COLUMBUS, Miss. — On May 8, 1865, federal troops arrived in Columbus, Mississippi, and freed the black slaves who remained in bondage in the city.
The following year, many of those former slaves and their allies celebrated the anniversary of their emancipation.
“These freed people had a party,” said Dustin Dunaway, a Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science senior who performed the speaking role of Cyrus Green, a northerner who moved to Columbus after the Civil War to help educate African-Americans. “Today was the day long-remembered by many of the African-Americans here. It was the first celebration of the commemoration of their freedom. One year ago, this morning, the federal troops arrived at this place to claim the slaves free.”
Dunaway and fellow African-American history students, along with students from the school’s Voices in Harmony choir, performed spirituals and skits in which students portrayed prominent African-Americans from Columbus’ history. The performance is held every year on May 8 in the city’s historic African-American burial place, Sandfield Cemetery. This year for the first time, the performance included songs by MSMS Strings.
“We’re focusing on people who overcame a lot,” said Chuck Yarborough, a history teacher at MSMS who organizes the program. “In the South, we like to say that we’ve often ‘made a way out of no way.’ And we’re focusing on people in the late 19th and early 20th century who almost every day made a way out of no way.”
The performance began with Dunaway’s explanation of the first Eighth of May celebration and the hardships African-Americans and their white allies faced at the time — how white supremacists used violence to keep their black neighbors from participating in politics or even educating their children. Other students moved the audience through Columbus’s history, starting with Reconstruction, into the era of Jim Crow and eventually to the civil rights movement, with a performance by Mickel Sandifer, who played NAACP leader and Columbus dentist Dr. Emmett Stringer.
“He ran his own independent business and at the same time was an advocate (who) helped everyone in the area get out and vote,” Sandifer said about Stringer.
His favorite line in the monologue he recites is about Stringer saying he was involved in the NAACP “before he was old enough to go to the drive-in movies.”
The students researched the historical figures and wrote the monologues. While many of the figures are performed every year, students sometimes find new information about them through research that students in previous years’ performances didn’t find.
Kyle Brown wrote and performed a monologue for 19th-century Columbus minister, businessman and politician Jesse Boulden. “He’s part of that Reconstruction era of black politicians able to obtain real power in high levels of government,” she said. “Even though it was a short-lived period, he was one of the forebearers of that.”
Between monologues, Voices in Harmony sing songs like “Wade in the Water” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” ending with the song sometimes called the African-American national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
“‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ is a song universally known in the African-American community, and I find it is not known in the white community. That fact speaks to kind of a cultural divide that I find that I think a program like this can try and bridge,” Yarborough said.
Every year, Yarborough invites the audience to sing along to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” with the words printed in programs.
“I’d like (the audience) to take away from the emancipation celebration a greater understanding of the struggles of African-Americans in our community and the successes of blacks and whites who have come together to achieve pretty great things in Columbus and Lowndes County,” Yarborough said. “I’d like them to take away an understanding that there’s a legacy of racial cooperation that competed with the racial oppression of that day. And we can choose to have a legacy of racial cooperation again.”