By Clint Confehr
COLUMBIA, TN — Key figures in the Civil Rights Movement include historic women as well as those whose 15 minutes of fame has come and gone, or hasn’t been fully explored.
Dr. K.T. Ewing, an assistant professor of history at Tennessee State University, made the point recently in the Maury County Archives Building to the African American Heritage Society here.
As a group, black church ladies are recognized as influential, so Dr. Ewing includes her grandmother, Esther Jackson Ewing (1911-1983). Born in Sheffield, Ala., she’s known to her family as Oma, German for grandmother.
Oma was a role model, setting an example by doing things such as always paying her poll tax on time and every year, Ewing said. Too often, the poll tax was cumulative; if not paid one year, over-due taxes had to be paid before the taxpayer could vote.
Ewing displayed a picture of her grandmother’s poll tax payment receipt during the
quarterly meeting of the AAHS of Maury County on Jan. 25. Ewing’s presentation was aptly named; “Grandma’s Poll Tax: the price of black women’s political inclusion.” Oma paid a $2.01 poll tax. That’s far less, Ewing said, than Sandra Bland paid on July 13, 2015.
Bland died in a Texas county jail that didn’t check on inmates often enough. Bland was being held after a traffic stop now displayed on YouTube. Video shows the confrontation. Her mother sued, settling for $1.9 million. The officer was forced to resign as a perjury charge was dropped.
Ewing also quizzed her audience about Ida B. Wells who bit a railroad conductor during an 1884 confrontation that led to her lawsuit over accommodations. She won at trial, but lost on appeal; then campaigned against lynching.
Clearly, Wells is an historic figure, but Ewing also asked if the well-integrated audience knew what Bree Newsome did on June 27, 2015. The “artist-activist” climbed a flag pole at South Carolina’s Capitol and removed the Confederate flag before her arrest. Some at the lecture knew that, and that Tami Sawyer led the push to get a statue of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest removed from a city park in Memphis. Sawyer is now a Shelby County commissioner.
Here, Ewing has come to love Nashville where her grandmother sang soprano in the First Baptist Church Capitol Hill choir.
“I grew up hearing about how Frederick Douglass and Dr. King spoke there,” Ewing said, recalling stories about a performance there by Leontyne Price, the the first African American to become a leading performer at the Metropolitan Opera.
Ewing’s parents are Mary Turner Ewing and William Bradford Ewing Sr. She considers Memphis her home town.
“The Memphian in me compares Jefferson Street to Beale Street,” Ewing said when displaying a photo of Nashville from the 1940s.
Ewing is a third generation HBCU graduate, having earned her bachelors at Xavier University of Louisiana, and her masters and doctorate degrees at the University of Memphis; all in history.
She’s dedicated to preserving black cultural. Her research interests include African American history, women and gender studies, and the influence of blues culture in American society. Dr. Ewing is currently working on a biography examining the life of Alberta Hunter, a twentieth-century blues and cabaret singer from Memphis.
At TSU, she teaches African and African American studies, the African American experience, Women’s Studies, U.S. history, African American history, and black women in the 20th century. She’s written at least two books. Her forthcoming book is to be a people’s guide to Nashville.