​Remaking Sewanee’s Black History: Digitization Days

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

On Memorial Day, African-Americans with a Sewanee connection converged on St. Mark’s Community Center to remake Sewanee’s African-American history. They digitizied photos and documents, located places of personal significance on a huge town map and recorded oral histories capturing for the future memories and recollections.

The Digitization Day event occurred in conjunction with the Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, headed up by University history professor Woody Register.

Rita Bean and her daughter Tina Dumasis were in town for a family reunion on Saturday and stayed for the Digitization Day event. Both were born in Sewanee. Tina grew up in Atlanta, but the family visited often.

“We had so much freedom here. In Atlanta, we were not allowed to leave the yard. Here the only rule was ‘be home before the lights came on,’” said Tina.

Rita and Tina are the daughter and granddaughter of legendary Dora Turner. Also on hand was another of Dora’s children, Sandra Turner Davis of Winchester. Dora and Willie Turner’s children were among those named in the 1960s lawsuit that brought about the desegregation of the Franklin County Schools.

Dora Turner made history by joining the lawsuit and was an archivist and historian in her own right. Sandra brought her mother’s scrapbook. The thick volume spanned decades and included news clipping and mementos not just about friends and family, but numerous articles and fliers detailing other events and local figures, both non-white and white, capturing Franklin County history first hand. The entire volume was scanned.

The scanning station offered two scanners to create electronic copies of photos and documents.

After being scanned, the photos and documents were returned to the individuals who brought them along with an electronic copy. With the donor’s permission, an electronic copy will also be added to the University archive.

The University archive is notably short of data on Sewanee’s black history and that realization was the impetus for the Digitization Day event.

In addition to scanners for copying images and documents, a light box was available to enhance photographic reproduction of images and objects by optimizing lighting conditions.

At another station, visitors circled a huge map of Sewanee attaching flags to mark the location of family homes and sites meaningful to them. Event assistants recorded pertinent information for each flag along with the name of the person who placed it.

Conversation flowed freely, with people sharing Sewanee stories and memories about family and friends.

Cynthia Wilkerson Kelley grew up in South Pittsburg, but recalled coming to Sewanee every Sunday as a child to visit relatives. “Sewanee is my comfort zone,” Cynthia said, remarking on her connection to the natural beauty of the forested mountaintop.

Those who wanted to record oral histories made their way to the quieter ambiance of the oral history trailer outside St. Mark’s. Interviewers were trained to ask questions geared to elicit not so much the literal truth but the emotional truth. Long-time Sewanee resident Lula Burnette talked long and openly during her oral history session. Inspired, Lula promised to go home and search for photos to have copied and archived at the next Digitization Day event on July 5.

The two Turner siblings and three of their childhood girlfriends posed for a photo, with Sandra displaying a photo of the five of them along with other children gathered on the steps of the old St. Mark’s Church.

The church on a hill on Oak Street was next door to the black Kennerly School and black community center. All three buildings were torn down. The St. Mark’s Community Center never became a hub of activity like the complex of buildings on Oak Street.

Until, that is, on Memorial Day 2019 when Sewanee’s African-American history was both remade and made.

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