The Missed Education of “Papa Dallas

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The Missed Education of “Papa Dallas”
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The Missed Education of “Papa Dallas

 

Excerpted from—

Crisis In The Village: Restoring Hope in African American Communities by Robert M. Franklin (Fortress Press 2007; Pages 179–180)

 

Due to the criminalization of African American learning, people who sought literacy by surreptitious means also risked extreme torture and threat.  One of the most heart-rending stories I have heard comes from the extraordinary testimonies of slaves recorded by the Federal Writers’ Project in the early 1930s.1  This is the testimony of Tonea Stewart:

 

When I was a little girl about five or six years old, I used to sit on the garret, the front porch.  In the Mississippi Delta the front porch is called the garret.  I listened to my Papa Dallas.  He was blind and had these ugly scars around his eyes.  One day, I asked Papa Dallas what happened to his eyes.

 

“Well Daughter,” he answered, “when I was mighty young, just about your age.  I used to steal away under a big oak tree and I tried to learn my alphabets so that I could learn to read my Bible.  But one day the overseer caught me and he drug me out on the plantation and he called out for all the field hands.  And he turned to ‘em and said, ‘Let this be a lesson to all of you darkies.  You ain’t got no right to learn to read!’  And then daughter, he whooped me, and he whooped me, and he whooped me.  And daughter, as if that wasn’t enough, he turned around and he burned my eyes out!”

 

At that instant, I began to cry.  The tears were streaming down my cheeks, meeting under my chin.  But he cautioned, “Don’t you cry for me now, daughter.  Now you listen to me.  I want you to promise me one thing. Promise me that you gonna pick up every book you can and you gonna read it form cover to cover. You see, today daughter, ain’t nobody gonna whip you or burn your eyes out because you want to learn to read.  Promise me that you gonna go all the way through school, as far as you can.  And one more thing, I want you to promise me that you gonna tell all the children my story.”

Pappa Dallas survived slavery and I, I kept my promise.  I’m now a university professor, Ph.D., and an actress.  He and many others deserve to have their story told.2 (Emphasis Franklin’s)

 

Papa Dallas’s harrowing testimony should be read to young and old people today who are indifferent to learning.  Too much blood was shed and too much pain endured not to view learning as a moral enterprise.

 

 

1 Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, Steven F, Miller, and Robin D. G. Kelley, Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk about Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation (New York: New Press, 1998), 280.  For decades those recordings were stored in the Library of Congress. But in 1998 a partnership between several scholars. The Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution produced this book and audiotape.

 

2 Ibid., 281.

 

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