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The folks who gather Shelby County’s black history

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By Beth Herrinton-Hodge

The African-American community has a rich history in Shelby County, but it’s often difficult to uncover. This also makes that history difficult to appreciate.

“Many of our stories come out when we’re sitting around talking with our parents and grandparents,” says Sanda Jones, a member of the Shelby County Historical Society. “Most of the time, our history wasn’t written down because it didn’t seem like something to write about. It’s just how it was. We lived the way we lived.”

But when people gather and start sharing stories, oral histories start flowing.

“I was a history major at Kentucky State University. I’ve always been interested in history. I think the stories I heard from my family is what got me interested,” Jones says. “I’ve always been curious about how things were, how things have changed. Even from my time growing up in the sixties and seventies, things have changed.”

Gathering and recording the stories, collecting artifacts and pictures to display, is not always easy. “My dad explained to me that we don’t have many pictures of black families or community activities because not many people had cameras,” Jones says. “A photo was treasured. People tucked them away and didn’t bring them out very often. They’d never part with them for a museum display; they’re too important to the family.”

But once you earn the trust of people, they’ll tell their stories.

Sanda Jones, along with fellow historical society member Kerry Magan, seem to recognize that there are a great deal of local stories to be told and gathered.

Both members of the Shelby County Historical Society, they said that they haven’t told as much of black history through the historical society as they would like to have.

In July, they gathered a group of community leaders to help tell the story of the black community in Shelby County and targeted this month to offer a special forum and exhibit to mark Black History Month.

So often teachers search for stories of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks or Ruby Bridges when they want to help their students focus on Black History. Yet, there are many current residents in Shelby County with their own accounts of segregation and integration and the efforts to establish civil rights.

We don’t have to go far to find real life stories of black history; day-to-day stories of work and play, education and medical care, church gatherings and recreation. The challenge is bringing together the people who lived the history and our local teachers and students. Members of the historical society want to give voice to our local Black history tellers.

“Whenever we’d come together to plan our Black History Month event, one person would tell a story,” Magan said. “It reminded another person of a story, and pretty soon everyone was sharing. I learned much that I didn’t know about Shelby County history through our planning meetings.”

Committee members include Etta Murphy Coleman, the face of the Dorman Center from its beginning, who has a wealth of stories about educational needs and opportunities for the black community. Maureen Ashby recounts stories about historic African-American communities. Mattie Bray was a housekeeper in Shelbyville City Hall who can tell great stories from across the city. Willie C. Fleming was instrumental in integrating the local swimming pool. Brenda Jackson, Roland Dale, and John Graham recount stories as well.

These community leaders and others helped to shape the inaugural Black History Month celebration offered by the Shelby County Historical Society, which will be 2-5 p.m. Sunday at Stratton Center.

“We hope people will turn out for this event,” says Fred Rogers, Shelbyville Historic District coordinator. “It tells of an important part of our community that we don’t know or share enough about.”

The planners say they know that this event only will scratch the surface of black history.

“We’ve uncovered photos and information about black soldiers from Shelby County who served in the Korean War,” Jones says. “If you focus in on just one part of the story, you realize that there’s much to uncover. For example, pictures tell us that there were black soldiers, but different circumstances limited blacks in military service. Many people didn’t even know we had black soldiers in that war.”

Says Magan: “A Girl Scout from Jefferson County researched the Rosenwald Schools that educated black children  in the early 1900s. The young woman is working to have the Buck Creek Rosenwald School site listed on the national historic register as part of her Girl Scout Gold Award project.”

As part of the newly developed intern program at the Shelby County History Center, high school students helped to collect recordings of individuals in the local black community. Through the students’ legwork, the historical society has been able to gather this valuable information to add to its Web site, www.shelbykyhistory.org.

“Our work is just the beginning in telling people about the black history that’s here,” Jones says. “There are so many amazing and heart-warming stories. Maybe we’ll gather it all in a book someday.”