Unita Blackwell

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Unita Blackwell
Unita Blackwell.jpg
Mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi
In office
Personal details
U. Z. Brown

(1933-03-18)March 18, 1933
Lula, Mississippi, U.S.
DiedMay 13, 2019(2019-05-13) (aged 86)
Biloxi, Mississippi, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s)Jeremiah Blackwell
Education University of Massachusetts Amherst (MRP)

Unita Zelma Blackwell (March 18, 1933 – May 13, 2019) was an American civil rights activist who was the first African American woman to be elected mayor in the U.S. state of Mississippi. [1] Blackwell was a project director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and helped organize voter drives for African Americans across Mississippi. She was also a founder of the US China Peoples Friendship Association, a group dedicated to promoting cultural exchange between the United States and China. Barefootin', Blackwell's autobiography, published in 2006, charts her activism. [2]

African Americans are an ethnic group of Americans with total or partial ancestry from any of the black racial groups of Africa. The term typically refers to descendants of enslaved black people who are from the United States.

U.S. state constituent political entity of the United States

In the United States, a state is a constituent political entity, of which there are currently 50. Bound together in a political union, each state holds governmental jurisdiction over a separate and defined geographic territory and shares its sovereignty with the federal government. Due to this shared sovereignty, Americans are citizens both of the federal republic and of the state in which they reside. State citizenship and residency are flexible, and no government approval is required to move between states, except for persons restricted by certain types of court orders. Four states use the term commonwealth rather than state in their full official names.

Mississippi State of the United States of America

Mississippi is a state in the Deep South region of the southeastern United States. Mississippi is the 32nd most extensive and 34th most populous of the 50 U.S. states. It is bordered by Tennessee to the north, Alabama to the east, the Gulf of Mexico and Louisiana to the south, and Arkansas and Louisiana to the west. The state's western boundary is largely defined by the Mississippi River. Jackson, with a population of approximately 167,000 people, is both the state's capital and largest city.


Early life

Blackwell was born U. Z. Brown on March 18, 1933, in Lula, Mississippi, to sharecroppers Virda Mae and Willie Brown. [1] [3] [4] Blackwell's uncle gave her the name "U. Z.", which she kept until she was in the sixth grade, when her teacher told her that she needed "a real name, not just initials". Blackwell and her teacher decided on Unita Zelma. [5]

Lula, Mississippi Town in Mississippi, United States

Lula is a town in Coahoma County, Mississippi, United States. The population was 298 at the 2010 census, down from 370 in 2000.

Sixth grade is a year of education for students ages 11–12. In many nations, it is the first year of middle school or the last year of elementary school. In other countries like Finland if you are in sixth grade you are 11 or 12 if there are no changes.

Blackwell and her parents lived in Lula. Her grandfather had been murdered by a white plantation boss. [6] In 1936, when she was three years old, Blackwell's father left the plantation on which he worked and fled to Memphis, Tennessee, fearing for his life after he confronted his boss about speaking to his wife. [7] Blackwell and her mother left the plantation to live with him soon afterward. [8] Blackwell's family traveled frequently in search of work. [9] On June 20, 1938, Blackwell's parents separated due to religious differences. Blackwell and her mother went to West Helena, Arkansas, to live with Blackwell's great aunt so that she had the opportunity to receive an education. [8] A quality education in Mississippi was not an option for Blackwell because the schools there were centered on the cultivation of crops and the plantation system. Black children were allowed to attend school for only two months at a time, before they were expected to go back to the cotton fields. [6] [10] While living in West Helena, Blackwell often visited her father in Memphis. During the summer months she would leave West Helena and live with her grandfather and grandmother in Lula, where she helped plant and harvest cotton. [11] Blackwell spent a majority of her early years chopping cotton for $3 a day, [12] in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee as well as peeling tomatoes in Florida. [13] She was 14 when she finished the eighth grade, the final year of school at Westside, a school in West Helena for black children. [14] Blackwell had to quit school to earn for her family. [9]

Memphis, Tennessee City in Tennessee, United States

Memphis is a city located along the Mississippi River in southwestern Shelby County, Tennessee, United States. The 2017 city population was 652,236, making Memphis the largest city on the Mississippi River, second-largest city in Tennessee, as well as the 25th largest city in the United States. Greater Memphis is the 42nd largest metropolitan area in the United States, with a population of 1,348,260 in 2017. The city is the anchor of West Tennessee and the greater Mid-South region, which includes portions of neighboring Arkansas and Mississippi. Memphis is the seat of Shelby County, the most populous county in Tennessee. As one of the most historic and cultural cities of the southern United States, the city features a wide variety of landscapes and distinct neighborhoods.

