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Guest Post: Lest We Forget

Thelma Battle

By Thelma Battle

The cultural tradition of funeral services, among many African- American citizens, has been a unique tradition since slavery. Oral history tells us that during slavery times many slaves were not allowed the opportunity to have a funeral or to pay respect to the deceased.  The deceased if fallen dead in the field, for instance was taken, wrapped and a hole was dug, with no funeral or burial rites. The only person to view this process was the digger of the hole. This was not always the case in many other instances of deceased slaves. Williamson County, Tennessee is known for its slave cemeteries, meaning that some slave owners had the decency to see that their slaves had a proper burial; and that loved ones were allowed to attend the burial.

The history of some African American funerals, carry a uniqueness that often interprets the region of habitation.

Thelma Battle’s 2018 Black History Month Exhibit, Lest We Forget, will be open the entire month of February during regular Library hours: M-Th 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., F-Sat. 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Sundays, 1-5:30 p.m.

The cultural tradition of African Americans providing printed funeral programs at the ceremony of a loved one is a unique, yet national among most African Americans.

History tells us that slaves were sold and many slave families were separated forever. This cruel act meant such slaves would never see their loved ones again or have knowledge of who they were. Today the ability to put in writing the life and times concerning the deceased and sharing it with family, friends and loved ones is an expression of freedom. It is a reminder as well as a celebration of “Who You Were” and “Whence You Came”, What You Stood For”.  The order of service, the undertaker, flower girls and pallbearer and cemetery is also announced.

Today many African Americans come together at funerals bearing an oppressed history, but are able to share in the freedom of this day and time; and in doing this act take home a keepsake printed history of the deceased. Such material is often priceless to genealogists tracing family trees.

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Lest We Forget: The 2018 Thelma Battle Collection African American Exhibit

Handmade Funeral Program for Mittie Gentry Scruggs

By Marcia Fraser, Special Collections Department

Now, throughout February, the Special Collections department at Williamson County Public Library is hosting the 2018 Thelma Battle Black History Month Photographic Exhibit, “Lest We Forget,” spotlighting the lives of residents in Franklin’s black community who have lived and died in Williamson County. This exhibit features the vast funeral program collection housed in Special Collections as part of the Thelma Battle Family History Collection.

Why funeral programs? Oftentimes, we really don’t get to know a person until he or she dies. Have you ever been to a funeral, or read an obituary, and realized there were important things about that person that you didn’t even know? Maybe you weren’t aware of some of the ways he participated in the community, or who his family connections are. This is what makes funeral programs and/or obituaries so valuable. If you’re researching your family history, they’re absolute gold!

Obituaries tell us a lot. Things like a person’s full name, his parents’ names, when he was born, who his children and grandchildren are, who predeceased him, who survived him, what he did for a living, when he died, and sometimes why. A funeral program gives you that and more – who preached the service, who the pall bearers and flower bearers were, what scripture was read, which songs were sung. A funeral program can give you the family and friend connections of the deceased. That’s a lot of information to find in one place, and if you’re researching your genealogy, it could give you the very link you need to connect you from one generation to the next on the family tree.

Mittie Gentry Scruggs and husband Forrest Scruggs

We now have over 1200 funeral programs from our local black community in Special Collections, and we’re still collecting. They are filed alphabetically in notebooks, and also digitized in our data files, so they’re available for the cost of a copy, ten cents a page. We are always seeking ways to enlarge our collection and so we invite you to share copies of programs you have that we don’t. If you have family funeral programs or obituaries you can share, we would love for you to bring them in and allow us to copy them and add them to our collection. Talk to one of the librarians in Special Collections to see if you have a program we need. An index of names in our current collection is available to exhibit attendees to search.

This year’s photograph exhibit will also include a new oral history film about Ms. Battle’s work as a grassroots historian, “Thelma’s Battle; Preserving African-American History in Franklin, Tennessee.” The film will be available for viewing as part of the exhibit.

The exhibit is held on the 2nd floor of the library in the Special Collections department at 1314 Columbia Ave. in Franklin, and will run from Feb. 1st – 28th. There will also be displays in the upstairs and downstairs display cases near the elevators. For more information, call 615/525-1246.

