A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: Oral History interview with CCPL director highlights community and family

In her official capacity as Executive Director of the Calloway County Public Library, Mignon Geniviene Reed is dignified and soft-spoken. Her quiet authority is the North Star as she guides a major community project — a long-overdue addition and renovation of the library. When the going gets tough, Ms. Reed instinctively manages with grace and restraint, but ask about her earliest memories of Head Start at the Douglass School in Murray in the late 1960s, and she beams.

“I remember the cafeteria there,” she says, describing a galley-like space with a wooden table and chairs. “That was my happy place,” she admitted with a grin. “I liked to eat.”

She still cherishes fond memories of teacher, Ann Perry, and also Idabell Perry who did the cooking.

Mignon Geniviene Reed

The playground at Douglass inspires other fond recollections and leads to reflections on roaming the neighborhood around home on Pine Street, under the watchful eyes of her three big brothers.

They lived in a single-family house with three bedrooms, a bathroom, living room, kitchen, and a utility room. Next door were her great-grandparents, and next to them were her grandparents.

“I remember a lot of people at the house,” she said.

Living close to the railroad, the Reeds rented rooms to traveling preachers and people who came to work in Murray. Trains went to Tennessee in one direction, and Illinois, Indiana, and maybe as far as Michigan, in the other. Mignon is not certain about the train routes north, but one thing she knows for sure is that her great-great-grandfather, John (Mac) McCuiston, once played the banjo for Henry Ford in Michigan. Someone in her large extended family has a picture to prove it.

“All the kids played music,” Mignon also reported. “All self-taught.”

A favorite pastime was sitting on the front porch, playing and singing gospel songs.

Great-grandmother Mama Curbie, who played the piano, sang loud at home and at church, Mignon recalls. And church was serious business for a child.

“You had to sit still. You didn’t want to get in trouble. I wanted to sit by her because she gave Juicy Fruit.”

Chewing gum, apparently, provided divine inspiration that kept young ones from fidgeting at church.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

At Carter Elementary, Mignon’s classes were integrated, but the races were separate in many other ways. “We were there for school and then we went home. Everyone in our community was Black.”

“We saw white people at the grocery store,” she continued, “and sometimes a preacher came from Seventh and Poplar Church of Christ, or students from University Church of Christ.”

Grade 3 was a turning point. Her parents were separating and Mignon confesses it was a time of uncertainty. Beloved teacher Judy Balcolm was a big influence. “I never felt she treated me or my friends different,” Reed said.

Mignon even got to stay overnight at her teacher’s house, and she felt safe and comfortable there. All her teachers in the early grades, including Ms. Balcolm and Ms. Guerin, were beloved.

“As I got older, I became aware. I heard stories about what you do and don’t do,” she explained. “Growing up Black you learned your ‘place,’” with grandparents helping to make the children aware of the unwritten code of behavior.

In fifth grade, she remembers being in a basement classroom when some older Black kids were outside, having fun. They came to the windows and the teacher said, “Look at the little blackbirds.”

Back at home, the offensive remark was shared with parents, who expressed their official displeasure with school administrators.

Eighth-grade history class shook Mignon’s world. When the teacher declared that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War, Mignon’s brother, who was in the same class, disagreed. “The teacher grabbed him and pulled him across the desk,” Mignon reported, and he was sent to the principal.

As she looks back, she realizes, “It was in middle school that you started recognizing your ‘place.’ The division in school was clear. We noticed people from Douglass walked to school while the white kids had buses.”

Awareness of the Confederate monument on the courthouse lawn sparked negative feelings. Mignon remembers looking at the statue and thinking, “You fought to keep me and my family in slavery. When I see that monument, that’s what I see,” she went on. “We’re not equal.”

Revisiting the past for a series of oral history interviews on the Black community in Calloway County, Mignon Reed declares, “We were rich” in ways that have little to do with income. It was all about being surrounded by generations of family and a close-knit community. She refers to the environment as a “village” where neighbors pitched in to help each other.

Today, library Executive Director Mignon Reed lives in her father’s mother’s house. “Still surrounded by family,” is the way she tells it. “It’s all about family.”

Anyone with stories to tell or artifacts to share from the Douglass Community in Calloway County can contact Constance Alexander at constancealexander@twc.com.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment