What if the past hadn’t been hidden?

June 11, 2024

Downtown Jonesboro, Arkansas today. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nelda Mickle had no idea what to expect when Open Book came to Wesley Acres, the senior living community where she lives. The program was meant to spark dialogue amongst the residents, and she wondered how deep those conversations would go.

What resulted was a conversation much deeper than what she could have anticipated. Nelda decided to tell her own deeply-rooted story that she’d only recently come to understand.

“It all came flowing out,” Nelda said. “I am well into my 84th year and I thought, ‘Well, if I don’t tell it now, it most likely won’t be told.’”

I learned about Nelda’s story from Karen Downing, who runs CultureALL’s Open Book project. Open Book is a program where humans are “Books,” telling their stories to spark dialogue within groups of people. That day at Wesley Acres, Abena Sankofa Imhotep detailed her parents growing up in Mississippi and the racial discrimination her family has faced.

Nelda began to reflect on her own experience growing up in the South in Jonesboro, Arkansas—the love within her family, the joy with which they lived despite not having a whole lot. She couldn’t help but notice the glaring differences between Abena’s story and her own: mainly, Abena and her family had experienced prejudice as a Black family that Nelda’s heritage kept her safe from.

Source: Picryl

“Abena described some devastating experiences to have to come to grips with,” Nelda said. “She then asked for people to share their positive experiences. And I thought, ‘What if the opposite is true?’”

I wrote to Nelda following the Open Book event and asked if she’d be interested in sharing her story for the CultureALL blog. I suggested we highlight it as “an example of how we can move on from the past and make our communities more welcoming.”

Nelda bristled at the thought of “moving on.”

“I would be glad to talk with you, but I do not want to ‘move beyond’ my story. To the contrary, I want to carry it with me forever,” she responded in an email.

A Segregated Childhood

Nelda was born in 1939. She grew up in a working class Methodist family in Jonesboro, with an older sister, a twin brother, and a younger brother. The close-knit family centered their social life around their local Methodist church, attending services, Sunday school, and choir practices.

She remembers segregation, seeing separate water fountains, and hearing that President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard to ensure the Little Rock Nine could enter the newly desegregated Central High School just two hours away.

But like most white communities in the 20th century, especially in the deep South, her family chose not to pay attention to how pervasive the racism around them was. The segregated society was just how things were—even their state governor defied federal law to ensure Black children weren’t allowed in school with white children (Governor Faubus chose to close the public schools for a year rather than comply with orders to desegregate).

The Little Rock Nine, whom Governor Faubus mobilized the National Guard against to protest their attendance of Little Rock Central High School, meeting New York City Mayor Rober Wagner

Nelda grew up, married, moved to Des Moines, raised two sons, and pursued a career in law and city government. The older she became, the more she understood the extent of racism. But it wasn’t until she looked at some old family records that she got a clearer perspective of racial discrimination that really hit home.  

Nelda was looking through old family documents when she came across something her aunt had sent her years ago. It was the burial records from one of the old Methodist churches in Jonesboro, the church her grandparents would have attended. She opened the records to learn the very first person buried in that graveyard was a young enslaved girl, with no name or info listed.

The burial details shocked her. “I had this history for years and just stumbled upon it,” Nelda said. She imaged the life of the young girl and compared it with her own peaceful childhood attending Methodist churches.

Nelda started doing some online searches. She read about two incidents of gruesome injustice in Jonesboro history that she felt she should have known about long ago.

As she read the historical accounts, she learned about a tragedy in 1881 that was described as “one of the blackest pages in the annals of the state.” Four Black men were accused of murdering a teenage girl inside her family’s farmhouse. Authorities held the men in a church under guard as they awaited sentencing. Around midnight, a mob of more than 200 men wearing masks dragged the four accused from the church and lynched them.

Nearly 40 years later in 1920, the people of Nelda’s hometown committed another racially motivated hate crime. Angered that a police officer was killed during a gambling raid, prominent community, church, and business leaders assembled a mob of 500 men to storm the jail where a Black man and his three companions were awaiting trial in the circuit court. The mob murdered the accused at the intersection of Main and Monroe.

That intersection was just 12 blocks from where Nelda grew up. Yet she had never heard even a whisper about these events. As she thought back on her childhood, she had a sense of walking through the streets of Jonesboro, oblivious to the pain other people had experienced there simply because of the color of their skin.

“The message underlying the whole thing is, do you really know what you came from?” she said.

Contending with the past

Nelda can’t move on from learning about the enslaved girl with no name or the brutal lynchings in the streets where she later roamed with her siblings and friends. Nelda blamed the act of “moving on” from such events for hiding the true history of Jonesboro from her for eight decades. And she believes that “moving on” has caused people today to continue to ignore that history exists.

I asked her what she wanted to do with the information she’d uncovered about her home.

“I haven’t figured that out yet. I don’t want it to just become a story,” Nelda said. “I haven’t figured out what would be justice.”

Legal scholar Martha Minow wrote about transitional justice and the legacy that victims, survivors, and bystanders contend with after mass violence:

“[S]ocieties have to struggle over how much to acknowledge, whether to punish, and how to recover… A common formulation posits the two dangers of wallowing in the past and forgetting it. Too much memory or not enough; too much enshrinement of victimhood or insufficient memorializing of victims and survivors; too much past or too little acknowledgement of the past’s staging of the present.”

It’s the “acknowledgement of the past’s staging of the present” that Nelda had begun to grapple with in the past few years. She noticed some of the ways racism appeared throughout her life, but her place of relative privilege meant she didn’t have to confront those challenges.  

There was the time she explained to her mother why it was unfair to expect Black people “to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” There was the friendship she and her husband built with a Black couple in the 60s, when she learned how necessary it was for her friends to dress impeccably for a long train ride in order to receive service. And there was the tension in Memphis after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that made her sister fearful about attending the Reverend's public celebration of life.

But the repeated erasure of Black people’s histories in her hometown shielded her from having to grapple with everyday racism.

“There were so many nudges, to just say, ‘Something is profoundly wrong,’” Nelda said with regret.

Even with her uncertainty about what comes next, Nelda knows the first step was making the history known—to both herself and the wider community. The more we talk about the past, the more we understand where we can go in the future.

“I just think we have a responsibility to know,” Nelda said.

Interested in booking an Open Book program? Email us at Explore@CultureALL.org.

CultureALL believes that sharing the cultural richness of our community with others will elevate our society and the quality of life for all.