Monday, January 21, 2013

Celebrating a Survivor

I couldn't make it to the inauguration, but I could celebrate MLK Day.

The Maggie Walker historical site always does something to honor the day and today's program featured a documentary.

Being a documentary dork of the highest order, I made the short trek over to Leigh Street to claim a seat in the visitors' center.

Sydney Shavers was showing her recently-completed film, "Elvira's Eyes," about her great-great-great grandmother.

The film traced the process of seeking information about Elvira Sophia Abernathy, a former slave who lived to be 106 years old.

Sydney had done her research, taking the few documents her family had and using them as the starting point for a road trip to North Carolina to see what she could uncover.

Plenty, it turned out.

Using census records, death certificates, newspaper articles, visits to graveyards and previously unknown relatives' houses, she pieced together an amazing story of Elvira.

Like the fact that she'd been sold for $900 ($21,000 in today's dollars) originally.

That she'd married a mulatto slave in 1864.

That unlike the other slaves on the plantation where she worked, she and her husband had remained after emancipation, eventually becoming sharecroppers.

That she'd had six children and worked as a seamstress.

That up until she turned 100, she was considered to have "retained a remarkable spryness."

A North Carolina newspaper article about her 106th birthday said, "The old darkie can walk without aid and thread a needle."

As part of her research, Sydney attended a family reunion in N.C., meeting relatives and interviewing them for the project.

Several spoke of Elvira's insistence on education, learning to read at a time when slaves weren't allowed to read and insisting on literacy for her children and grandchildren.

After sharing his memories, one older man praised Sydney, saying, "Somebody got to remember what went on in the past."

That message resonated even more poignantly when Sydney said afterwards that two of the older relatives shown in the film had died since she'd filmed them.

She stressed the importance of everyone capturing their family's oral history before it's too late. "Their stories would have been lost otherwise," she said.

It was wisdom out of the mouths of babes, because Sydney is only seventeen and still a high school student.

During the Q & A after the film, someone asked her, "What are your plans for the future? I'd like to vote for you someday."

The whole room applauded.

Wouldn't Dr. King have been proud to hear that remark directed at a young African-American woman on the day our African-American president takes the oath of office to begin his second term?

Even as a complete stranger, I felt pride sitting there, knowing Elvira had handed off the torch to Sydney and her generation.

As Sydney put it, her eyes would be smiling.

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