworldtohear.org. For more information on the exhibition “For All the World to See,” visit www.umbc.edu/cadvc/foralltheworld.