In honor of Black History month, which takes place during the month of February, the Review spoke with two employees at Rogersville’s Price Public Community Center: Casandra Palmer and Stella Pyles.
As Palmer explained, Rogersville is home to a wealth of information in the form of the Price Public Community center and St. Marks’s Church, which is being restored.
However, both Palmer and Pyles explained that preserving and honoring black history involves more than just setting one month aside or restoring a historic building.
How does Hawkins County compare to other places in celebrating Black History?
Palmer is actually originally from New York City, so her experiences were an interesting contrast to those of Pyles.
When asked how she ended up in Hawkins County, Palmer said, “I used to blame it on my husband, but God told me he (husband) had nothing to do with it. It was all Him. He had to get me out of New York, with the chaos and fast living and just calm it down.”
In regard to how Tennessee compares to New York in celebrating Black History, Palmer said, “To me, Tennessee still has a way to go because it’s still holding on to a lot of old traditions. It’s kind of ironic because you might have people in your house who you trust to cook for you, clean for you and you get really close. Then, you still don’t see them as your equal. It’s like you’re still seeing them as ‘less-than,’ and those two don’t mesh. Since we’ve had the President who is in office, it’s like some people have had this underlying feeling for a long time, and now they feel like they have the right to bring it out. You’ve been harboring this, yet you’re still acting like my friend when we’re face-to-face? That’s not good.”
She noted that, though she experienced racism in New York, it was “more low-key”
“I guess that’s because you have so many people who will step up for what is right, for truth,” she said. “And there are so many ethnicities up there (New York), which is a good thing. I miss that. I tell people here, ‘there’s a lot that I didn’t see being up in New York.’ There are even certain movies that my friends here (Hawkins County) have told me that they just can’t watch because of what happened here and the way their lives were here. That’s different and new for me. It didn’t really take a whole lot for a person to feel like they were indebted to you in New York. If you did something good to them when they were six years old, they just didn’t forget it, and they would remind you and others and say, ‘I’m here for you because of what you did for me when I wasn’t able to do it myself.’ And it didn’t matter what race the person was. There are a lot of Spanish, African, Jamaican, Jewish and Italian people I knew in New York.”
“I feel like New York is in the part of the country that has always been more advanced in terms of race, religion or gender,” Pyles added. “In my opinion, the only difference between then and now is that it’s more covert now and is hidden there. But it’s still there.”
She went on to add that growing up in Hawkins County in the 1950s and 60s was frustrating for many reasons.
“My mom always raised us to believe that we weren’t better than anybody else, but they weren’t better than us either,” she said. “I hated when people acted like they were so much better than me.”
Pyles was either fourth or fifth grade when Hawkins County schools were integrated.
“Going to school here was awful,” she said. “We were transferred to Rogersville City School when I was in the fourth or fifth grade. The teachers didn’t want us there, the parents didn’t want us there. The students didn’t want us there, so we were always outsiders. We had old, torn-up books at Swift. Even when we went to RCS, the white students would get the newer, better books.”
She went on to add that the only time during the school year that there seemed to be no problems with racism was during football season.
“During football season, the black guys would win all the football games for them, so everybody got along them,” she said. “But, as long as they were winning the games, the instructors didn’t care that they were not learning in the classroom.”
Pyles joined the Air Force after graduating from high school and actually moved to Denver, Colorado for a while. She moved came back to Hawkins County in the 1990’s.
Though Palmer is around the same age as Pyles, she never attended a segregated school.
How do you feel about one month being dedicated to Black History?
“In a way, it’s beneficial, but I feel like history goes on every day of the year,” Palmer said.
She explained that Black History Month began as ‘Negro History Week’ and later increased to a month.
“So, for it to have increased to a whole month, that says something to us,” she said. “And sometimes you need to start out small and see how it’s received. But, to me, it makes it a little more special, and there’s nothing wrong with making someone feel special.”
“I think it’s irritating,” Pyles added. “We’re black 365 days of the year, and we are a part of this country. The fact that we only get one official month a year is irritating. There is so much to black history that people just don’t know. I learn something new myself every year. I think—and always have—that black history should be included with white history in our schools. There is so much that we all use every day that was invented by a black man or woman. Yet, when you’re using it, you don’t know.”
She noted that this change needs to begin at home and extend into the school system.
“You teach your children at home what they need to know to be productive citizens,” Pyles said. “But, it basically lies with the school system. Our children spend the better part of a day at school, and there are more single parents every day, many of them have to work, and they sometimes don’t have time to sit down and have a history lesson.”
“To me, it’s a trickle-down effect,” Palmer added. “If the parents don’t know, then they don’t know to tell their kids.”
“Now I know where your heart is…”
“These young people that are going to be our future handle each other a lot better than their parents did,” Pyles said. “But these young people—and it’s not just young people— that are trying to be ‘big and bad’ with their confederate flags want you to believe ‘it’s heritage, not hate,’ but that’s not their heritage any more than it’s mine. That war came about because of slavery and segregation. I get irritated with the flag. I think it’s ugly and disrespectful. Especially when I see a confederate flag flying on one side of a truck with an American flag on the other side, or I see the American flag touching the ground or getting dirty. That is so disrespectful.”
“The way my husband puts it is, when he sees the confederate flag, he says ‘Thank you. Now I know where your heart is,’” Palmer said. “It’s part of my history and part of your history—whether you want to receive it or not.”
So, even though the month of February has ended, use this time when you may be self-quarantined or isolated to brush up on your history or learn about some notable black inventors. For more information, you can check out https://africanamericanhistorymonth.gov/.