For about an hour on Tuesday at Sandfield Cemetery, Mississippi School of Mathematics and Science senior Tija Johnson will become Luisa Boulden.
Boulden moved to Columbus with her husband, the Rev. Jesse Freeman in 1866, helping him charter several African-American churches in the area in the years immediately after slave emancipation before her husband went on to serve in the Mississippi House of Representatives.
Johnson, who is African-American, said she relates to Boulden’s story and is excited to tell it as part of this year’s Eighth of May Celebration.
“She recognizes all the problems in the past,” Johnson said. “How far they’ve come and how far they have to go.”
Johnson will join six of her MSMS classmates at 6 p.m. at the historic cemetery to commemorate the Eighth of May — a celebration of Union soldiers freeing slaves in Lowndes County on May 8, 1865. Each student will dress the part to share stories of local African-American history from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“There’s not really just white history and black history.” said MSMS history instructor Chuck Yarborough who organizes the annual event. “There’s our history. The African-American story is a part of our broad community story and our state story, but it’s a story that has not been fully explored or understood in the past.
“We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” he added. “These students have identified individuals that they feel stood tall in a difficult time and upon whose shoulders, those of us are now standing.”
Eighth of May celebrations were once common in Lowndes County, Yarborough said, before they dissipated in the early 1970s. But MSMS students, through Yarborough’s African-American history course, revived the annual celebration in 2005.
Each year, his students conduct extensive research in order to adequately share some of the unspoken stories of African-American history. From there, they compile their findings into scripts they can perform.
“These students are going to be telling the stories of African-American leaders who faced difficulties and yet continued to work for their own betterment, the betterment of their families and communities, and ultimately they worked for the betterment of the nation.” Yarborough said. “To me, there’s no more American story than that.”
Dairian Bowles, a MSMS junior, will portray Robert Gleed, a prominent political figure in Lowndes County in the late 1800s. Bowles said he was impressed by the successful life Gleed had during such a difficult time for African-Americans in the South.
“I was really surprised,” Bowles said. “It wasn’t something I had any knowledge of, that a man like that lived in Columbus.”
Previous Eighth of May events have drawn crowds of about 200, Yarborough said. He’s hoping this year’s crowd will be even larger. The event is free and open to the public.
“I really think the residents of Columbus should come out,” he said. “It would be really important to get a better view of the figures in this town.”