Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Rosa Parks, Doris Topsy-Elvord, Education & Civil Rights

Unlike Rosa Parks, who led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, Doris Topsy-Elvord got early lessons in racial tolerance in an unlikely place--the Mississippi Delta. 

Doris Topsy-Elvord Former City Council Member Long Beach, California
Doris Topsy-Elvord
First Black Female 

City Council Member 
& Vice Mayor
Long Beach, California
Rosa Parks, Mother of the Civil Rights Movement
Rosa Parks
Mother of the
Modern Civil
Rights Movement
Daughter of devout Catholics, Doris Topsy-Elvord was born in 1931 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, which neighbors Alabama, home state of Rosa Parks. Having attended college, Topsy-Elvord’s parents and Rosa Parks' parents were professionals and were not associated with plantation work like many other local families--black, white, Chinese, Italian and others--that relied on indentured sharecropping arrangements for their livelihood. 

In these sharecropping arrangements, families needed all hands, including the children's hands, to work the land, help plant and bring in the crops to pay the landowner his share of the crops and settle the bill at the farm store. 

In Mississippi, Doris Topsy-Elvord's mother was a nurse at a Vicksburg hospital and her father owned his own business. In Alabama, Rosa Parks' mother was schoolteacher and her father owned his own business. These families had comfortably independent lives, except for Jim Crow laws that affected all people of color in the South and nationwide. Jim Crow laws made life for African Americans like Doris Topsy-Elvord and Rosa Parks seem as though the Union had not defeated the Confederacy and won the Civil War, although during the War, between 1862 and 1863, Vicksburg, overwhelmed by Union troops, was captured by Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863, a strategic maneuver by Lincoln's Army. The importance of Vicksburg was significant to the Union due to its location on the Mississippi River as a supply port.

Jim Crow laws ruled education in the southern United States in the 1930s, but somehow, Vicksburg schoolgirl, Doris Topsy-Elvord escaped school segregation before the Civil Rights Movement, unlike Rosa Parks, who was forced to attend segregated schools throughout her education.

Library of Congress
However segregated and modest their lives were, Topsy-Elvord's parents wanted for their daughter the same thing white parents wanted for their sons and daughters--a good life that a college education could bring. The Elvords wanted education for their daughter, in spite of the fact that she was born near the beginning of the nation's Great Depression (1929-41), which caused the stock market to crash and destroy the fortunes of both wealthy and modest family fortunes. 

Ironically, this global political upheaval had little impact on some African Americans and other poor families, many of whom were white, with little if anything to lose living hand-to-mouth in tents and cars. Sending their children to college was the last thing on their minds with jobs impossible to find and food nearly as scarce.

Segregated public school education in those days in most of the South was inferior for black students like Rosa Parks with school districts using most of the money allotted for white schools, teachers and school buses. Segregated schools in those days did not provide school buses for transporting black students to school. Black children like Rosa Parks walked several miles to school. Unlike Rosa Parks, however, whose mother was a schoolteacher, many students were the children of sharecroppers who were not educated and were unable to help their children with their lessons.

Rosa Parks, Young Adult
Rosa Parks, Young Adult
Unlike Rosa Parks, Topsy-Elvord was sent her to the integrated Catholic school in Vicksburg, where her parents sacrificed to pay for tuition, school supplies and textbooks. This was not a possibility for Rosa Parks during her education 17 years earlier in Alabama where there were no integrated schools. Although Rosa Parks' mother was a school teacher, Parks lived on a farm with her grandparents miles from her segregated school. In that part of the South, during the era of Jim Crow laws, education was remote. However, Rosa Parks managed to get an education and to go on to become Mother of the Civil Rights Movement in 1955, when she sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, heralding Martin Luther King into the role of Leader of the Civil Rights Movement

Topsy-Elvord lived with her parents in the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, with the integrated Catholic school within a short walking distance from their comfortable home. What her family had in common with their non-plantation non-black immigrant counterparts, who also lived in their neighborhood, was the choice of a good school for their children and the desire to educate their children, a key to improved economic status and social standing, the same desire of the white community. 

As difficult as it is to believe—knowing the history of race relations in Mississippi—the Vicksburg Catholic elementary school that Topsy-Elvord attended, Saint Mary's, until she was nine years old, was integrated with the children of minority immigrants from many parts of the world, including children from the city's Chinese and Italian families. Students in this private religious educational setting were not separated by race, so Topsy-Elvord had always been in school with students of other ethnic groups. Ironically, Catholic schools in Mississippi were some of the first schools in the southern United States to become integrated, a move encouraged by Italian families that had attained prominence in the Vicksburg professional and religious community.

Photograph circa 1900: Photograph courtesy 
Library of Congress
Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-131516
"Mississippi was a racially conscious society, and Italians were sometimes dismissed as second-class citizens because their skins were darker than those of whites of northern European ancestry. The Italian immigrants who were tenant farmers were downgraded because they did the same work as blacks, who were at the bottom of the social scale. Italians experienced bigotry and prejudice, directed at their ethnic background. 

