MAILED: Oct. 22, 1997|
EAU CLAIRE -- It's been more than a decade since Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland walked the aisles of Dr. Edna Hood's women's studies class, lifting her skirt to show the scars left when a pot of hot coffee was poured into her lap during a lunch counter sit-in in Mississippi in the 1960s.
"When she walked around and showed every student her scars, there weren't many dry eyes in the room," said Hood, now retired from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire's English department.
"Even for me, who watched the civil rights movement unfolding on TV, it didn't come home to me until that day how much people were risking and that they had reason to fear for their lives," Hood said. "It didn't come home to me in such an immediate way because I didn't know anybody who was doing it. I was moved as much as the students."
While Holland - who at the time was an adviser to multicultural students at UW-Eau Claire -- now teaches at the University of Southern California, Hood and English professor emerita Dr. Carol Fairbanks are ensuring that UW-Eau Claire students continue to learn about the civil rights movement as experienced by Holland. Hood and Carol Fairbanks, with the artistic help of Lee Arthur Fairbanks, have created a study guide and videotape highlighting Holland's civil rights efforts first in the Mississippi Delta where she was born and later in the Midwest.
Women students in particular are inspired by the story of Holland's climb from poverty and oppression to success as an award-winning playwright and educator, Carol Fairbanks said.
"The fact that she is female is empowering for women of all races," Carol Fairbanks said. "She is an example that a woman can do all the things she has done, and overcome the hurdles she overcame."
Among those hurdles were poverty, being raped at the age of 11, dropping out of school before the ninth-grade, being jailed for theft, and as an adolescent turning to prostitution. Later, after becoming involved with the civil rights movement, she was beaten and arrested, and her mother was killed when their home was fire bombed. Still, she went on to earn her doctorate, to write plays that earned her international acclaim, and to teach at two prestigious universities, first at SUNY-Buffalo and now at USC.
"Most people wouldn't dare to dream, considering the horrendous experiences she went through as a young girl," Carol Fairbanks said of Holland. "She lacked education, she lived in poverty and survived ambiguous situations such as not knowing who her father was. But she did dream and she won respect.
"We emphasize in the guide and video, and she always insists, that if she can do it, other young people can too. It took amazing courage to go to college when she had not even started high school. She put her life together and that took an enormous drive. She ventured into areas where most people would be intimidated."
"Determination is a key quality, a key ingredient to her success," Hood said. "She emphasizes that she didn't do it by herself, but her courage and determination were crucial."
The 103-page study guide and 30-minute video are titled "Introducing Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland." While Carol Fairbanks and Hood were responsible for the narratives, Lee Arthur Fairbanks handled the design of both projects.
Among her many accomplishments was the success of her autobiographical play "From the Mississippi Delta," which was performed internationally and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The play was produced Off-Broadway in 1991 and, since the 1980s, has been performed in theaters across the United States and in Great Britain. In 1991, Oprah Winfrey produced it in New York at the Circle in the Square Theatre.
Carol Fairbanks' and Holland's paths first crossed when both were pursuing degrees at the University of Minnesota.
"After class one night she asked if I could ever stay and have dinner," Carol Fairbanks said of her early friendship with Holland. "Later, I asked her why she suggested dinner. She said she figured if this little white woman had spent so many years researching African American writers, it was someone she should get to know."
In the years since -- as Holland went on to earn other degrees, to head civil rights organizations, to become an award-winning playwright, to serve as an adviser at UW-Eau Claire from 1983-84, and to teach college students -- Holland and Carol Fairbanks have continued their friendship and professional relationship. Through Carol Fairbanks, Hood also became Holland's friend.
Since the early 1980s, short stories and plays by Holland have been a part of the curriculum in courses taught by Carol Fairbanks and Hood, as well as other UW-Eau Claire faculty members.
While most university students are familiar with the civil rights efforts of men such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, few have heard of Holland or other women who played key roles in the civil rights movement, Hood and Carol Fairbanks said. So when students are introduced to Holland, it's an eye-opening experience for most of them, Carol Fairbanks said.
"They usually become so enamored of Endesha that they look a little more closely at history, racism and other things they might have been ignoring," Carol Fairbanks said.
During an interview with NBC journalist Jane Pauley, even Holland said she was amazed at the number of photos researchers found of her participating in various civil rights movement activities, Hood said.
"Most black women in the civil rights movement didn't get anything near the recognition that the men got," Hood said, noting that men held most of the leadership positions during those years. "The women worked behind the scenes but played a very important role."
Throughout the years, Carol Fairbanks said she has discussed with Holland what she thought were all the major events of her life. Still, as she read the draft of Holland's recently released autobiography, titled "From the Mississippi Delta: A Memoir," she discovered stories she had yet to hear.
"There was one episode she describes with another black woman inmate who had been given authority over the jailed civil rights workers in Parchman Prison," Carol Fairbanks said of reading the book. "This woman was abusive at first, but by the time the workers were released she understood that her children would benefit from the sacrifices of people like Endesha. This story made me sob and sob. Endesha is full of continuous surprises. Some of her stories are funny, some are devastating and some are just absurd."
Lee Arthur Fairbanks, Carol Fairbanks' son, said he remembers meeting Holland when he was still in high school. "My first reaction to meeting her and hearing her stories was that I didn't believe any of it," he said. "I had never known anyone who had had those kinds of experiences. As I started this project, I realized how little I knew about the civil rights era and that there was far more to her than I'd ever known."
As a result of visiting Holland in her California home and learning more about her life, Lee Arthur Fairbanks said he became emotionally involved in the study guide and video project.
"That emotion shows in his illustrations," said Carol Fairbanks. "When Endesha looked at an illustration of the stairway in the Southern mansion where she was raped, she said it was as if he were standing next to her as she looked up the stairs."
The study guide and video were partially funded by UW-Eau Claire and the UW System Institute on Race and Ethnicity. Former UW-Eau Claire faculty member Tom Workman produced the video at Public Access Community Television in Eau Claire, and 1996 UW-Eau Claire alumna Maeta Burns narrated the video.
PACT will broadcast the video several times in November. It will be shown at 9 a.m. Nov. 5, 1 p.m. Nov. 15, and 10 a.m. Nov. 26.
Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: Oct. 23, 1997