“EXVICTED! THE STRUGGLE FOR THE RIGHT TO VOTE” by Alice Faye Duncan (Calkins Creek, 64 pages, $19) and “OPAL LEE AND WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE: THE TRUE STORY OF JUNETEENTH’S GRANDMOTHER (Tommy Nelson, 32 pages, $18).
Alice Faye Duncan thinks that, for authors, the stories they seek also seek them. His new non-fiction books for young readers are no exception. “Evicted! The Struggle for the Right To Vote” and “Opal Lee and What It Means To Be Free” are lively and informative additions to the black history books Duncan has previously written, stories she describes as overlooked moments in American history.
“Forced out !” captures the struggles of black residents of Fayette County, Tennessee in the 1960s — a community of “undeserved suffering,” Duncan writes, known as Tent City. Black citizens who had long been barred from voting participated in voter registration drives organized by farmers John McFerren and Harpman Jameson. As a result, the White Citizens Council, a segregationist group, forced black sharecroppers off their land and into tents. As a form of punishment, they also deprived these families of medicine, insurance policies, and goods and services. This struggle captured the nation’s attention and culminated in the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The book opens with illustrated profiles of key players in the movement – Duncan calls artist Charly Palmer’s illustrations for the book “wonderful” – and continues with detailed vignettes in word and art of those who fought. to obtain the right to vote. Duncan’s work in Memphis as a school librarian, who knows the shortcomings of the curriculum, guided her. “No one, even in Fayette County – not a child! – knows this story,” she exclaimed. “No kid in Memphis understands this story. No kid in East Tennessee understands the weight of this movement and how it was the only movement that influenced young college kids, like John Lewis and the young Freedom Riders. This movement caused them to go into the rural areas of the South and start a voter registration campaign. What they were doing was extraordinary. They are sacrificing their comfort for the right to vote.
During his research, Duncan was moved to discover that his family, in multiple ways, is connected to the history of Tent City. “I know these people,” she said. “I feel like I was chosen to share these Memphis and Tennessee stories that are so uncharted.”
In fact, the spark for the story came at a 2006 funeral where she spotted Ernest Withers, “a fixture in my Memphis community” and the photographer who chronicled the Tent City movement. Withers gave Duncan a collection of his famous civil rights photographs. “He started me on this journey,” says Duncan. “I see pictures in this book of black farmers and their children. That’s when I heard about Tent City. I had never heard of it before. It’s the dead talking .” Withers took the photos so that black media across the country could know the fate of these sharecroppers. “He has furthered the cause of these farmers, beyond a shadow of a doubt. His photographs have helped send the message across the country that these farmers need your help.”
Duncan’s biography of teacher and activist Opal Lee, illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo, tells the story of Lee’s childhood in Texas, as well as his memories of his grandfather Zack’s “stories of freedom.” Duncan had the unique opportunity to speak by phone to Lee, the woman who campaigned tirelessly to make Juneteenth a holiday, walking at 89 from Texas to DC to bring attention to her cause.
“She made it very clear to me,” Duncan explained, “that she wanted people to understand that Juneteenth is not a ‘black party’. Juneteenth is a party that represents the idea that no one is free. until everyone is free. There are liberation movements all over the world, and sometimes they are not black and white. Liberation has no race. It has no particular religion. It should belong to every child, everywhere. What Opal Lee’s book does is show how one person with one voice can change a situation for good.
Duncan has strong feelings about recent attempts across the United States to ban books that deal with racism. “I hope,” she says, “there will be a time when those who perpetuate this will understand that they are not proponents against critical race theory. They are proponents against critical thinking and democracy. I hope they have a return to -Jesus understands that their behavior is so reckless and that it puts all children, including their own, in critical danger.”
In the meantime, Duncan remains open to new stories arriving.
“Stories are organic,” she says. “They have life and memory, and they are looking for a body. Every time I look at these stories which are, as my friend says, on the brink of ruin, unknown, unexplored, I can’t help but thinking about how the dead speak. There’s a whole African idea that past, present and future are actually simultaneous, that there’s no division, that we’re all here together.
For more local book coverage, visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.