Photos capturing the essence of Freedom Summer depict crowds of determined citizens marching and demanding a better nation for its people, or standing against an onslaught of nightsticks, fire hoses and biting dogs. These images set the tone of the Civil Rights Movement, but they are only a piece of a much bigger machine.
“Sometimes the very best you could do for folks behind the movement was feed them,” says former Issaquena County Supervisor Willie Bunton, the first Black man to serve as Issaquena supervisor since Reconstruction. “It wasn’t just them folks marching up front. It was also the folks behind them. Them, you didn’t always see.”
While pro-freedom demonstrators were sitting at whites-only business counters and converging on major cities, Freedom Summer volunteers were quietly working in rural areas around Mississippi, registering people to vote amid deadly aggression. These volunteers and organizers, both local and from out of state, changed Mississippi politics forever by teaching disenfranchised residents new organizing and voter registration tactics. Pivotal to their work, however, were the people giving them a safe place to stay.
Klan terrorists committed violence without repercussion in Mississippi. They held high positions in law enforcement and were supported by large networks of sympathizers and informants. When Klan members kidnapped and killed CORE workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman in 1964, it was with the help of Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, who arranged for fellow Klan members to kidnap the men after an illegal arrest. Authorities never charged Price for his participation in the murders, only convicting him of violating the civil rights of his victims in 1967. He served slightly more than four years of a six-year prison term for abetting Klan murder.
A civil rights volunteer in such a hostile place needed sanctuary while working to register new voters and train activists. Thankfully, the majority-Black community of Mayersville provided that sanctuary.
Long before community leaders like Blackwell formerly incorporated the town, Mayersville was home to African American farmhands and laborers, as well as a temporary camp for migrant workers following seasonal harvests. White occupancy in the area was minimal for much of its history because wealthy white landowners preferred to bunk in more affluent, urban locations with more amenities. A 1955 report from the state Department of Education determined that there were not enough white children in the county to even warrant building a white high school. To preserve public school segregation, county planners bussed white students to nearby Rolling Fork.
These demographics provided a measure of safety. The Schwerner murders made clear that networks of Klansmen could act with breathtaking barbarity in some parts of the state, but Mayersville had the benefit of a high minority population. Neighbors were hawk-eyed and vigilant; terrorists could not so easily storm a house and kidnap occupants without notice. Blackwell’s own accounts of Klan activity in her neighborhood are limited to a handful of meager cross burnings with hastily knocked together wood planks saturated with oil. Assailants generally lit the cross and fled in borrowed vehicles to conceal themselves.
Volunteers knew the value of safety. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the NAACP and other Council of Federated Organizations (COFO)-affiliated organizations were happy to bunk under the tin roof of Unita Blackwell. Her home, called “Freedom House,” consisted of four small rooms; a front living area; a center bedroom and two newer backroom additions that served as a kitchen and spare room.
Mississippi Department of Archives and History researchers believe the tiny wood frame house was constructed around 1910. Its standard shotgun plan puts each room directly behind the others, except for a back addition that sat off to the side to form an “L.” Clad in board and batten and resting on a simple brick and concrete pier foundation, the Freedom House’s gabled porch sat a mere 30 feet from Rosebud Street.
Space was neither generous nor accommodating in a Delta shack, but volunteers were grateful for the safety and the camaraderie. Blackwell’s adult son, Jeremiah Blackwell, Jr., told our researchers in 2022 that he was equally grateful for intriguing new faces.
“I had to be around 8 or 9 years old. I was an only child, so I welcomed any company,” said Blackwell. “I never felt impatient about (guests). They were always a welcomed sight. It was something different and kind of exciting for me seeing all those different people. Everybody wanted some of my Mom’s cooking.”
Blackwell’s son still recalls vivid nights with cheerful strangers, chatter and the smell of beans and cornbread. Lima beans, pinto beans and black-eyed peas with smoked hog were common fare. Jeremiah recalls family and guests shucking plenty of peas.
“It’s probably why I still love cornbread so much,” Jeremiah said.
Freedom House was passed down to Blackwell from her husband’s side of the family, according to Blackwell, Jr., who still describes the home as "great grandma’s house." The building still sits on a portion of original property once owned by Sen. Stephen B. Blackwell, one of hundreds of Black elected officials who represented the state during Mississippi’s brief post-Civil War Reconstruction period. The federal government deeded additional land to Stephen B. Blackwell during his time in the state Senate in 1888. Reconstruction lasted only a handful of years before white planters and terrorists hijacked democratically-elected state and local governments through campaigns of violence that endured until the 1970s.
During Freedom Summer, Blackwell Jr., says guests slept in the front of the house, tucked around one of two wood-burning stoves sharing a central chimney. There was no wisdom in giving the Klan the advantage of predictability, so Unita Blackwell took great care to keep visitation random and erratic. Sometimes she would only have one guest, other times Jeremiah reported up to nearly 10 individuals crowding the tiny place, filling it with life,
“They had to stay fluid because the KKK was trying to track everything,” says Blackwell jr. “I have no idea to the average (occupation). All I know is it was crowded. People were sleeping wherever they could.”
Guests most frequently slept on Blackwell’s floor throughout the years of 1964 and 1965, in the months leading up to passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. The Act shifted the fight for free and fair elections to federal courts, and allowed activists to focus more on anti-poverty programs and school equality.
Today Blackwell’s shack still stands on her old property. While weathered and empty, it endured the elements better than the modern ranch-style home she built on the same property a few years later. Today the beaten building remains a testament to the strength and persistence that helped pave the way to genuine democracy.