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June 23, 2014

Coming together to remember a cause in New Albany

Walk, event commemorates Civil Rights Act anniversary

NEW ALBANY — Community members united Sunday for an ice cream social and presentation organized by the group Friends of Division Street School to honor the memory and dream of Kathryn Hickerson.

The New Albany woman was among the last to attend the segregated all-black elementary school before it closed in 1946 — the woman whose inspiration and hard work helped restore the school.

They were there not only to socialize and remember Hickerson, but to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and to pay homage to the many brave women and men who fought against the forces that meant to keep a nation divided along racial lines.

Attendees met at Howard Chapel Baptist Church on Market Street, where Vic Megenity, co-founder of the restoration and chair of the Division Street School Board of Directors, told the story of Hickerson’s dedication to the project.

 “This is Kathryn’s inspiration,” he said.  “A lot of us did a lot of the work, but Kathryn kept nudging us forward. So we’re real proud of what Kathryn did. You walk in that little school, you’ll feel her spirit.”

Emma Talbott, who marched on Washington in 1963, was an honored guest at the celebration. A recorded interview between her and Matt Eidem, archivist at the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library, regarding how it was to grow up during segregation was played.

“I was very happy and ready to be a participant in our efforts to get human rights” she said during the interview with Eidem. “Somebody’s got to do it, and I think if you’re capable and have the fortitude and you want to make a better society, you need to be involved, you need to do your part.

“We’re all Americans, we all own the country and we should all be permitted to making our country better. It’s still in an evolving state.”

The Spiritual Wonders performed songs reminiscent of the 1960s Civil Rights movement and the group marched to the nearby Division Street School, carrying protest signs in the spirit of the original march.

After the school closed in 1946, it sat as a maintenance storage space for the New Albany-Floyd County School Corp. for most of the next 50 years. It was then, in 1996, that Hickerson heard of the plans to demolish the building, and asked Megenity if he would be involved in helping to save it. She had three goals — to save it from being demolished, to restore it and to revitalize it as a school.

Every year since 2005, each New Albany-Floyd County fourth-grade class has spent one entire school day in the two-room school, learning in the kind of setting previous generations had, complete with handheld slates for writing. Megenity said Kathryn saw this third part of her dream actualized just before she passed away in 2006.

“It took 10 years but it came true,” he said. “And every time I come in this building, I think of Kathryn and I think her inspiration is still in this building.”

Megenity said that in his experience as a retired history teacher, sometimes people have a tendency to forget history.

“The younger folks always asked me in the eighth grade, ‘Why do we have to study history? We can’t go back and change it can we?’ No, but you can keep that bad stuff from happening in the future if you understand the consequences,” he said.

Donald L. Johnson Sr., member of the Division Street School Board of Directors, attended the school from 1942 to 1946. He transitioned to New Albany High School at the helm of the desegregation of schools in New Albany, although it had yet to reach a federal level.

“It went pretty good,” he said. “I can’t say it was real smooth, but it wasn’t as bad as people thought it was going to be. We had some friends, and some we didn’t. Just like now, some people are friends to you and some are not — you have certain things in common.”

He said although schools were no longer relegating blacks and whites to separate areas, the change didn’t take place overnight, and prejudice was still present at times.

“You still had your limitations,” Johnson said. “You might want to do a certain thing in school — well some things they’d offer you and some things they wouldn’t.”

Johnson said he feels that some of these limitations still exist, though in different forms. He said, however, that he hopes that everyone can realize that “we’re all in this thing together.”

“The world would be a lot better place to live in if we could learn to love one another,” he said. “I think that’s what we need to work toward.

“Maybe I’ll say I’m superior to you, you know, and you may say you’re superior to somebody else. That could be avoided if we all come together and say ‘We’re all God’s children — you’re human, I’m human and we try to treat each other the way they should be.”

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