Excerpt from the funeral program of Mittie Gentry Scruggs

African American Olympians: The Unknown Greats

By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department

With it being African-American history month and an Olympic year it seems only logical to look back at some of the great African-American Olympians of the past and look forward to the new heroes of this summer.

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George Poage

Most Americans are familiar with the Olympic greats of the past like runners, Jesse Owens and Wilma Rudolf. They might even remember a young light heavyweight boxer from the 1960 Olympics named Cassius Clay, although they are more likely to remember him as we all do now as Mohammed Ali. Some people will recall Tommie Smith and John Carlos from their memorable podium appearance in the 1968 summer games for the 200 meter. And Gabby Douglas from the last Olympics who was the first American to win an individual all-around gold medal as well as the team gold.

However, for every one of these household names there are heroes who are forgotten. Very few remember George Poage who was the first African American to compete in the Olympics and the first to win a medal. Mr. Poage was born in Hannibal, Missouri but actually grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin. While working on his post-graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin he was sponsored by the Milwaukee Athletic club to compete in the St. Louis games in 1904 where he won Bronze medals in the 200 and 400 meter Hurdles.

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John Baxter Taylor, Jr. and team

There is also John Baxter Taylor, Jr. who became the first African American to win gold when he ran the third leg of the 400 meter relay. Dr. Taylor was a graduate of the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Veterinary Medicine, but did not live long enough to practice his craft or enjoy his Olympic success, dying of Typhoid Fever less than five months after the glory of his Olympic championship at the 1908 London games. He might have been the first African American individual gold medal winner, but refused to participate in a re-running of the 400 meter final because he felt a teammate was unfairly disqualified for obstructing a runner from the host nation.

Instead, DeHart Hubbard was the first African American to win an individual gold, a feat he completed in the long jump at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Mr. Hubbard went on to found the Cincinnati Tigers baseball team of the Negro American League.

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Alice Coachman

African American woman began competing in the Olympics as early as the 1936 Berlin Olympics when Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes were selected for the 80 meter hurdles, although only Pickett competed, Stokes having been injured before the games. The first Medal won by an African American woman was gold in High jump at the 1948 London Games, won by Alice Coachman. Ms. Coachman had begun her track career running barefoot on dirt roads and improvising her jumping equipment out of whatever was handy in Albany, Georgia, only learning proper technique and working with real equipment when she reached high school. She won the gold medal she received from King George VI by setting a world record and did it all despite missing her prime years due to the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Olympics due to the War. Ms. Coachman went on to work in education as a teacher and worked with the Job Corps as well as becoming the first African American woman to sign an endorsement deal for an international product when she appeared in a Coca-Cola advertisement with Jessie Owens in 1952.

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Carl Lewis

While not breaking down barriers or being the firsts, many African American athletes have given us great memories over past 30 years as well. The Eighties and Nineties had the brother-sister team of nine time gold medalist, and International Olympic Committee Sportsman of the Century Carl Lewis and his Sister Carol, now a commentator and bobsleigh break man, competing in the track and field events. The U.S. dominance of track and field during that time was also helped by another family. Six time Olympic medalist; three gold, one silver and two bronze, Jackie Joyner Kersee, her brother Al Joyner, a gold medalist in 1984 and his wife Florence Griffith Joyner who has three gold and two silver Olympic medals. All three were trained by legendary track and field coach, and Jackie’s husband, Bob Kersee. Joyner Kersee has held the world record for most points in a Heptathlon since 1988 and was named Female Athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated. At this same time the Dream Team of the 1992 Olympics, including NBA greats like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippin, David Robinson and Charles Barkley, reasserted U.S. dominance of the basketball world.

As summer approaches and the Olympic rosters are set, many new faces and some returning heroes will make themselves known. We can already be sure that Ashley Perry, a young woman from right here in Middle Tennessee, playing for the inaugural women’s rugby sevens team, and hopefuls like Simone Biles and returning legend Gabby Douglas, expected US Gymnastic team stars, and track star Allyson Felix will make sure that African Americans and Americans in general are represented proudly in Rio this summer.

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