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Mississippi Freedom project keeps history alive for future generations

NATCHEZ — Ten Florida students visited the Natchez Museum of African-American History on Tuesday evening — one of the group’s many stops throughout a Mississippi Freedom Project tour.

This is the fifth year students in the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida have visited Natchez for their oral history panel and presentation, where experienced colleagues gave brief presentations of what they’ve seen and experienced before opening the floor for other students and visitors to ask questions.

The Director of the Mississippi Freedom Project and history professor, Paul Ortiz, said this is the 11th year of the summer project, and group’s objective is to stop at both rural communities and cities throughout Mississippi that share a passion for their history.

“We like to go where people care about history and are documenting their history,” Ortiz said. “When you walk in (the Natchez museum) and go to Forks of the Road, you can tell right away that people here appreciate history. We want … people interested in using history to grapple with problems we have today.” 

Presenters were Nicole Yapp and Oliver Telusma, both recent graduates from the university in pre-law, and a veteran of the Freedom Rides movement, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons. 

“The project exists to keep the stories of civil rights activists of the past and freedom alive,” Yapp said. “We interview contemporary activists to show and chart how the struggle for civil rights continues today.”

Telusma said the group spent time in Tallahassee, where members of the group conducted interviews with civil rights activists and historians and visited the Peace and Justice Memorial Museum and the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery before coming to Natchez.

“We spent the first part of our trip in Tallahassee, Florida, and we interviewed John Due, who is a legendary figure in Tallahassee and was involved in the Tallahassee bus boycotts,” he said.

Telusma said the group will spend time in Natchez and is volunteering to do a community cleanup before making its next stop in Vicksburg.

Simmons said her first trip to Mississippi was not met with warm welcomes like her trip to Natchez. During the panel, she told her story in the 1960s, when she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and worked in Laurel during the Freedom Rides movement.

Simmons said her family told her not to join the movement for fear for her life, and they told her if she did go to Mississippi she could not come home. Simmons said she overheard daily threats to a Laurel woman, who offered her a place to stay during the movement and watched her own office burn. Today, Simmons teaches religion and African-American Studies at the University of Florida.

“I am happy to return to Mississippi,” Simmons said. “This is the place where I learned about the power of an idea. … Equally important, I learned about the power of ordinary people who have made up their minds that it is time for a change and are willing to sacrifice their time, their energy and their resources to make that change happen.”

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