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The Women of St. Gabriel's Mission, Mound Bayou Art and Oral History Project





The Women of St. Gabriel's Mission, Mound Bayou Art and Oral History Project




I have always felt that the (Yazoo) Mississippi Delta presents a myriad of opportunities for students. The rural agricultural, culturally rich Delta provides an extraordinary environment for personal and educational development. If a college student or graduate student stays there for six months, there's a good chance that a book is gestating. The Delta has that impact.


I grew up in the 1950s in Ruleville, Mississippi which is in the middle of the Delta and my family's presence in the Delta covers almost its entire history.


The (Yazoo) Mississippi Delta is the vast, flat alluvial plain which is located in the northwest corner of Mississippi.It stretches from Memphis to Vicksburg, Mississippi (about two hundred miles) and varies in width from fifty to seventy miles. The delta was -- for the most part -- settled after the American Civil War and its population has always had and African American majority. Its history is that of an agrarian society which has been characterized by small towns and farms. The Delta has been geographically and culturally distinct from the rest of Mississippi. Yet, too often, the Delta has been portrayed as merely an isolated context of American and world economic, racial and social history.


I have played a role in bringing the Delta to the outside world and bringing the outside world to the Delta from the 1960s to the present. I had plenty of encouragement from Delta writers -- both in person and through their work. Craig Claiborne of Sunflower and Indianola, the former food editor of the New York Times, shared some of his Delta background during lunches in the 1960s. Mr Claiborne was a major factor in the democratization of cuisine in America. I obtained a Yale fellowship for the Pulitzer Prize recipient, Greenville editor, Hodding Carter Jr. in 1966. On that visit, I witnessed Mr Carter's presence with students and his command of the Delta's complex background. I have explored the literary and historical worlds of David Cohn, Shelby Foote and William Alexander Percy and presented this legacy to audiences. I remain enthusiastic about the prospect of bringing students to the Delta.


So, when Delta Center Director, Luther Brown, during a visit to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, mentioned lively group of elderly African American women who visit the St. Gabriel Mercy Mission in Mound Bayou, we immediately saw the possibilities for a student oral history project. This was truly an opportunity for students to experience the Delta in person, not via the media, fiction, or non fiction.


These women have seen and experienced much of the 20th century in the Delta. They are strong, verbal, energetic and gregarious. They had witnessed and lived through the harshness of both the American and Deltan racial past. They know the good and the bad. And they wanted to tell their stories.


Rabbi James Ponet, the Jewish chaplain at Yale University's Slifka Center, found two students who had a serious interest in the project. The Yale students, Annie Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Wilkins joined with Delta State University students Anna Preus and Lisa Alford to do the project. Annie and Elizabeth are urbanites from Boston and Washington, DC so county life and Delta hospitality were new to them. Miles and miles of highway through cotton, soybean and rice fields and catfish farms were a novelty for the Yalies. Anna, the photographer, of the group and LIsa, the art education specialist, are both Delta natives.


Mound Bayou needs no introduction. It was the most famous all black town in America at the turn of the century. Booker T. Washington, one of the major figures of African American history, captured the importance in his comment.


"Outside of Tuskegee (Alabama) I think that I can safely say there is no community in the world that I am so deeply interested in as I am in Mound Bayou."


The host of the women and the venue for the conversations was the St. Gabriel Mercy Center -- a special place run by special people: Sisters Patricia, Donald Mary, Anne, and Kathy. This project connected generations: undergraduates, nuns and elderly women. This is the story of the women who visit the St. Gabriel Mercy Center. It is also the story of undergraduates and their relationship with those women. It is part of the Deta's history.


Gene Dattel


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