On the Road: The Community-Driven Archives team travels to Shaw, Mississippi, February 2019

Two African-American women-presenting people seated, talking with an audio recorder on a tripod between them.

Chaitra Powell and I spent the last weekend of February traveling to Shaw, MS to conduct an Archivist in a Backpack training and archival techniques workshop. We collaborated with a group working to preserve and share the history of the town of Shaw, specifically the civil rights case Hawkins vs. Town of Shaw. We met the group at the Delta Hands for Hope, pictured below, which runs programs for students and community members, but is also the base of operations for the Hawkins Project.  

A group of African Americans sitting around a table in front of a wall of computers and a mural in the background.
Group of training participants

Jenna, pictured below, is the artistic director and co-creator of the company StoryWorks, which combines investigative journalism with documentary theatre.  

White woman-presenting person at a table in front of a computer, presenting in front of a screen with a projection. The projected slide features a person in a head scarf and reads, "What is Documentary Theater?"
Presentation by StoryWorks leader, Jenna Welch

These dynamic women have spearheaded an enormous project that combines archival materials, art and theatre, public health policy, and a myriad of other areas to tell the story of Shaw. Their work highlights the legacy of institutional racism incorporated into town infrastructure, and the failure of equitable legislature, despite a court victory for the African American population in Shaw.   

Before this trip, I had a little knowledge of Hawkins v. Town of Shaw, and I certainly didn’t know that it was the first court case that used statistics to prove discrimination. Yet I quickly realized that Shaw, MS was in an area with numerous civil rights activities. For example, the site (pictured below) of a Freedom School, run by local farm workers and SNCC activists in 1965. 

A clapboard-sided blue house with a small porch sitting behind a dirt yard with pooling water.
The site of a historic Mississippi Freedom School

We flew into Jackson which is about a two-hour drive to Shaw, so we spent a little bit of time exploring the city with Timla, Jenna, and Gloria Hawkins. While we didn’t make it to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, we did see the Medgar Evers home and observe an oral history interview with one of the lawyers on the Hawkins v. Town of Shaw case in 1967. Gloria Hawkins is one of the daughters of Andrew and Mary Lou Hawkins; even though she was a teenager during the case, she has a file with the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission Database.    

What I didn’t realize until that tour was that Mary Lou Hawkins was shot and killed in 1972 by a police officer, or that the Hawkins’ home was firebombed twice after the case. In the 1979 fireAndrew Hawkins Jr., 28, and two of Gloria’s daughters, ages 8 and 11, were murdered.  

On Saturday we were a little concerned that the weather would affect attendance to the workshop, as it had been heavily raining Friday night. It was surreal to stand in the streets of Shaw and see that all the work that the Hawkins case had accomplished could not combat the legacy and strength of discrimination. Hawkins had mandated more robust sewer, water, and street light infrastructure, as well as paved roads for the African American part of town. That was in the 1960’s and early 70’s.  

A city street near a group of houses. The median between the road and the houses is completely flooded with brown-colored water. Picnic benches line the road.
Flooding in an African American neighborhood in Shaw, MS

Infrastructure quality remains so poor in 2019 that entire sections of the town are unable to get out of their houses because of the flooding. That body of water on the edge of the neighborhood, pictured above, is a frequent occurrence, as is the flooding of homes and streets.   

However, those who came to the workshops were some of the most dedicated people I have ever met. One woman, Enda Earl Moore, is the last surviving member of the court-mandated biracial planning commission. Mrs. Moore, pictured below sitting on the right, took part in an oral history training session that Chaitra facilitated as part of the larger Backpack training. In this activity, pairs of participants practiced interview questions and then the group gathered to talk about what went well and what to improve. 

Two African-American women-presenting people seated, talking with an audio recorder on a tripod between them.
Two training participants conducting an oral history interview

Chaitra also led an imaginative description activity where one person described their childhood room and their partner drew it. This opened conversations about the language and detail used in archival descriptive work, perspective, and how this leads to access of information.  

I led one section about born digital material and another on reading archival documents. We talked about consistent file names and using conventions to ensure that files are understandable by multiple parties, as well as raising awareness of LOCKSS, file migration, and format. The second section I led was reading archival documents, which Timla had asked for specifically. I worked with colleagues at the Wilson Special Collections Library to create an easy-to-follow set of guidelines that presented questions to “ask the documents.” Participants looked at photos and the minute books and “read” the document, answering questions about format, audience, and purpose. All the activities provoked important conversations about access, preservation, and ownership of narrative and voice. 

It was an exhausting schedule, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. I was moved by the warm welcome, and by the end of the first day I almost forgot that I had to fly back to North Carolina. We were invited back immediately, and I was sad to leave this place. Shaw has a history full of turmoil, and closed businesses and dilapidated homes dot the streets. But it’s impossible to walk away from this place and these people without feeling their infectious determination and wanting to stay and be a part of their work. The power of place is startling in this town. The materials and resources from the Community-Driven Archives team are only a small portion of this overall project, but I’m so glad we get to be a part of this work.  

A mural feautring the town of Shaw, with a lamppost, railroad tracks, businesses, and a church pictured. A sign at the bottom reads: "Shaw: A Small Town with a Big Welcome."
A local mural