WC Reconciliation Project members partner with Discovery Park to host Juneteenth celebration

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Photos credit: Alex DeWayne Williams

By Lorcan McCormick

Staff Writer

It is presumptuous to make any grand statements; often they are done to provide weight to a subject, and moreover done in such a manner that varnishes the subject in sententiousness more than seriousness. The subject at hand needs no varnish for anyone to understand its weight, nor does the unfolding of this story need more than the facts presented plainly.

Years ago a group of nine people, seven of those were members of the First United Methodist Church in Martin, went on a trip to Montgomery, Ala. There, they visited a museum that chronicled lynchings across the country, which among other elements that struck the nine was a jar of dirt with samplings of various lynching sites that have been confirmed in the US. This jar, and the process of its collection, is handled by the Institute of Criminal Justice, which is a group the “Montgomery Nine” have used as an inspiration for their own activities in furthering the conversation for race relations. 

Upon returning home, the Nine organized a public forum at the library where a short film on the subject, filmed by one of its members, Robert Nunley, was presented, which documents the facts learned on the trip as well as the effect it had on its members. 

“The memorial has case after case of this injustice,” Nunley remarked.

The trip led to a debrief between its members that was a mixture of individual and collective, and led to conversation which would have otherwise been unlikely to emerge. From the trip and the subsequent public forum at the library, the interest and participation grew to the founding of the Weakley County Reconciliation Project. 

“I have been interested in civil rights for a long time, but on a personal not organized level,” said Michael Hinds, a retired physician and a member of the Reconciliation Project who was one of the Montgomery Nine. The WCRP has several goals, most distinctly articulated would be a desire to open up conversations in a safe space for people to express themselves in the same complicated way the original Nine did with each other upon their return. They additionally, following The Institute of Criminal Justice, have tried to document the unexpressed local history, “these were human lives that were taken and just forgotten about except for maybe a newspaper byline or article.”

During one of the public forums, and it was possibly the very first though he couldn’t explicitly remember, Nunley found through newspaper archives information on lynchings in Weakley County. One in particular that was shared was that of Mallie Wilson, who was lynched in Greenfield, and in the mode of the memorial in Montgomery they collected dirt and stored it in a jar as a preservation of Mallie Wilson’s memory. 

As difficult as these aspects may be, Nunley noted there has been interest in exploring them, “somewhat to our surprise there was an interest or we felt there might be in having further conversations.” From Montgomery, to the library, and to the founding of the WCRP a small church trip has grown to an active organization in Weakley County with diverse membership.

Not all is solemn, however, and at Discovery Park of America in Union City, a Juneteenth celebration was held that focused on optimism and expressions of joy. 

“In terms of the event, we doubled our numbers and we hope to continue to grow. It went better this year – the music, speakers, it was all incredible,” Hinds shared.

The first celebration of Juneteenth hosted by WCRP was held at the Weakley County courthouse in downtown Dresden in 2021. Starting last year, the event has been held at DPA. 

“Celebrating Black American freedom regarding Juneteenth ties very well with our mission to inspire children and adults to see beyond and so we hope to see it continue to grow over the coming years,” Scott Williams, CEO of Discovery Park shared. Various participants were involved, including Rev. Daryll Coleman, VP of Academic Affairs at Lane College; Brenda Davis and Kaye Hillsman, who performed “The Sounds of Freedom,” which is a performance and history of spirituals; stories of freedom that were children’s books regarding Juneteenth read by DPA members; and a jubilee feast celebrating Black American freedom. 

Joyce Washington, chair of the WCRP, shared the following remarks, “it was a great celebration and we appreciate the partnership with Discovery Park of America. Juneteenth is about Black freedom, culture, resilience, perseverance, and hope. Each year we work to educate the community on its importance and why it matters to all of America. The struggle continues for full recognition of citizenship for those whose backs this nation was built on.” 

The event was attended by people from as far as Ripley and Covington, and the WCRP hopes to continue to expand across Tennessee beyond just Weakley County. 

As Nunley expressed, “it began in coffee shops and living rooms having informal conversations regarding a tough topic,” and in some manners, it was expressed that the same atmosphere of intimacy is one they hope to maintain in their work moving forward. 

For more information regarding the WCRP, visit their website, weakleyreconciliation.com, or Facebook page.   

Members of the “Montgomery Nine” share their perspectives from a trip to the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Alabama, which later sparked the creation of the Weakley County Reconciliation Project. Video by Robert Nunley

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