Arkansas State of the United States of America

Arkansas is a state in the southern region of the United States, home to over 3 million people as of 2018. Its name is of Siouan derivation from the language of the Osage denoting their related kin, the Quapaw Indians. The state's diverse geography ranges from the mountainous regions of the Ozark and the Ouachita Mountains, which make up the U.S. Interior Highlands, to the densely forested land in the south known as the Arkansas Timberlands, to the eastern lowlands along the Mississippi River and the Arkansas Delta.

Florida State of the United States of America

Florida is the southernmost contiguous state in the United States. The state is bordered to the west by the Gulf of Mexico, to the northwest by Alabama, to the north by Georgia, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, and to the south by the Straits of Florida. Florida is the 22nd-most extensive, the 3rd-most populous, and the 8th-most densely populated of the U.S. states. Jacksonville is the most populous municipality in the state and the largest city by area in the contiguous United States. The Miami metropolitan area is Florida's most populous urban area. Tallahassee is the state's capital.

Marriage and move

She was 25 when she first met Jeremiah Blackwell, a cook for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. [15] A few years later, they traveled to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and were married by a justice of the peace. [16]

Clarksdale, Mississippi City in Mississippi, United States

Clarksdale is a city in Coahoma County, Mississippi, United States, and seat of the county.

Justice of the peace Judicial officer elected or appointed to keep the peace and do minor civic jobs

A justice of the peace (JP) is a judicial officer of a lower or puisne court, elected or appointed by means of a commission to keep the peace. In past centuries the term commissioner of the peace was often used with the same meaning. Depending on the jurisdiction, such justices dispense summary justice or merely deal with local administrative applications in common law jurisdictions. Justices of the peace are appointed or elected from the citizens of the jurisdiction in which they serve, and are usually not required to have any formal legal education in order to qualify for the office. Some jurisdictions have varying forms of training for JPs.

In January 1957, Blackwell became extremely ill and was taken to the hospital in West Helena where she was pronounced dead. She was later found to be alive in her hospital room, and claims to have had a near-death experience. [17] On July 2, 1957, the couple's only son, Jeremiah Blackwell Jr. (Jerry), was born. [16] [18] In 1960, Jeremiah's grandmother, "Miss Vashti", died. A few months later, the Blackwells moved into the shotgun house that his grandmother had left to him, in Mayersville, Mississippi, a town of nearly five hundred people. [13] [16] The Blackwell family eventually was able to build a larger brick home, but she wanted to keep the smaller house inherited from Jeremiah's grandmother. [9]

A near-death experience (NDE) is a personal experience associated with death or impending death. When positive, such experiences may encompass a variety of sensations including detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, total serenity, security, warmth, the experience of absolute dissolution, and the presence of a light. When negative, such experiences may include sensations of torment and torture. NDEs are a recognized part of some transcendental and religious beliefs in an afterlife.

Shotgun house

A "shotgun house" is a narrow rectangular domestic residence, usually no more than about 12 feet (3.5 m) wide, with rooms arranged one behind the other and doors at each end of the house. It was the most popular style of house in the Southern United States from the end of the American Civil War (1861–65) through the 1920s. Alternate names include "shotgun shack", "shotgun hut", "shotgun cottage", and in the case of a multihome dwelling, "shotgun apartment"; the design is similar to that of railroad apartments.

Mayersville, Mississippi Town in Mississippi, United States

Mayersville is a town on the east bank of the Mississippi River, and the county seat for Issaquena County, Mississippi, United States. It is located in the Mississippi Delta region, known for cotton cultivation in the antebellum era. Once the trading center for the county, the town was superseded when railroads were built into the area. The population of the majority-black town was 547 at the 2010 census, down from 795 at the 2000 census.

