Mission: Keeping Moody’s legacy alive
CENTREVILLE, Miss. (AP) — Roscoe Barnes III didn’t know much about Wilkinson County when he moved there in 2013 to take a job as a prison chaplain. But he knew about Anne Moody, who grew up there, became a civil rights activist and published her memoir, “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” which received worldwide acclaim.
It turns out, he was just about the only one.
“I knew she was a famous author,” he said. “I would ask people about her. Nobody knew who she was. Nobody — right here in Centreville.”
Barnes thought that was a shame.
He wanted to preserve her legacy and started by making an effort to keep her memory alive in her hometown. In the past year, Barnes began the Anne Moody History Project, which has been successful so far, with local governments and the Mississippi Legislature making proclamations honoring her legacy. The street near where she grew up in Centreville’s Ash Quarters neighborhood was recently renamed after her, and a bill to rename a portion of Highway 24 between Woodville and Centreville in her memory is advancing in the Mississippi House of Representatives.
Barnes also keeps the project updated through blog posts and on Twitter.
Who was Anne Moody?
Moody grew up in Centreville and worked as a maid while she was still in school. She moved to Woodville at 17 and graduated from the all-black Johnson High School then enrolled at Natchez College before transferring to Tougaloo College, where she became an activist.
She participated in a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Jackson in 1963, where a newspaper photographer captured a chaotic scene of a mob of young white people pouring ketchup, sugar and mustard on Moody and two other demonstrators.
“Because of her activism her name, her picture was on the newspaper and people back here began to get scared for themselves and law enforcement told her, ‘Don’t come back here. If you do you’ll be killed and your family,’ ” Barnes said. “Her brother Fred, who lives in Gloster, he was very close to getting lynched when he was much younger.
“When Medgar Evers was killed, she was really frightened because the people who had killed him made threats to kill her. Her mom told her, ‘Don’t come back down here.’ They didn’t want her to stir up anything down here, so she stayed away for a long time.”
Moody’s involvement in the civil rights movement put her at the epicenter of key historical events, Barnes said. She was with Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney a week before the three civil rights workers were killed and buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Miss., and she took part in the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. She worked with Medgar Evers up until his assassination.
“She gives history lessons even when telling her own story, and it is absolutely fascinating to me how she could be in so many important places so many times,” Barnes said.
Moody moved to New York in 1964, married and began working in academia.
“What surprised everybody is that she married a white man who was Jewish,” Barnes said. “She was criticized for that — ‘You do all this for the movement and then you go off and marry a white man.’ ”
Moody was teaching at Cornell University when baseball great Jackie Robinson heard her speak at a United Auto Workers convention in Atlantic City, N.J., and encouraged her to write a book.
“He said anybody who can speak this well should be able to write a book,” Barnes said. “At the time she said there was too much on her mind, the memories were too fresh.”
But eventually, she began to tell her story about growing up in Mississippi and all she had been through.
“When the book first came out, she was an instant celebrity. She was on talk shows, she was on the Merv Griffin Show. She was being interviewed all over the place,” Barnes said. “She moved to Europe in ’69. Her book was translated in several languages. Her book was a best-seller in Europe.”
When the book was published, Sen. Edward Kennedy reviewed it for the New York Times, writing, “Anne Moody’s powerful and moving book is a timely reminder that we cannot now relax in the struggle for sound justice in America or in any part of America. We would do so at our peril.”
Discovering Anne Moody
Barnes, 57, grew up in Indianola, left the state after high school, joined the Army and lived in Pennsylvania for nearly 20 years, where he went to seminary and worked as a newspaper reporter.
He took a break from journalism to focus on going into the ministry full-time and accepted a job as chaplain of the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, a private prison housing state inmates in Woodville.
He started asking around about Moody, who he thought would be one of the area’s more well-known residents and learned that she had more or less settled into obscurity.
The Anne Moody History Project was born as a community service project sponsored by the prison. Barnes oversees a committee of volunteers, including prison employees, who keep it going.
Barnes read her book and began to take more of an interest in his new surroundings.
“One of the things I like about the book is how detailed she was. That was one of the things that really captured my attention,” he said, noting how Moody’s description of the town and its landmarks mostly hold true a half century later.
He read one sentence from the book, “I turned the little curve in front of Ms. Pearl’s and walked up toward the highway,” and explained that he knows that curve and where Ms. Pearl’s house still stands.
The book also paints Moody’s home state as a dangerous place for African Americans in the turbulent 1950s and ’60s. For instance, there’s a description of a family who lost eight members to a fire believed to have been deliberately set. Barnes said two people survived and he’s trying to get in touch with one of them.
“If you don’t appreciate history or have a nose for news, you won’t appreciate it when you’re walking around Centreville,” he said.
Over lunch at a barbecue joint on a recent Friday in Moody’s hometown of Centreville, Barnes, who is black, noted that eating at the same table with a white newspaper reporter wouldn’t be possible if not for the sacrifices of Moody and other civil rights workers.
Forgetting Anne Moody
“Coming of Age in Mississippi” turns 50 this year. The book was first published on Dec. 3, 1968, and is in still print.
“It is still being read in schools all over,” Barnes said.
Part of Barnes’ work on the project includes buying up copies of the book and giving them away, either to inmates at the prison or people he encounters in passing who ask him about it.
Part of the reason nobody from Wilkinson County remembers Moody is due to the fact that she left and never returned, Barnes said.
“The book ends in ’64. That’s when she leaves Mississippi and goes up north,” he said. “She stayed away from Mississippi for a long time, 10 or 11 years, and was always afraid to come back.”
He said Moody was still uneasy about returning to Centreville when her mother died more than a decade after she left.
“Her sister Adeline, who lives in Gloster, said that even in her older years when she came back, she was not comfortable. And it did not help she started having dementia,” Barnes said.
He said he thought she had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“One of her family members told me if she heard a loud noise she would take cover and go into a fetal position,” Barnes said.
Moody had become so obscure that when she died at the age of 74 in Gloster, suffering from dementia, Barnes — perhaps her biggest fan — had no idea she was even still around.
“She died in 2015, and I said, ‘What? She’s been living in Gloster all this time?’ ” he said.
Remembering Anne Moody
If there was ever any concern that Moody’s legacy would fade away, Barnes has all but alleviated that.
He said the streets and highway signs will stay up long after he’s gone and he hears more people asking about her.
“People are calling and inquiring. This is what we wanted to happen,” he said. “Here’s the thing that blows my mind: It’s taken off and it’s taken a life of its own.”
And it’s amazing how far the inquiries are coming from, he said.
“We got an email from Nancy Pelosi’s office. Her history researcher is making a calendar and they wanted to include Anne Moody’s ‘Coming of Age in Mississippi.’ ... They saw what we had online and thought that we would be the people to contact,” he said.
For Barnes, Anne Moody’s history, civil rights history and black history are one in the same, and this is like a year-round black history project.
“Too often, when we talk civil rights, there are certain names we hear all the time. ... Well, my committee and I, we said we need to change that,” Barnes said, recalling civil rights workers whose names aren’t as famous as Evers, King or Malcolm X but whose sacrifices were just as important. “There are other people who played a vital role. We want people moving forward to start mentioning Anne Moody’s name when they’re talking about civil rights.”