By Alice Faye Duncan, illustrated by Charly Palmer. Calkins Creek, 2022. 64 pages. $18.99/hardcover; $11.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 9–12.
Etched into the annals of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement are the history and images of Tent City. The stories, names, and voices of its major and supporting activists speak to a turbulent chapter from America’s past. Alice Fay Duncan recreates the lives and circumstances that led residents of Fayette County, Tenn., to unite for justice and the right to vote. Although a history of relentless injustice and the legacy of slavery had already anchored that community’s collective memory, a turning point was reached in 1959. In that year, a jury convicted sharecropper Burton Dodson of murdering a White farmer in a trial in which Black people were barred from serving as jurors since they were not registered to vote. Two farmers took up the cause and began a voting rights campaign.
The author documents the start of the 1959 movement until 1966, and centers it around orphaned James “Junior” Jamerson, who was baptized into the struggle by his adoptive parents, Minnie Jameson, a schoolteacher, and farmer Harpman Jameson. It is in part through Junior’s eyes and testimony that the story unfolds. The punitive measures that activists endured after registering to vote included lost jobs, eviction, insurance cancelation, blacklisting, denial of service in grocery stores and gas stations, and White violence. For two years, displaced families pitched tents on the farm of a Black landowner. This attracted national media attention. Relief arrived from a broad range of sources, such as Quaker communities that constructed freedom schools, pantries, and libraries. The lessons learned compelled twelfth-grader Junior to follow his conscience and join the effort to integrate Fayette County High School in 1966.
This series of interwoven vignettes could well be subtitled “profiles in courage,” particularly the leadership of John and Viola McFerren. Testimonial prose, poetry, a fast-moving narrative, and prismatic artwork dramatize the trials and tribulations of all actors in their compelling cause. During my reading, I was reminded of Bayard Rustin’s famous declaration: “When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.” Although the publisher recommends the book for ages 9–12, teachers and parents can rely on the resource guide (with recommendations for books, music, documentary films, and places to visit) to assist students in navigating the author’s inspired lyricism as well as the graphic descriptions of lynching and other acts of inhumanity. The timeline is useful in understanding the compressed facts and data within the 64 pages. Duncan’s publication is relevant in that it invites scrutiny of the measures that have taken place since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and recent state laws to limit access to the polls.
Jerry Mizell Williams is a member of Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa. He is the author of numerous books, articles, and book reviews on colonial Latin America and matters of faith.