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Remembering black history

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Tracy Turner Harvey (third from left), playing the part of civil rights pioneer Irene Morgan, tells the bus driver she will not give up her seat to a white couple (left), who were played by Vernon Ellis and Cleo Warren. The premier of “A Day in the Life of Irene Morgan,” which also was written by Harvey, took place in the Historic Middlesex Courthouse in Saluda on February 17 as part of the Black History Program sponsored by the Middlesex County Museum and Historical Society. (Photo by Tom Chillemi)

by Tom Chillemi

Children in the front row sat spellbound as the story of civil rights pioneer Irene Morgan was reenacted last Thursday evening at the Historic Middlesex County Courthouse in Saluda.

In 1944, Morgan, a 27-year-old African-American, refused to give up her bus seat to a white couple and was arrested in Saluda. Her court case resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court overturning segregation on interstate public transportation in 1946.

Morgan was one of many African-Americans who were honored or remembered at the Black History Program sponsored by the Middlesex County Museum and Historical Society .

“A Day in the Life of Irene Morgan” was written by Tracy Turner Harvey, who also played Morgan in her later years during the play at the courthouse as she remembered that fateful bus ride from Gloucester on July 18, 1944 and two years of court appeals. Among the other actors and actresses was a niece of Morgan, Cleo Warren of Gloucester.

The story ends with a ditty that the audience soon picked up and repeated:

“Get on the bus,
Sit any place,
‘Cause Irene Morgan
she won her case.”

Longtime educator Dr. Dorothy Cooke was the featured speaker. She addressed the audience in the very courtroom where Morgan was first tried in 1944.

She said Morgan’s victory led to the “Freedom Riders,” who tested the new law by riding interstate buses to see if seating was truly integrated.

Dr. Cooke challenged the audience to “follow through and continue to do similar kinds of things that will make America a better place.”

There are lots of people being oppressed in the world, she said in a reference to Egypt. “Those people stood up. and that’s what we have to do. If America is to realize equal and fair treatment, we must brighten the corners where we are. We need to take a stand for what is right, even if we stand alone. Because society cries out for folks who will take a stand and make a difference.”

Dr. Cooke offered Dr. Martin Luther King’s definition of faith: “Faith is taking the first step when you don’t see the end or the top of the staircase.”

“This has to be our philosophy every day,” she said.

Museum official Joan E. Gosier produced a skit titled “Night at the Middlesex County Museum.” When children held flashlights on portraits of well known African-Americans, Gosier would recite their story as if the person in the portrait were talking.

Among those portraits was one of William G. Allen, who was born in Urbanna in 1820, wrote three books, and was the first black person to establish a school in London, England.

Another was Thomas Calhoun “T.C.” Walker, who was born a slave in Gloucester County in 1862 and became the first black attorney in Virginia.

Also remembered was John St. Clare Walker, the principal (1921-39) of the first high school for African-Americans in Middlesex County. Today, the county’s middle school bears his name.

Rosa Parks was also honored for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Her case led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the famous court ruling that segregation on public transportation within state lines was illegal.

Also honored was Barack Obama, the first African-American U.S. President.

E.J. Blake, second vice president of the Middlesex County Museum, told the audience to keep black history alive. “Give children a sense of where they came from,” he said.

Middlesex Museum president Marilyn South encouraged all to share black history with the museum.

posted 02.23.2011

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