REFLECTIONS ON THE “KICKOFF CONFERENCE” OF THE ESTL 1917 CENTENNIAL COMMISSION AND CULTURAL INITIATIVE, MAY 26-28, 2017
FRIDAY, MAY 26, 2017, AFTERNOON
Dr. Karla Scott showered the multi-purpose room of Building D with an abundance of “Black Girl Magic”, beginning at noon on Friday. As other workers arrived, one item after another was found in her tote bag. Helping Tiffany Lee, Eugene B. Redmond, and Edna Patterson-Petty fabricate a first-rate flowing gallery, Dr. Scott brought purpose and calmness to the preparations.
And the conference started on time. The bell-bowl brought us to attention and mindfulness. Nothing abrasive was permitted to enter the sacred space. Because she said so.
Dr. Charles Lumpkins displayed a genuine delight in being able to share his valuable perspective on the multilayered “backstory” to the Pogrom. By presenting context and a connected narrative, he brought home the power of how no matter how hard some might wish to erase all memory of the devastation, still the earth has a memory and the stories are not completely lost.
There was much worry that the four students who entered the HS writing contest would not actually attend the conference. Only one of the four had offered confirmation of his attendance. Commissioner Darlene Roy confirmed the young talent-wielders. Gifts for the two first place entries were a Kindle Fire and a carved elephant; and for the honorable mention awardees, an Amazon gift certificate and a carved elephant. By the time came in the program for the students were to be honored, three of the four students were in attendance and the fourth was represented by a proxy.
In the hallway, the representatives of the NAACP Youth Chapter, practiced and practiced. When they were introduced, to end the Friday session, they declaimed their mission and established their claim to be stewards of this emerging history.
The Friday session ended on time. Because she said so.
SATURDAY, MAY 27, 2017
9:15 am: The Chair of the 1917 Centennial Commission opened the day’s journey with a personal reflection and with a call to bring the ancestors honor by being attentive to their voices.
The opening panel was diverse in their topics and inspirational in the depth of their scholarship. By drawing a picture of the “Jim Crow” nature of the Metro-east region, Michael Allen (Washington University) helped the participants see how deeply entrenched and deliberate were the constrictions that forced some to be second-and-third class inhabitants of the city. Samanthe Bachelier, a recent M. A. student from SIUE, proved that each generation will rise to the occasion to claim the story from their perspective and interests. “Whitewashing” the story was her theme. And she was persuasive. Her mentor, Dr. Andrew Theising proved himself, once again, by making a claim for “East St. Louis’ greatest mayor,” and the claim for Mayor Stephens’ contributions was a revelation to many in the room. One of the great challenges of the conference was rendered by Dr. Andrea Boyles, a professor at Lindenwood University, who proved what an engaged scholar can accomplish as she stepped all her listeners to the beat of her fresh connections of the past and future, especially as state-controlled policing has been and is still used to subjugate the powerless and marginalized.
10:45 am: From the hallway, the drumming and singing and chanting began. The Kennedy Twins (Terry and Dhati) and the sojourner of East St. Louis, Anne Walker, glided into the assembly. Bringing the treasure of their family stories, Terry and Dhati Kennedy grounded all of us in the most particular detail – which produced the greatest “Aha moments.” Anne Walker traced her involvement in wrapping herself in the story of the massacre of 1917 and how her heart led her to lead others in commemorative marches for several summers – thereby inspiring many others to begin the Sankofa journey – “to back into the past and bring forward what is necessary for the present and future.”
12:15 pm: Lunch was consumed. Because it was time. And learning continued. Dr. Anthony Cheeseboro (SIUE) “brought it home” by making a pertinent connection between the “leisure and social” industries of the East St. Louis region and the enforced ghettoization of the region. Even so-called “sin sites” were under the control of those who shaped the destiny of all the inhabitants of the region. The indefatigable Jasmin Aber, the power behind the Creative Exchange Lab and Catalina Freixas, from Washington University brought us to see the importance of “mapping memory,” with the project that is already helping teach the socially-adept media practitioners how to find the sites where the blood was spilled in 1917. Dr. Mark Abbott, from Harris Stowe University, brought his keen interpretive eye to the portion of the city called, “Emerson Park,” and made a strong case for studying this section of the city as a template for much else that did and did not happen in the growth or stagnation of East St. Louis. The entire room was blessed by the spoken-word witnessing of Cindy Reed, part of Dr. Scott’s extended band of movers and shakers, nurtured by her work at St. Louis U.
