Fayette County Public Schools and the Univ. of Memphis’ Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change will unveil “Uplift the Vote,” a free civil rights exhibit focusing on events in Fayette County, Tenn.
The exhibit presents events of the Civil Rights Movement within Fayette County. From 1959 to 1968, black Americans were fighting for their voting and economic rights. A key effort in the movement was registering black voters, much to the chagrin of their white counterparts. In response to these registration efforts, black Americans were evicted from the white-owned sharecropping land where they lived and worked. Hundreds were forced to live in “Tent City,” an encampment hosted by a local black landowner, and denied access to food, fuel, medical care and other daily necessities.
Mary Williams, a former resident of Tent City, recalls the hardships as a result of vote registration.
“When we go out to look for a place to try to live…we find out that every place you went to, they turn you down because of the same thing,” Williams said. “There wasn’t any place to go.”
When they eventually found an encampment to settle into, the Williams family found very little comfort in their living arrangement, sleeping in cardboard boxes.
“They got the tents for us, and they set it down. The first night that we moved to Tent City, the ground was really frozen and real hard. We just knocked the grass down and my husband came up to Mr. McFerren, they got cardboard boxes, they split those boxes open, they spread them down on that grass, and we set our bed up,” Williams said.
Early B. Williams, Mary’s husband, also talked about what it was like living in Tent City.
“Me, her, and the four kids lived in that tent, cooked in that tent, slept in that tent,” Williams said. “In the winter time, that tent would get like a deep freezer, ice solid all over.”
A moment of silence was held today at the Fayetteville County Courthouse in honor of the Civil Rights Movement. Last year was the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement within Fayette County. The guest speaker for the opening of the exhibit will be Daphene McFerren, executive director of the Hooks Institute. McFerren’s parents, John and Viola, led those voting registration drives in Fayette County, as well as helped create “Tent City.”
The exhibit was first displayed in fall 2018 at the University of Memphis library. It has also been shown at the Dunbar Carver Museum in Brownsville, Tenn. Hooks Institute Media and Programs Coordinator Nathaniel Ball said the exhibit has been received very positively.
“Attendees were able to fill out response cards and were very impressed with the exhibit and its importance to history and today,” Ball said. “In Fayette County, many of the attendees or students knew people who were mentioned.”
The exhibit will be displayed at the Fayette County Public County Schools' Central Administration Building Feb. 3 through March 6. It is open weekdays at 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. McFerren will be the guest speaker for two Saturday openings Feb. 15 and 20 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.