COLUMN — A trio of light bearers in Charlotte County
“This little Light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine” was one of the many songs historically sung during the civil rights movement. With its gospel foundation, the song has been considered an African American spiritual, traditionally passed down by many generations.
People who sung it included Fannie Lou Hammer during times when she was speaking up or protesting white supremacy and systematic racism.
It was recorded by Sam Cook, Otis Redding, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Odetta (a black folk singer), as a means of using their musical talent to send a very uplifting and inspiring message for the plight of us as a race.
This song epitomizes the heart of the activist in regular people, who in their own plight individually and collectively, were the “light bearers” in the Black communities. These “light bearers” were a beacon of emotional support, a part of the solution socially to forever dismantle the perceptions and dehumanization of us as Black people. Among these “light bearers” in my Black community there were three women who were the light and not the lampshade; Marie Harris Brown (my mother), Mary Francis Dupee, and Irma P. Blackwell—a trio of “Light Bearers.”
On April 23, 1951 in Farmville, Barbara Rose Johns, a student, led a walkout at R. R. Moton High School to protest and demand equal education based on the conditions in that school. When the schools closed in Prince Edward County, Black students at the school were denied the education that was guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution. When the schools in Prince Edward closed, many families sent their kids to other family members, to friends of the families in neighboring counties, or even out of state to northern cities to continue their education. Marie Harris Brown, my mother, who lived in Charlotte County, became a “light bearer” to be part of the solution.
My mother, Marie, was a very loving, giving, and compassionate person. She was always the first in our community to assist other families when they were in distress, even when it required her to go clean, cook and do laundry. Marie was known for cooking meals, bringing them to someone’s house and caring for the family if the mother of the family was unable to perform. She also was a very outstanding gospel singer, and she would go around our home singing songs to, as she put it, “sing herself happy.” Marie often sang “This Little Light of Mine,” or played it on the piano. It made her happy.
When the schools closed in Prince Edward County, she took in two girls of her friends who were totally upset about their girls missing so much of their education. My mother for three years put those girls on the bus with her three other kids to attend Charlotte County schools. She took care of those young ladies like they were her own. I was 14 years old when this transpired. Our family was their family, and she was determined to be a part of the solution. Her heart was loving and generous, allowing her responsibilities for her family not to interfere with her ability to assist. She was a “Light Bearer” and my hero.
Mary Ford Dupee always walked into the two-room segregated Galilee School House classroom where she taught impeccably dressed. Her white ruffled blouses and dark skirts accessorized with her 2 ½-inch black, sling-back shoes got the respect of every student. The way Dupee held herself—shoulders back, head high, impeccable posture—and the flow in her walk made us all pay attention without her saying one word. I was in awe of how she used the English language, the way she enunciated, in a voice that displayed how much she cared for all her students. Her stately manner, there in that poorly furnished classroom crowded with fifth, sixth and seventh graders, showed me how I wanted to carry myself as a Black woman when I became a woman.
Dupee introduced me to poetry and to the regions of Virginia. But most of all, she gave me lessons on what it means to talk like a lady, act like a lady. I learned this directly when I got into a physical altercation with one of my female peers. I was sent out of the room and she gave me a talking to like I had never had, and she also called my parents. I don’t have to tell you, my parents were outraged by my behavior and I was punished. My mom said I had disrespected my teacher and from this point on there was to be no more fights, no more back talk and I was to act “like I had some raising.” In other words, “be a lady.” So, thanks, Mary Francis Dupee, for being a “light bearer.” You are my shero.
Irma P. Blackwell was a brilliant Black woman committed to education for all the Black students in Charlotte County. She always wore brown business suits with stripes and very plain, white blouses accessorized with a string of white pearls and brown or black 2-inch heels. Her black hair, straight and long, was always pulled into a bun or twisted around her beautiful vanilla skin. And always, too, she wore just a smidgen of pink lipstick. As the superintendent of the Black schools, she always checked in on all the teachers to make sure that they truly cared and taught the students. Blackwell was determined students under her care would attend college and become productive members of the Black race.
When it became time for me to apply to different colleges, I applied to Virginia Union University (HSBC) and at her insistence, Longwood College, an all-white college. She insisted that I had the academics, and she was going to do her damnedest to get me into that college.
Now this was 1965, but this lady was bold, and she always set the example for others to follow in obtaining higher education. We submitted all the necessary paperwork in a timely fashion, but I was told in a letter that I did not meet the requirements. Blackwell was totally angered by this and needed a clearer answer, so she pursued them. She put me in her white four-door, used Chevrolet and we drove to the Longwood campus, which was about 20 miles away from Charlotte Courthouse.
When we arrived, she had me sit in an exceedingly long hallway at the adminissions office. She held her head high and strolled into the dean of admission’s office. It seemed like an eternity sitting on this long, dark, wooden bench, while white people, women mostly, walked by looking at me. I felt them saying, without a word, “What are you doing here?”
As I was becoming more restless, Blackwell came down the hall. She stopped in front of me and with sadness and compassion she said, “You were not admitted because you are a negro.”
I was unable to talk all the way back home. But by this time, I understood more now that being a Black person was not good in the eyes of white people. However, Blackwell had shown her light that day by her willingness to demand what she knew was right when it came to Blacks. I admired her and was in awe of her spirit in the interest of higher education. She was a “light bearer” who modeled for me to always pursue your goals, because you are worthy, and you are deserving.
This trio of “light bearers” allowed, aligned and were attuned to the “light” that was inside of them. They showed each in their own unique way what it means to be a part of the solution. They were role models for me as well as for the rest of the Black community that I grew up in Charlotte County.
Now, I too am being the “Light” by sharing my stories so that all of you can too be and sing, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine! Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine!”
Yemaja Jubilee is a poet, author, inspirational speaker, creative consultant, and TV/radio personality.