1:30 pm: Sandra Pfeiffer set the rhythm for our eyes and ears with excerpts from her deeply respected documentary, “Against All the Odds.” Jesse Vogler, from Washington University presented excerpts from the video project he and Treasure Shields Redmond have facilitated with members of the Charter School. On the sites of the horrors, these young people recite the testimony of the survivors, and then claim the power of survival, by each announcing that they, too, have survived. This delicate video testimony will be one of several ways the land will presented for moving into the past. The special grant obtained by Dr. Theising for the placement of markers and instructional signage (designed by Mr. Lorenzo Savage, Sr.) and the interactive mapping of these sites, as produced by Creative Exchange Lab (and which is already functional) will be in harmony with these filmed testimonials. Intending to set all the hearts on fire, sections of the documentary, “Never Been a Time,” produced and constructed by Prof. Denise Ward-Brown (also of Washington U.) made everyone in the room “woke and aware...” Her promise to have the full work finished before the end of July was gratefully received.
3:10pm: Nothing but gratitude could be showered on the cast who performed a condensed Readers’ Theater presentation of “Tinderbox,” written, directed (and acted) by Gregory Carr, of Harris Stowe U. In no small measure this talented cast, “brought it on home,” by giving us a story of the people who spirits still haunt the sites of the pogrom – most importantly at the time of their presentation, presenting this “true truth” on the very land where the bloodiest tragedies took place. Mr. Carr continues to work on the script, in a manner that is truly collaborative, by seeking new details of data from scholars and descendants; and by continuing to listen to the cloud of witnesses who hover over us all.
SATURDAY, MAY 27, 2017, EVENING
5:00 pm: All who were able were invited to stay in place for the reception that was being held as the inaugural fund-raising activity, for the purpose of collecting enough money for the establishment of two monuments. Mr. Edmond Brown, Co-chair of the 1917 Centennial Commission began articulating his dream for these monuments even before the Commission was formally established. His work in getting the conversations started in all the places where it most matters is worth the gratitude of all those who work with him. He and the other commissioners who are the “Monument Committee” – Judge Milton Wharton, Dr. Lillian Parks, and Mr. Lorenzo Savage, Sr. – are the best possible caretakers of this dream. The Chair of the Commission began the reception with a prayer and statement of purpose. Mr. Courtney Logan, the City Manager of East St. Louis, representing Mayor Emeka Jackson-Hicks, spoke from the heart, describing how powerful and purposeful has been the work of the Centennial Commission – and how necessary it is to have a signpost that helps to shape the telling of the story of East St. Louis, well into the future. Judge Milton Wharton provided one of his usual eloquent narratives about some of the under-appreciated heroes of the time of the massacre, citing the work of the writers and photographers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; the prophetic and proactive actions of the political establishment of the city of St. Louis, in thwarting any further bloodshed on that side of the river – and providing the necessary resources to protect and sustain the survivor-refugees who crowded into St. Louis; and the Urban League, which organized itself into prominence by devising strategies for aid, comfort and protection of the refugee population that flowed into the city. One of the editorial staff of the Post-Dispatch attended the reception and received the citation on behalf of the newspaper. The other citations will be presented later this summer.
Edmond Brown, Chair of the Monument Committee spoke to the assembled guests, sharing his early commitment to establishing permanent visual reminders. His presentation was illustrated with an artist’s rendering of the proposal for the 1st monument, which will be at the base of the Eads Bridge and will be a gathering place for meditation and renewal. The various levels of sponsorship were explained and several donations were offered and gratefully received. After an informal discussion, there was an opportunity for the visitors to view the various galleries, paying special attention to some of Professor Redmond’s vast collection of historical memorabilia; the sketches of Lorenzo Savage, Sr.; the great painting of the explosion of bullets and lynching, rendered by Amber Johnson (faculty member of St. Louis U.); and the Testimonial Quilt created by Edna Patterson-Petty and her three sculptured women of history, defiance and witness. The assembly was given a final blessing and a reminder that the spirits of the ancestors have drawn us all to carry the story forward and to give our young knowledge of their inherited strength.
SUNDAY, May 28, 2017
2:00 pm: The wonderful Kendrick Smith Trio welcomed the conference guests with songs that proclaimed that the creative legacy of the great musical standard-bearers of East St. Louis continues to inspire. Commissioner Darlene Roy’s months of work to shape, shift and maneuver a schedule into place became a soul-filled rejuvenation of our spirits. After a formal invitatory prayer from the Chair of the Centennial Commission, words flew across the room, notes were flung into the air and the spirits of all those in the circle were possessed with visions of what is vital to our survival. The Poet Laureate of East St. Louis and the wandering griot of the Black Atlantic Artists’ Colonies, Eugene B. Redmond chanted us into higher consciousness and members of the Eugene B. Redmond Writers’ Club “acted up and out” with powerful testimonies to the power in the history of our people. Zelphia Otis tranced the audience with songs from Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and sounds that have echoed from the bellies of long-forgotten ships, caves, hush harbors and constricted souls. Questions were raised and answers were shared.
All departed from the place, convicted and determined to carry the past into a transcendent future.
Because they said so.
[Assembled by Joseph A. Brown, SJ; Chair, 1917 Commission]