Through Performance, Mississippi Students Honor Long-Forgotten Locals
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For high school juniors in a Mississippi town, their connection to American history comes from a cemetery. The teacher who sends them there - Chuck Yarborough. He says studying people who lived in the past is a great way for students to learn who they are and where they come from. As part of our 50 great teachers project, Elissa Nadworny of the NPR Ed team went to the graveyard with a group of students as they got ready for a special performance.
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UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Welcome to the 25th annual Tales of the Crypt sponsored by the students of the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Friendship Cemetery, Columbus, Miss. Tonight - the final dress rehearsal for the big event next week. Students spread out among the tombstones in hoop skirts, top hats with feather fans and walking canes. They're all standing next to gravestones, and this is where they'll tell the stories of the people underneath.
JASMINE: Mr. Pryer (ph), well, he's not here right now but he should be back shortly.
CALEB: What have we done? Duty, honor - why did Lieutenant Lee decide to attack, starting this Civil War?
LAUREL: All the blockades and the railroads and waterways, the price of food, fuel - everything rose like crazy.
NADWORNY: Up next is 16-year-old Summar McGhee.
SUMMAR MCGHEE: Go on and take a seat.
NADWORNY: She smiles uneasily. After a few deliberate breaths, she slips into the past and a 200-year-old servant comes alive.
MCGHEE: (As Old Maddie) So now there's some homemade sweet potato pie - fresh out of the oven. And I'd be more than happy to fix you some. If you get hungry, just let Old Maddie know.
NADWORNY: Summar's journey with Old Maddie started back in this same cemetery last September with the rest of Chuck Yarborough's U.S. history class.
CHUCK YARBOROUGH: It's peaceful out here.
NADWORNY: Yarborough thinks of this graveyard as his second classroom. Over the summer, he scours the tombstones - all 12,000 of them - searching for names.
YARBOROUGH: I'm always looking for females because females want to research females often. If that helps the student get into it I want that.
NADWORNY: He draws up a fresh list each year - no repeats. His students select one of those names.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Sarah Esther Houghton (ph).
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Mary Winona Zuleeen Frasey (ph).
MCGHEE: Henrietta Euphrosia Brown.
NADWORNY: They spend the year learning everything they can about that one person. Summar picked Henrietta Euphrosia Brown.
MCGHEE: She was your typical middle-class Southern women.
YARBOROUGH: In history, the data is in the documents.
NADWORNY: To learn more, Yarborough sends them to the local library - yellowed newspaper clippings, school board meetings, court records steeped in legalese. Summar didn't really connect with Henrietta, but she was hooked when she came across a name - Old Maddie, Henrietta's domestic servant.
MCGHEE: Doing research at the archives - it was kind of disheartening to see how little information is there about African-Americans.
TONY MONTGOMERY: And that's usually how the call starts now - can you let me look in the book?
NADWORNY: That's pastor Tony Montgomery, and the book is a collection of handwritten lists of church attendees, church meetings and group photos from Missionary Union, Mississippi's second oldest black Baptist church.
MONTGOMERY: When somebody like Chuck Yarborough comes along, you know, Caucasian gentleman who is unearthing history and then displaying it - that's special.
MCGHEE: It's not about teaching history. It's about him making you a better person. Like, he'll go out of his way on anything.
YARBOROUGH: All right, ladies and gentlemen, listen up please.
NADWORNY: It's late on a Wednesday night. Yarborough and his students are in a grassy field on the school's campus practicing.
MCGHEE: (As Old Maddie) One day, Miss Henrietta went outside to feed the hogs, reached down to get a pail for the slop and an old stubborn mule reached back and kicked Miss Henrietta right in the heart.
NADWORNY: Yarborough is helping Summar craft her performance of Old Maddie.
YARBOROUGH: I do want you to lean forward. When she gets excited about something, she's going to lean forward and tell that story from like this and then she's going to lean back, right?
NADWORNY: Back in September, Summar felt uncomfortable just speaking up in class. When she gave her first performance as Old Maddie, her whole body was shaking.
MCGHEE: And I asked Mr. Yarborough every time I perform what if I die? And he says that'll be the best performance I've ever seen in my life.
YARBOROUGH: Dramatic performance creates spaces that allow the performers and the audience to challenge what they understand about the world.
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NADWORNY: Summar settles into her rocking chair and finishes her performance.
MCGHEE: (As Old Maddie) Mr. Charles was one of them Union soldiers, came to Columbus after the war. Got him a job uptown as a merchant and that's when he hired me, Old Maddie.
NADWORNY: She fidgets with their bright yellow blouse and white apron. Her short, curly hair is covered with silver spray paint. She leans back - this time with confidence.
MCGHEE: (As Old Maddie) Come on now. Come on in the kitchen; get you some of that pie. I won't take no for an answer.
NADWORNY: A few tombstones away, Chuck Yarborough has his arms crossed. He's smiling, nodding his head in approval. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Columbus, Miss. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.