Revitalizing Mississippi one story at a time

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Photo by Melanie Thortis / © The 'Sip

Twyla Johnson of Port Gibson photographs Geraldine Nash with an iPhone 7 as part of a community photo workshop series where locals capture the stories of their community.

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PORT GIBSON — As a child, Milton Chambliss was always hearing stories from his grandfather about the people who came before him.

“When I was growing up, my great-grandfather was a figment of my imagination, painted by my grandfather, who told his children that his father was a Yankee soldier in the Civil War,” Chambliss said.

This summer, Chambliss attended a workshop in his hometown of Port Gibson aimed at helping people discover their roots, connect to that heritage and look to the future.

“It’s a spiritual journey — to be so in touch with my ancestry, the people who shaped my world before I came into existence,” Chambliss said.

The workshop, called Celebrating Storytellers, is a statewide project to commemorate the Mississippi Bicentennial this year through photo stories created by residents across the state. Once created, the photo stories are transformed into three-minute films highlighting the importance of cultural and economic revitalization.

Chambliss, who attended the Port Gibson workshop, is one of 100 people from 10 cities throughout Mississippi who will or have participated in the community workshops, led by Blue Magnolia Films and Natalie Irby of Corner To Corner Productions.

Photo by Melanie Thortis / © The 'Sip

William Coleman clears land  around a headstone at Golden West Cemetery in Port Gibson. The Golden West Cemetery was one of many community photo stories produced by community leaders and coordinated by Blue Magnolia Films to commemorate the Mississippi Bicentennial.

At the workshop, Chambliss put together a photo story to tell the narrative of his family’s journey from his once enslaved great-grandfather fighting in the Civil War to his grandfather serving in World War II, graduating from Alcorn State University and successfully operating a business.

“Coming to Claiborne County after the loss of my parents and only sister, I’m amazed and humbled by the opportunity to stimulate economic resurgence in the place where my family’s roots in America can be traced back to,” Chambliss said.

When filmmakers Alison Fast and Chandler Griffin think about Mississippi, three things jump to their minds — creativity, resilience and the magic of place. The two, founders of Blue Magnolia Films, want to celebrate the bright spots and small towns that make up Mississippi, and they’re using those themes to put on their workshops this year.

Photo by Melanie Thortis / © The 'Sip

Blue Magnolia Films founder Alison Fast works with Aaron Phillips, right, to record audio of Harry Ross at Port Gibson City Hall as part of Celebrating Storytellers.

“This project is very much celebrating the spirit of place,” she said. “That is Mississippi.”

“Technology is now accessible to anyone, whether you are 100 years old or 16 years old,” said Griffin. “Using Apple Smartphones, we’ve been able to train communities to tell their own stories and collectively renew our sense of what it means to be from Mississippi through the lens of one another’s experiences.”

“We’re using the storytelling to reawaken our awareness of what’s in our own backyard and seeing it with new eyes,” Fast said. “That’s what’s happening with these photo workshops. We’re picking up these threads from the past and using them to really breathe new life into these small town communities.”

Each workshop is a cost-share in which Blue Magnolia donates the training and equipment and local partners give in-kind or cash matches, Fast explained.

The photo stories from each workshop are shared on the Blue Magnolia Films Facebook page and will also be available for viewing at bicentennial events. Next year, the stories will be featured at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and the Museum of Mississippi History, two museums slated to open in Jackson in December. A book project is planned, and each town that hosted a workshop will integrate the stories into revitalization projects.

Another Port Gibson workshop participant was Harry Ross, a New Jersey resident who could trace his heritage from Prospect Hill Plantation, 5,000 acres in Jefferson County, to Liberia, where his formerly enslaved ancestors moved when they were freed.

“Documenting the Prospect Hill story has allowed me to reconnect with another part of my ancestors that I did not know about,” Ross said. “And it is also a great opportunity to educate people and create a link between Mississippi and Africa.”

In addition to Port Gibson, workshops have been held or will be held in Ocean Springs, Clarksdale, Greenville, Oxford, Natchez, Gulfport, Philadelphia and Tupelo and will end with a wrap-up event in Jackson.

Photo by Melanie Thortis / © The 'Sip

Lorraine Hunt looks over a headstone at Golden West Cemetery in Port Gibson. The cemetery is one of many photo stories that make up Celebrating Storytellers.

But the workshops aren’t only about documenting moments frozen in time, Fast said.

“Storytelling also builds bridges and that’s the thing every community needs — to take down walls, to stand in a common story,” she said. “The other thing we find is a big healing that keeps coming from the workshops. We find that the opportunity to go on a creative journey for the week helps communities bridge racial, age, gender and political gaps by everybody getting to tell their story at this moment in Mississippi history.

“It’s cultural renewal, even if the actual films that result become drivers of economic revitalization,” Fast said. “We really want to engage the whole town and their story, figure out what those threads are — those themes they want to pull forward to future generations.”