I am grateful for this house ... I kept it because it reminded me of where I came from.

Unita Blackwell [19]

After settling in Mayersville, Blackwell began to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement. [13]

Civil rights movement Social movement in the United States during the 20th century

The civil rights movement in the United States was a decades-long struggle with the goal of enforcing constitutional and legal rights for African Americans that other Americans already enjoyed. With roots that dated back to the Reconstruction era during the late 19th century, the movement achieved its largest legislative gains in the mid-1960s, after years of direct actions and grassroots protests that were organized from the mid-1950s until 1968. Encompassing strategies, various groups, and organized social movements to accomplish the goals of ending legalized racial segregation, disenfranchisement, and discrimination in the United States, the movement, using major nonviolent campaigns, eventually secured new recognition in federal law and federal protection for all Americans.

Civil rights activism

Voting discrimination

Blackwell first got involved in the Civil Rights Movement in June 1964, when two activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee came to Mayersville and, in the church she belonged to, held meetings concerning the rights of African Americans to vote . [20] The following week she and seven others went to the courthouse to take a voter registration test so that they could vote. [21] [22] While they were outside the courthouse waiting to take the test, a group of white farmers from the area heard what was happening and tried to scare them off. [21] Her group stayed there all day, but only two of them were able to take the test. The racism that they experienced, Blackwell says, made that day "the turning point" of her life. [23] Jeremiah and Unita lost their jobs the next day after their employer found out that they had been part of the group seeking to register to vote. [24] After losing her job, Blackwell recounts her family's means of survival:

We had a garden; people would give us a pot of beans... SNCC was supposed to send us eleven dollars every two weeks. My husband worked three months of the year for the Army Corps of Engineers, then we'd buy lots of canned goods

Unita Blackwell [19]

Blackwell attempted to pass the voter registration test three times over the next few months. In early fall she took the test successfully and became a registered voter. [25]

When the United States Commission on Civil Rights came to Mississippi in January 1965, Blackwell testified in front of them about her experiences with voter discrimination: [26]

I filled it out and I had section 97 and I wrote it down and looked it over and I picked some of the words out of, you know, what I had wrote down; put that in there and turned it over. And I misspelled 'length' and I said 'Oh, my Lord.' And so then I filled out the rest of it and when I got through I handed it to her, and I said 'Well, I misspelled this, and well, I didn't date the top,' and she said 'Oh, that's all right, it's all right, it's all right.' And then she ran and got the book and [registered me].

Unita Blackwell [27]

As a result of Blackwell's involvement with voter registration campaigns, she and other activists endured constant harassment. [28]

SNCC and other movements

After meeting Fannie Lou Hamer in the summer of 1964 and hearing her experiences in the Civil Rights Movement, Blackwell decided to join the SNCC. [29] As a project director for the SNCC, she organized voter registration drives across Mississippi. [30] Later that year, she became a member on the executive committee of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), which provided a party for voters that SNCC had been registering to vote. [4] [13] [31] In late August she and 67 other elected MFDP delegates traveled to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, intending to get the MFDP seated as "the only democratically constituted delegation from Mississippi". [32] [33] They were eventually offered two at-large seats but refused that compromise; the event, particularly Hamer's nationally televised testimony before the credentialing committee, brought the party and the Mississippi civil rights movement into the public eye. [32] [34]

Blackwell was involved in the introduction of Head Start for black children in 1965 in the Mississippi Delta, a project led by Child Development Group of Mississippi. [35] [36]

In the late 1960s Blackwell worked as a community development specialist with the National Council of Negro Women. In the 1970s, through the National Council of Negro Women, she worked on a development program for low-income housing and encouraged people across the country "to build their own homes". [13] During her time participating in the Civil Rights Movement, she was jailed more than 70 times because of her role in civil rights protests and other actions. [28]

