I slipped into the lodge at the world-renowned Children's Defense Fund Haley Farm just as the guest authors were being introduced to read from their works. They stood against an oversized stone hearth filled with a diverse collection of faith symbols. Their audience sat reverently, intent on their words.
The first was author and East Tennessee historian Robert (Bob) Booker, who read chilling excerpts from his book, The Heat of a Red Summer: Race Mixing, Race Rioting in 1919 Knoxville. Booker's work sketches a picture of a young man sentenced to death for a crime he said he didn't commit, while historical evidence declares his innocence. A school-aged boy in the audience had to raise his hand to ask, "What's an electric chair?" Booker patiently, guardedly explained.
Next, author Brenda Glasgow shared from her book titled Why She Stayed at an African American School, Solomon Coles, during Desegregation. She offers a perspective on why all was not well, despite the Supreme Court's ruling. Through her writing, Glasgow introduces a heroic group of educators in Corpus Christie, Texas, who were determined to overcome the unequal status of public schools in the 1960s. Glasgow shared how she and many classmates went on to excel in life because their teachers made sure they were prepared for college.
An open microphone at the annual African American Read-In brought readers mature and youthful to share their favorite excerpts from African American authors. Several schoolchildren recited verses they had memorized, while teachers and parents looked on with pride. The read-in is sponsored by the CDF Langston Hughes Library. Education was the most hopeful theme to come out of the event that included bittersweet references to hardships not to be forgotten.
The read-in offers a chance for local residents to share in the rich cultural offerings at Haley Farm. The property primarily serves as a training ground for leaders in the movement for child advocacy. "We do try to focus on the real crucial issues that children, families and communities are facing," explains Librarian and Programs Coordinator Theresa Venable. Born of the civil rights movement, the Children's Defense Fund serves as a clearinghouse of information, promotes legislation to help children, and performs watchdog and educational functions. The 157-acre farm in Tennessee, a former home of Pulitzer Prize winner Alex Haley, was purchased in 1994 by the CDF. Although the small town of Clinton has grown up around it, the farm remains a peaceful retreat.
Leading educators and faith leaders converge on the farm each year for the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry. Guest speakers for 2011 include Father Gregory Boyle, who founded Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles to offer troubled youth a future. One workshop focus will be helping children caught up in the foster care system. The Great Preachers series includes Bishop Kenneth Carder of Duke Divinity School. CDF Founder and President Marian Wright Edelman also plans to address retreat participants. Venable explains that the Haley Farm facility supports the broader mission of the CDF, "That's our main focus, to serve as a voice for all children." You can find out more about this year's Proctor Institute event, scheduled for the week of July 18th, at the CDF website.
The two most famous structures at Haley Farm and why