Sunday, February 25, 2001

Through Spokane's eyes

Dangerous memories
Retelling of painful experiences won't change the past but it can change the future

By Rebecca Nappi
Interactive editor

The voices of Emelda and Manuel Brown are strong and clear and gentle. During a time of chaos, you might seek them out, just to sit for a while in the soothing calm of their voices.

Manuel is 70. Emelda, 69. They live on Spokane's North Side. Their children are grown. Except for a few years when Manuel, now retired from the Air Force and Avista, was stationed in Spain, the Browns have called Spokane home since 1960. Their kitchen is a welcoming place. They'll serve you hot tea, and in the warmth of their kitchen, in kind voices, they will recount from their past some dangerous memories.

Dangerous memories is a term used by political theologian Johann Baptist Metz. In a simplified explanation, it means that when people recount memories of suffering and oppression, it is a dangerous process. Dangerous for the storytellers because they must relive the pain in the retelling. And dangerous for the listener, too. How can you hear of another person's suffering and not be changed by the knowledge? The words and images get inside you, altering the way you view the past, and obligating you to create a different future.

And so, you listen when Manuel and Emelda tell of driving from California to Fairchild Air Force Base in 1960, with their four children, most of them babies and toddlers, and they would spot from a distance the motel's vacancy sign and Manuel would go in and ask for a room and the person behind the desk would say no, no vacancies, and then Manuel would drive away and see in his rearview mirror the vacancy light flash on again and then he'd finally stop for the night and bundle the children warm and then this man, this military man willing to die for his country, would be forced to sleep underneath his car like an animal.

Dangerous memories. Throughout the month of February, several reporters and editors at The Spokesman-Review worked on a special project titled ”Through Spokane's Eyes: Moments in Black History.” Through historical photographs, essays and interviews with women and men who witnessed the civil rights movement, we hoped to bring alive this time in our country's history filled with dangerous memories.

It was the time when African-Americans and others fought, and sometimes died, for the right to move from the back to the front of the bus, the right to eat at lunch counters, the right to be educated in good schools, the right to vote, and the right to share their dangerous memories without being silenced, belittled or not believed.

Some of the material appeared on the Opinion pages, but most of what we learned, and listened to, is on our Web site,

Please check it out, especially if you teach young people. We wanted them, most of all, to see and hear this important time in history, a time that might seem remote to young folks because they weren't even alive yet.

On the Web site, you can hear the actual voices of Manuel and Emelda Brown and the dozen others who had the courage to recount dangerous

memories. It wasn't easy to find people willing to remember. Several turned us down. With others, it took repeated phone calls to finally get the interview. Flip Shulke, for instance, a Life magazine photographer who documented the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and who visited Spokane a few years ago, agreed to share his memories of the civil rights movement. Now, weary from battling cancer, it took several phone calls and e-mails from managing editor Scott Sines to get Schulke's personal reflections on tape. For Schulke, like the others, those memories are painful. You can hear Schulke's voice, too, on the Web site.

The telling and the listening was emotional for all. Those interviewed cried at certain points in their narratives, as did those of us who listened to the memories.

Jerrelene Williamson of Spokane was eager to share her memories because she believes that young people must know about the struggles and the heroes of the civil rights movement. But she, too, cried softly through her dignity, cried remembering the indignities she experienced as a young mother trying to find food and shelter on cross-country trips with her children. Many restaurants wouldn't serve the family and the signs that said vacancy meant only if you were not African-American.

On the Web site today, you'll find a slide show of historical photos. You'll see images of the people who lived those dangerous memories, men and women attacked by dogs, fire hoses, attacked by words of violence, attacked by signs that said ”Whites Only.” The photographs are accompanied by the voices of Alvin Pitmon and Nancy Nelson, two Spokane singers who were young AfricanAmericans when history was changing for them.

Pitmon grew up in Arkansas. He was in the third grade when his school was desegregated. He remembers raising his hand to volunteer for an extracurricular activity. He was not chosen. On his way to recess, he saw on his teacher's desk the information about the activity with the words: "No Colored Allowed.” As he told the story to us, his voice broke. He can still feel the shame, the injustice, at age 42.

Mixed in with the dangerous memories were other memories that gave people hope. When the base housing promised to the Browns did not materialize, the Browns stayed at the Bell Motel in Spokane. The owner gave them a good deal on their rooms, and he told them about Calvary Baptist Church in downtown Spokane. They found the church, found a community, found a home. Years later, when they were deciding where to live following Manuel's retirement from the service, a minister from the church visited. Emelda remembers: ”He told us, `Spokane needs people like you and your family. Please consider to stay here in Spokane.”' They stayed.

Theologian Metz says dangerous memories are those ”in which earlier experiences break through” the center-point of our lives and reveal new insights for our present.

Black History Month concludes Wednesday. It's tempting to barricade dangerous memories into one month and say, this is the time we will listen, pay attention. But for those memories to truly change the present, they must be heard throughout the year, throughout the decades. Our Web site will remain in place the rest of the year, and next February, we'll add more moments in black history.

Silence was an option for all those who chose to speak for this project. We thank them for the courage to retell their memories, dangerous and life-changing.

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