What do Simon Bolívar, Cleveland, Mississippi, and Fredericksburg, Virginia have in common? For those of you who are familiar with Fredericksburg, you might offer that Bolívar is known as the George Washington of South America and Fredericksburg was the home of George Washington. In fact, popular tourist attractions in Fredericksburg include Kenmore, the home of Colonel Fielding Lewis and George Washington’s sister, the Mary Washington House (George’s mother), and a George Washington boyhood home close by. That’s the obvious connection, but it leaves out Cleveland, Mississippi. The connection I see has a bit more of a story to it, a story that caught my attention, and subsequent connections that are gratifying to follow.
The story starts with a Column One article in the Los Angeles Times that colorfully chronicles the life of Ronnie Wise, a librarian in the Delta region of Mississippi (For Delta Librarian, The End, Los Angeles Times, September 23, 2006 by J.R. Moehringer, Times Staff Writer). The article caught my eye because my father grew up in rural Mississippi and stories about Mississippi are usually interesting to me. The article reads like a movie plot and here’s the pitch (let’s call the movie The Depot):
The train depot is a metaphor for escaping a life filled with ignorance and poverty. The story creates parallel threads that build a tapestry from the lives of people trying to escape their hovels of despair. The main character, Ronnie Wise, is the director of libraries for Bolivar County, Mississippi. The main library is in Cleveland, Mississippi, and it was moved (and expanded) to the abandoned train depot. For 30 years Ronnie Wise has been on a personal crusade to stamp out illiteracy in this county and bring book-reading to a populace that could not afford the luxury of reading fiction. Ironically, he is as stuck as the people he is trying to help. He’s not particularly personable, he tends to be a loner, and he buries himself in the books that provide the escape route for those he helps. He is a victim of what he does best: get buried in the wonderful, fantastic world of reading.
But, fantastically, while providing assistance to a researcher, whom he meets after corresponding with her for two years through emails and phone calls, he falls in love with said researcher, retires from his librarian post, marries, and moves to Los Angeles. And so his role as liberator ends and a new liberator takes over his work.
The article is filled with peoples’ stories on how their lives improved through literacy—people who are able to now find a job, start their own businesses, get their high school equivalency, and send their own children to college. And so we see that Ronnie Wise is a liberator, like Simon Bolívar. He is a general, and leads the fight against illiteracy and, by extension, some of the trappings that feed illiteracy: poverty, racism, and the legacy of slavery. Wise is passionate.
“Reading, Wise believes, is life. Illiteracy, therefore, is death.”Further along in the article, Moehringer quotes Wise:
“The source of illiteracy is slavery, he says, plain and simple: Before the Civil War, Bolivar County had more slaveholding plantations than any county in the South. Slavery begat illiteracy, he argues, illiteracy perpetuates economic slavery, and the cycle simply remains unbroken.”So, Ronnie Wise is the Liberator of Bolivar County (named for the Simon Bolívar), a county named for a liberator, that ironically, enslaves its people in illiteracy and poverty. Bolivar County, where 41% of its 40,000 residents can’t read.
I was shocked at that number. No child left behind? How does a child learn to read if its parents don’t read? Legacy of slavery? That also was a wakeup call to me. I thought slavery was something in the past. I learned about slavery in school. I read about slavery though history books and literature and Black History Month. But to understand how its effects are still so powerfully felt even today was enlightening and frightening.
This brings me to the Fredericksburg connection. Washington D.C. has the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to educate and remember the Nazi atrocities of World War II. Fredericksburg is building the United States Slavery Museum to open in 2008, which will educate and remember our legacy of slavery. Its mission is “To vitalize and interpret more completely the human drama and toll of slavery in America. The museum will educate some, re-educate others by presenting slavery in a larger and more balanced economic and political context.”
It’s not just the illiterate residents of Bolivar County Mississippi that need educating. It’s all of us.
So now you know: the connection that links Simon Bolívar, Cleveland, Mississippi, and Fredericksburg, Virginia is the legacy of slavery. I’ll write more on Fredericksburg and Washington D.C. soon, as I have just returned from traveling to these cities.