Blackwell v. Issaquena County Board of Education

The SNCC pin Logo SNCC.svg
The SNCC pin

The Blackwells filed a suit, Blackwell v. Issaquena County Board of Education, against the Issaquena County Board of Education on April 1, 1965, after the principal suspended more than 300 black children—including Jerry, the Blackwells' son—for wearing pins that depicted a black hand and a white hand clasped with the word "SNCC" below them. [37] The suit covered several issues including the students' use of the "freedom pins", and asked that the Issaquena County School District desegregate their schools per the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education . [38] The United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi decided that the students were being disruptive with their use of the freedom pins, but directed that the school district had to desegregate their schools to comply with federal law, by the fall of 1965. [39] The case was taken to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in July 1966, where the previous decision by the District Court was upheld. [40] Due to the case resulting in a desegregation plan, Blackwell referred to it as "one of the very first desegregation cases in Mississippi". [41]

Blackwell's son and approximately 50 other children boycotted the school, because of its decision to not let the children wear the SNCC freedom pins. [42] As a result, Blackwell and some other activists in the community decided that it was vital to educate those children. She helped open freedom schools in Issaquena County to resolve the issue. [43] The schools became popular and continued to teach classes every summer until 1970, when the local schools finally desegregated. [44]

Political career and later life

Starting in 1973, Blackwell participated in 16 diplomatic trips to China, including a trip with actress Shirley MacLaine in 1973 to film The Other Half of the Sky . [45] [6] [46] As part of her commitment to better relations between the United States and China, Blackwell served for six years as president of the US-China Peoples Friendship Association, an association dedicated to promoting cultural exchange between the United States and China. [13] In 1979 Blackwell was appointed to the U.S. National Commission on the International Year of the Child. [9]

She was elected mayor of Mayersville, Mississippi in 1976 and held this office until 2001, making her the first female African-American mayor in Mississippi. [47] As mayor, she oversaw the construction of several sets of public housing, the first time that federal housing had been built in Issaquena County. [45] [48] Blackwell obtained federal grant money that provided Mayersville with police and fire protection, a public water system, paved streets, housing accommodations for the elderly and disabled, and other infrastructure. [13] She gained national attention by traveling across the country to promote the construction of low-income housing. [28]

Blackwell also served on the Democratic National Committee and as co-chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party. [49] The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sent Blackwell and 67 other delegates to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in New Jersey. [28] [50] Their voices at the convention helped contribute to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. [28] In late 1982, Blackwell went to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and received a Master of Regional Planning. [45] Although Blackwell did not attend high school, the National Rural Fellows Program helped her gain admittance to the University of Massachusetts by awarding her a scholarship and providing her credit based on her activism and life experience. [13]

As part of her community development efforts, she helped found Mississippi Action for Community Education (MACE), a community-development organization in Greenville, Mississippi. [51] From 1990 to 1992, Blackwell was president of the National Conference of Black Mayors. [52] In 1991, she co-founded the Black Women Mayors' Conference as a corollary to the National Conference of Black Mayors and served as its first president. [13]

Blackwell became a voice for rural housing and development and, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter invited her to an energy summit at Camp David. Blackwell also was awarded a $350,000 MacArthur Fellowship genius grant in 1992, for her part in creating the Deer River housing development among other creative solutions to housing and infrastructure problems in her state. [45] [53] Blackwell ran for Congress in 1993, but she was defeated by Bennie Thompson in the primary. [13]

Blackwell, with help from JoAnne Prichard Morris, wrote an autobiography, Barefootin': Life Lessons from the Road to Freedom , that covers her life, the sharecropper work she and her parents experienced, being elected mayor of Mayersville, which caused her rise from "Poverty to Power", and her actions in the Civil Rights Movement. It was published in 2006.

Health and death

In January 2008 she disappeared from her hotel in Atlanta while attending commemoration ceremonies for Martin Luther King Jr. Later, she was found at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. [13] [54] She was subsequently reported as having been in the early stages of dementia. [55] In 2014, it was reported that Blackwell lived in a nursing home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. [56]

Blackwell died at a hospital in Ocean Springs, Mississippi on May 13, 2019, [12] from heart and lung ailment and complications of dementia, as reported by her son Jeremiah Blackwell Jr. [57] Her survivors include her son, Jeremiah Jr., two grandchildren, two step grandchildren, and eight step great-grandchildren. [58]

Honors and awards



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