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WATER VALLEY – Six years in the making, a book chronicling African American history in Yalobusha County from 1870 through 1970 was released during a two-day premier at Fountain Square in Water Valley Friday and Saturday. “Under the Dusty Sand” was written by local historian Calvin Hawkins and spans 424 pages with detailed accounts of African American pilgrims in the county including school and church history, burial ground records, renowned stars and others who impacted lives during the featured century.
The premier started Friday night with the African American Heritage Banquet as the book was introduced to citizens of Water Valley, Oakland and Coffeeville. Special guests in attendance included Oakland Mayor Riley Swearengen, Coffeeville Mayor William Shelton, Water Valley Mayor Donald Gray, state representative Tommy Reynolds and Water Valley native Linda Covington Williams, along with representation from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and Yalobusha Historical Society.
“Every year we have our black history programs in February, and most of the time we always honor other people. We talk about Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman and so many other people who made an impact in the world,” Hawkins told the crowd. “But how many times have we ever talked about us, the things that shaped who we are today. Where did we come from? How did we started here in Yalobusha County?”
Hawkins shared that he started the research by visiting local sources including the library and railroad museum. He also searched on the internet and even made a trip to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, but found very little information.
“That is when I started asking questions, I started begging. I really wanted us to have a history here in Yalobusha County,” Hawkins added about his work.
Hawkins said research yielded little-known facts about local history that is now recorded in “Under The Dusty Sand.” The first black man drafted into World War II, Bozzia E. Griffin, was from Coffeeville; the first African American political cartoonist, Henry Jackson Lewis was from Water Valley. Cpl. Dudley Avant, who grew up in Water Valley, served in the U.S. Army from 1951-1953 during the Korean War and formed the Independent Negro Baseball Team in 1967. Another Water Valley native, Cordie King Stuart, was born in 1924 and worked in the cotton fields of Yalobusha County. Determined to make a change in her life, she became a singer, model and prestigious businesswoman. She was featured in many magazines including Ebony, Jet and Tan. Stuart later founded a modeling and charm school that became a beacon of hope for young African American women. She is buried in Indiana.
“Today we have a history now,” Hawkins said, pointing to “Under The Dusty Sand.”
Hawkins said his initial plans was a two-year project featuring African American history in Water Valley, but as it progressed the project expanded to include black history from the entire county.
Other speakers included Mayor Gray, who welcomed the crowd on behalf of the city of Water Valle shared this quote: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
“Is that not true?” Gray asked the crowd. “Folks we have a history, a lot of it we can’t deny that I wish we could say that it never happened. But it is our history, we need to learn from it so we can move forward and not go backwards, ever.”
Both Gray and another speaker, Linda Covington Williams, also praised Hawkins for his perseverance with the project.
“This is a great event, Calvin you deserve the praise for this,” Gray added.
As the evening waned, Hawkins presented “Image Awards” to people who had assisted with the project including Marjorie Moore and Syreeta Kee of Coffeeville, Jack Gurner and Grant Thompson of Water Valley, Linda Cook-Walker of Aberdeen, John Gray of Batesville and Valerie Belay.
“We had a history, but nobody knew where to write it down and put it together,” Hawkins said about so many people who provided information for the book.
The premier continued Saturday with a forum and exhibit. The forum was conducted by Coffeeville native Antonio “Tony” Kimble. Special music was presented by the Bayson Chapel M.B. Choir under the direction of Raymond Hawkins.
The exhibits displayed in the rear of the venue featured numerous African Americans from Yalobusha County.
Special guests for Saturday were three Oakland natives who were the first African Americans to enroll at Coffeeville High School – Martree Horton-Meeks, Ollie Beth Brown Whiting and Earnestine Allen Tolbert. Hawkins shared that the three ladies enrolled at Coffeeville High School in 1969 as juniors, a year before the schools were fully integrated, and graduated from the school a year later. Their visit marked the first time since 1971 that they were invited back to the county to talk about their school experience and how it changed when they entered the doors of Coffeeville High School.
“These young ladies wanted to make a change in their community, not knowing this change would last a lifetime,” Hawkins shared.
Saturday’s program continued as leaders from across the county spoke. Clayton Horton and Dorothy Kee talked about working as a bus driver and teacher during integration. Julia M. Cox and Mack Dudley shared experiences about daily life before 1970. Grenada Councilman Louis Johnson shared about his deep roots in Yalobusha. Johnson’s grandfather was founder of Pine Grove M.B. Church in Velma, and enjoyed a rich life that spanned 107 years.
Grant Thompson was the final speaker of the day, providing information about converting old VHS and film into digital files and images to help preserve family history.
“Under the Dusty Sand” is available on Amazon for $45. Hawkins is also taking orders for the book.