EDITOR’S NOTE: Here are three stories in WestVirginiaVille’s Black History Month coverage:
BLACK HISTORY 1: ‘I was first-class in my own mind” How a kid named Joe Turner from West Virginia coal mine country got jazzed by legendary ace pilot Chuck Yeager and a boyhood friend who went on to become a war hero —and find his own way by heading into the sky. A reprint of a 2019 “100 Days in Appalachia” story on Turner’s induction into the WV Aviation Hall of Fame, followed by an excerpt from Joe’s memoir of growing up in West Virginia.
BLACK HISTORY 2: ‘Rosa Parks’ feet did not hurt’ Rosa Parks was neither tired, frail, nor old when she she helped crack open a new chapter in the American Civil Rights Movement, by refusing to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955. Sassa Wilkes, who painted the icon’s face for her “100 Badass Women” portrait series, rains fire on the deliberate misreading of an activist who knew exactly what she was doing.
BLACK HISTORY 3: Name Change View our 2020 mini-doc, “WHAT’S IN A NAME: A West Virginia Community Confronts a Confederate Legacy,” which delves into America’s deeply embedded, institutional racism and the effort to strip Confederate general Stonewall Jackson’s name from a school in a mostly Black neighborhood in West Virginia’s capital city. The mini-documentary has been added to the 2021 Phoenix Film Fest in Toronto.
‘She was a badass’
West Virginia artist Sassa Wilkes painted Rosa Parks as part of her tour-de-force portrait series, “100 Badass Woman,” featuring portraits of 100 notable women in world history, from politics to culture, science to activism. In the segment (below), pulled from a 20-minute a WestVirginiaVille.com documentary “100 Days of Badass Women,” Sassa says painting Rosa Parks was a breakthrough in crafting her portrait series. She proceeds to critique the inaccurate, too-common re-telling of Rosa Parks’ accomplishment. The true story of her stalwart moment on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955 was far more powerful than a supposed frail Black lady sitting where she shouldn’t.
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Transcript of segment on Rosa Parks in the WestVirginiaVille.com documentary “100 Badass Women”:
SASSA WILKES: Rosa Parks, her painting was a little milestone kind of turning point for me. Because I knew who Rosa Parks was. I learned about her in school as everybody does. But when I really learned about her, like, really sat down and listened to her speak, in her old age in interviews, she at like … I don’t remember, at some 80-some-years old was still, in every interview that she did, was adamant in the very beginning: “My feet did not hurt …”
That’s not something that women, that Black people in general, not just women, were supposed to do at that time—was say, ‘No!’ I’m not doing that!’
Everybody can be like, ‘Oh, she was a sweet little granny and her feet hurt… No, she was an ass kicker. She was a trained activist. She was, maybe she was 40? She was young. And I was like, obviously, that’s such a thing that she’s sick to death of hearing that. I had to go back and really examine: ‘Why did I learn that? Who told me that? Why is that in every book ever?’
And then… and then you’ve got to think a little deeper. What does that mean? Why would that even exist? And the reason that exists is because she was portrayed as a feeble, tired, little old lady who just did her work during the day and then got on the bus. And was just tired, dammit, and she just wanted a break …
In a white society, that’s a very palatable, kind of easy-to-digest version of what happened. She was utilized by an organization that was ready for change. The Montgomery bus boycott happened … that was the catalysts of it. But it was something that had been brewing and people had been talking about—and shoot, she was a badass!
And that would have been a much less palatable thing to sell to white schoolchildren, I imagine. Is that this really pissed-off, badass Black woman, who knew exactly what she was doing, said ‘No!’ Because that’s not something that women, that Black people in general, not just women, were supposed to do at that time—was say, ‘No!’ I’m not doing that!’
Cool remembrance, thanks. I used to know Bunchie who was a regular at Cabell County Commission meetings when I was a cub reporter at the Huntington Herald-Dispatch.
Rosa Parks, along with MLK and scores of other civil rights activists, studied how to take power over their own lives at Highlander Folk School, then at Monteagle, Tennessee. I met her after the state seized Highlander’s charter and it was temporarily in Knoxville, TN in 1967. She was deeply committed to social change and the betterment of her people and was equally committed to the Gandian principle of nonviolent resistance. Other local (Huntington) heroes at the time included Bunchie Gray, whose house was welcoming to all who dared to stand up to racism, Phil Carter, a Marshall basketball star, Danie Steward, Rick Diehl, singer Donald Liese (sp?).