The Ku Klux Klan and other similar groups targeted Catholics, including Italians, Italians in Mississippi By Charles Reagan Wilson. Photo above: Early banana importers and distributors were mostly Italian immigrants. The Alfonso family in Gulfport and their Standard Fruit Steamship Co. imported fruit from Honduras, distributing it throughout Mississippi and elsewhere.

No Wanted Chinese Poster
No Chinese Poster
Washington State 

Historical Society
A tradition beginning in the 19th Century explains integrated Catholic schools in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where Topsy-Elvord attended. When indentured Chinese workers finished building railroads and levees in California and other parts of the Northwest, they were burned out and driven from their homes, no longer of any use to that society. Their displacement attracted Mississippi Delta plantation owners to California to import displaced Chinese workers to Delta farms to replace slave labor after Emancipation. 

There, Chinese families became part of the natural human landscape, influencing their neighbors with their Chai tea rituals, exotic spices, herbal remedies and Eastern medicines.

Through labor agents, the same tactic was used to import southern Italian, Lebanese and Syrian indentured servants to Mississippi Delta plantations to pick cotton alongside the Chinese and black workers who had stayed on farms after being freed. 

On the other hand, Jews who landed in the Mississippi Delta were inexperienced at farming, having been legally prevented in Europe. This meant they had no farming background and were unable to produce a living in that way. Many became peddlers of goods and storekeepers as they had done and their parents had done before leaving Europe. They bought goods at the port in Vicksburg and made their way inland to sell their wares. "At the close of the Civil War, there were 90 Jewish families in Vicksburg. They own 35 stores in the town," GOLDRING-WOLDENBERG INSTITUTE OF SOUTHERN JEWISH LIFE

White Sharecroppers During the Great Depression
White Sharecroppers
During the Depression, immigrant families who were already entangled in tenant farm agreements were further victimized by the crashed economy and unable to pay their farm debts so they could leave the sharecropping system. Many ran away, leaving in the dead of night with their few belongings. Finding work in other locations, however, was impossible at that time with hungry people filing into cities looking for free food, public relief and charity handouts. 

Jobs had become scarce for all workers and especially for immigrants, who were customarily subjected to increased discrimination and bigotry in times of economic distress. So, like former slaves, some unfortunate farm workers, including white sharecroppers, stayed on plantations where they could get a meal, even though, the meal cost them their freedom and held them in virtual slavery by the dishonest bookkeeping of farm owners who operated in the same fashion as before the Civil War. The difference was the workers were not exactly slaves; they were in debt to the farm store, a predicament also shared by a large number of poor white families who owned no land. 

Immigrants, who earned their way off of plantations, got jobs or opened businesses in Vicksburg, and sent their children to Catholic school where they could learn English and get an education. Most of these immigrants, unwelcome to reside in white neighborhoods and send their children to white public schools, lived among African Americans. The Delta's dominant class considered some immigrants as undesirable for assimilation as African Americans because of immigrants' dark complexion, foreignness of their customs and former cotton-picker status, regardless of the white racial classification these immigrants may have claimed. 

Racial classification was so blatant in the United States during the early 20th Century that southern Italians were classified as a different nationality from northern Italians, who thought themselves to be more “white” and more closely related to the French and Germans. This classification seems to have been based on shades of complexion—fair-skinned northern Italians as opposed to dark-skinned southern Italians. 

“When we lived in Vicksburg, Mississippi,” Topsy-Elvord said, “I went to school with Italians, Chinese and other nationalities. The kids there treated me like I treated them. It was based on character, not color. We lived in the same neighborhoods, too.”

Often, people who are educated and have been exposed to other cultures look at society and life in a more sophisticated way. Topsy-Elvord's childhood experience in race relations may account for her later success in an atmosphere that could have felt discouraging to others. This does not say Vicksburg, Mississippi, was a bastion for racial tolerance. It says Vicksburg, a southern city with racial problems, may have forced its minority communities into a fragile social order that developed out of an economic rather than racial climate, unlike West Coast and northern cities that did not have the same history and, in many ways, ignored racial issues. 

In 1942, Topsy-Elvord's family left Mississippi and moved to Long Beach, California. “I was the only African American student at St. Anthony when we got to Long Beach,” said Topsy-Elvord. As a nine-year-old child, when she first entered St. Anthony, she said she learned more about racism than she had ever known in Mississippi. “And it was in Long Beach, California, that I first heard the “N” word.” In 1949, Topsy-Elvord became the first African American to graduate from St. Anthony High School in Long Beach. 

Bigmama Didn't Shop
at Woolworth's
Author, leading writer on U.S. race relations, producer and photographer, writes books, blogs, articles and reviews, and produces media and images on U.S. history and contemporary  topics, ranging from Jim Crow laws to social media networking.

Sunny Nash uses her book, Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's (Texas A&M University Press), about life in the Brazos Valley with her part-Comanche grandmother during the Civil Rights Movement, to write articles and blogs on race relations in America through topics relating to her life--from music, film, early radio and television, entertainment, social media, Internet technology, publishing, journalism, sports, education, employment, the military, fashion, performing arts, literature, women's issues, adolescence and childhood, equal rights,social and political movements--past and present—to today's post-racism.

Nash’s book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses as essential for understanding U.S. race relations; listed in the Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Floridafor Native American collections. 

© 2013 Sunny Nash. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
~Thank You~

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