Students from Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science gathered on campus in garb fit for another era Thursday, re-reading scripts as they prepare to pay homage to some of the most notable African Americans in Columbus history.
MSMS students in Chuck Yarborough’s African American history class will commemorate the arrival of Union troops to Columbus on May 8, 1865, with research-based renditions of notable Black Columbians from the past.
The program will begin at 6 p.m. on Monday at the Sandfield Cemetery, and it is free to attend. Yarborough said there will be chairs provided, but anyone is welcome to bring their own chair from home.
The program resembles the Tales from the Crypt during Pilgrimage, but it has its differences. The performance is done on a stage rather than at a grave, and it usually lasts an hour.
When Yarborough came to Columbus in the late 1990s, he noticed a need for better research on local historical Black leaders, so he made it his mission to help fill in some gaps.
“I looked into the possibility of doing a Tales from the Crypt-type project with my students in the African American cemetery because my master’s thesis explored African American culture and empowerment in a rural county in southwest Georgia,” Yarborough said. “I discovered there were not enough resources in the library and available in the archives to unleash in the late ‘90s a whole class on this idea. Then I continued to do my own individual research for several years and put together Black history tours for various groups.”
The first Eighth of May dramatic performance was in 2006, and it has only grown since then. Yarborough’s African American history students take on research projects about leaders within the Columbus community, and for those who choose to, their project takes on life in a dramatic performance near the end of semester at the celebration.
For Columbus native and MSMS senior Carolena Graham, the performance has been something she has grown up with and finds very fulfilling to take part.
“As a child I’ve always heard about them and even attended one with my grandmother, but I really didn’t understand the significance as much until I attended MSMS and talked more with Mr. Yarborough about the emancipation,” Graham said. “I actually understood that Union troops arrived to Columbus, not just anywhere in Mississippi, … to free slaves. … It’s significant with me because it’s local and I never really knew much of our local history. It’s very liberating to learn more about local history.”
Graham’s research centered around Cyrus Green who served as a teacher in 1866 at the Freedmen’s Bureau School that would become Union Academy. Graham found that when Green, an Indiana native, was in Columbus he wrote a diary about his time in the town less than a year after the end of the Civil War.
“In my research on the Freedmen’s Bureau School, I found a diary from Cyrus Green where he documented his time here in Columbus for four months,” Graham said. “I figured he was one of the best people to write about because he had direct contact and faced the mental and physical challenges of that time.”
The dramatic performance will cover historical figures such as Emmett Lanier, a World War I veteran and part of the famed Buffalo Soldiers; Richard Denthrift Littlejohn, a newspaper publisher; and William I. Mitchell, the first black principal at Union Academy in 1877.
Jayden Cochran, a junior from Indianola, is excited to portray Mitchell because it is an opportunity for him to give to the community he currently lives in.
“This project has meant something very special to me because we were able to research people from this very community, people this community could be proud of,” Cochran said. “One thing that MSMS has emphasized is giving back to the community and that’s something I looked forward to when I came here, not just to get better opportunities for myself but to use those opportunities to help the people I grew with.”
In addition to the dramatic performance, the celebration will include music from the student-led MSMS Voices in Harmony choir, and spoken word poetry.
“We’re all empowered when we understand our community’s story more completely,” Yarborough said. “The students learned that from their research, and they are very passionate about sharing that with the larger community.”