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UMW students get first-hand history lesson

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Gaye Adegbalola wears many hats. She is a blues singer and guitarist, teacher, lecturer, activist and photographer, and Thursday evening she served as a historian for freshmen in the University of Mary Washington’s “Race & Revolution” seminar.

“For you students, I’m a primary source for history, or her-story,” Adegbalola said.

Adegbalola, 69 and a Fredericksburg native, shared her stories with the group, assembled by the first-year seminar.

She called it the story of how she went from “Dr. King, to black power, to reconciling the two, to finding my dharma.”

During her two-hour performance, Adegbalola shared experiences from the civil rights movement in Fredericksburg, punctuated by the “soundtrack of my life.”

Adegbalola described the six forms of discrimination she’s experienced.

“I grew up black in America, I was poor, I’m a woman, a single parent, a lesbian and recently I’ve experienced ageism.”

She said the first time she experienced blackness was as a child, Christmas shopping with her mother downtown. She wanted a soda from the Peoples Drug store, and her mother informed her that they couldn’t go in.

She experienced that same feeling throughout her childhood, attending the segregated Walker–Grant school and in the movie theater, forced to sit in the balcony.

Even the songs they sang during school at Walker–Grant, like the Virginia state song, which the students were required to learn, reinforced racism.

She sang a verse to the auditorium, “Carry me back to old Virginny/

There’s where the cotton and the corn and tatoes grow/ There’s where the birds warble sweet in the springtime/ There’s where the old darkey’s heart am long’d to go/ There’s where I labored so hard for old massa/ Day after day in the field of yellow corn/ No place on earth do I love more sincerely/ Than old Virginny, the state where I was born.”

“If you want to know about civil rights and Fredericksburg, I’m your person,” she said. “I grew up in it.”

Freshmen and classmates Terri La Rue, Sarah Hansen, Tara Waters, Maggie McMaken and Stephanie Runner attended the performance together.

They said they wanted to attend to see a different, more personal approach to civil rights.

“This makes it more real,” La Rue said.

McMaken said she is used to watching documentaries and movies, which are less effective.

“This is really eye-opening,” added Runner. “It’s not watered down.”

Craig Vasey, one of the professors teaching the nine sections and 130 students of the course, said the aim is to expand knowledge of civil rights and to help students understand what they don’t know about the struggle.

“Students didn’t know who James Farmer is,” he said. “This is a way to maintain his legacy here and to promote awareness of his life and work.”

Adegbalola also told those who attended about Farmer’s being “the activist” of the Big Four and about how his favorite song was one from her band Sapphire, the Uppity Blues Women.

Even though she played Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye and Thomas Dorsey on her guitar, Adegbalola sometimes let her big voice stand on its own, and encouraged the audience to sing along with songs she remembered from protests, like the sit-in at the local Woolworth’s.

Adegbalola ended the night with her own songs about current struggles and gay rights, as well as one written for Trayvon Martin’s mother.

“That’s what I love about the blues,” she said. “Historically, I’m maintaining an art form that’s truly American, but I write my own history.”

Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976