John Edwards has been busy lately.
On top of being re-elected to the Covington Board of Mayor and Aldermen late last year, the second-generation public servant is on a mission to preserve Tipton County’s African-American history before it’s too late.
“We have to ensure there will be some record going forward,” he said.
Edwards has built a website called Tipton County African-American History and has been working on collecting photos, stories and other artifacts that tell the story of the African-American experience here.
He was part of a group that tried to preserve the Dr. Thomas Price house on Hwy. 51 with the intentions of building a museum for the same purpose. Those efforts fell through and the home’s owner agreed to allow the City of Covington to raze the structure as part of its blight eradication program.
It devastated Edwards and many others in the community who saw it as a part of the city’s history being removed.
“What we tried to do with the African-American museum was we wanted to make sure this generation knew those stories for years to come,” he said. “Now I want to get these things digitally preserved so they’re not going anywhere.”
Some things – like photos of Frazier, the African-American school in the heart of Covington’s first district – have been hard to find.
“You can’t find an actual picture of Frazier on the internet,” he said. “I want to change that.”
Preserving the entire story
It’s easy to find feature stories media outlets have done on notable figures in the African-American community like Uncle Shirley Fisher, Minnie Bommer, Hattye Yarbrough, Quincy Barlow and even his own activist parents, but it’s harder to find the stories of everyday life and everyday struggles.
Some stories just haven’t been told, but he wants to change that too.
“I just found out recently my parents took off work and went to hear Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Mountaintop’ speech,” Edwards said. “I didn’t know that. It was just something that was ordinary to them at the time, but it’s extraordinary to me.”
It’s more difficult to find the stories of the nightmarish parts of Tipton County’s history. And when you do, it’s hard to know where to draw the line – should you include the horrors of the Jim Crow South or should you keep the stories positive?
Edwards is of the opinion it’s important to know all of it.
He already knew about the lynching of Jimmy Wade in 1947, but he didn’t know about Albert Gooden in 1937. The stories of both men are included on the site.
“How can you explain where we are today if you can’t explain where we were 70 years ago?” he asks. “I really struggled with it, but you’ve gotta tell both sides. It’s painful to some, it’s embarrassing for others, but the truth is the truth. If you tell history you’ve gotta tell the entire story of that history.”
And so, while many people know that a deputy was shot to death in 1937 while serving a warrant for gambling, few people remember the man police believed was responsible was the victim to a lynch mob.
“After reading that story and seeing the photos, that shook me. I had to take a break for a whole day.”
It’s the complicated history of this place and of this country.
“I believe a lot of this history wasn’t told by our ancestors because it was so painful and so intimidating. Sometimes you don’t want your children to know some of the bad things that went on then.”
Inspiring future generations
Edwards believes the collection will also inspire current and future generations of African-Americans.
The history of this place includes the childhood of Academy Award winner Isaac Hayes, B.B. King playing at the Blue Flame, a Muddy Waters concert, several prominent doctors and famed University of Tennessee running back Johnnie Jones among others. Who knows who will come next.
“These people did so much greater than what they were expected to do,” he said. “You might have the next Dr. Price, Dr. Broffit or Dr. Cannon or the next Isaac Hayes reading these stories. People did great things in the past with less than you have.”
Edwards is looking for contributions from the community like photos, scrapbooks, stories, memorabilia and anything else that needs to be preserved. Some of it has already been lost to time.
“If something’s not done a lot of this information will die with us, so much of our history is just rumors right now.”