Smith Warehouse exhibit honors female civil rights leaders
Well-behaved women seldom make history.
Vicki Ryder preceded her civil rights songs with the famous quote, then she, along with the Raging Grannies, an advocacy group of older women who sings songs of justice at Moral Mondays and fracking meetings, kicked off an exhibit last week that recognizes female civil rights leaders.
The exhibit, “Still Walking for Justice,” was organized by the Pauli Murray Project, a collaboration of Duke students and faculty working within the Duke Human Rights Center to promote racial healing through community dialogues and oral history research.
The project is named after Pauli Murray, a civil rights champion, poet and Episcopal priest who grew up in Durham and passed away in 1985. Her photographs, along with the photographs of other prominent female civil rights leaders, now line the walls of Bay 5 in Smith Warehouse, in the middle of the Duke Franklin Humanities Institute.
The Raging Grannies were the invited guests, and they stood among the black and white photos of female leaders lining the walls.
Taking a kazoo out of her pocket, Ryder blew a few notes into the tiny instrument. The Grannies wore colorful skirts and aprons, and their hats were covered in pins that read, “I’m Already Against the Next War” and “Forward Together, Not One Step Back,” Moral Monday’s mantra.
“We’ll work and rage and pass their torch along,” the Grannies sang. “No more citizens arrested, for 50 years we have protested to realize the dream and gain democracy for all. Not one step back, no way!”
About 20 people visited the exhibit on opening day to hear their songs and gaze upon the art boards.
Virginia Williams, Born 1938, one exhibit panel read. She is a Durham resident who took part in one of the first civil rights protests in Durham, the Royal Ice Cream Parlor sit-in in 1957.
Joan P. Preiss, January 4, 1925 – June 1, 2012, another panel read. She was an advocate for improving conditions for migrant farm workers, and she wore a “pickle tiara” during a boycott of Mt. Olive Pickles at a local grocery store.
The Pauli Murray Project had organized a walk last year to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Journey of Reconciliation, or the “First Freedom Ride.” Nine teams of women walked from Durham to Chapel Hill to honor the fight against racial segregation on interstate buses back in 1946.
But more than that, they paid homage to the women who helped organize the Journey of Reconciliation but weren’t allowed to participate because of their gender. They walked to honor nine women who dedicated their lives to justice and equality.
Barbara Lau, the director of the Pauli Murray Project, said the collaboration to continue Pauli Murray’s teachings began in 2009. Since then, enveloping the community in conversations about civil rights, justice and protests has been about “intergenerational learning,” Lau said.
“In what way are (protests, marches) still valuable?” she asked. “What moves you to put your body on the line? … Maybe this will give people insight into what’s possible. People can work across generations, across racial differences, across economic differences.”
And the exhibit also gives insight into how women have been a backbone for civil rights but have rarely been recognized for it, Lau added.
An easel with paper was set up in the corner of the room, and written on it was the question, “What would you walk for?”
“LGBTQ non-discrimination laws,” “Everyone’s right to vote,” and “women’s rights + rights to control their own bodies” were some of the scribbled answers.
Chinyere Amanze, an 18-year-old Duke freshman, said the exhibit and the Raging Grannies have shown her that older generations are still standing on the front lines of justice. They’re still getting arrested for what they believe in. She said it proves people wrong who believe age is a limitation.
“It really isn’t one,” Amanze said. “… What really inspired me is they wrote something, they were so inspired by these women.”
The Smith Warehouse exhibit is open to the public and will remain on the humanities institute’s walls. To visit, go to Bay 5 at 114 S. Buchanan Blvd.