We don’t realize the gift Mrs. Bessie is to our community
Mrs. Bessie Dillard will be 100 this Tuesday.
And this time last year, I was writing about her then imminent 99th, and how special that was because hers had been such an unrelenting good life all of those years. From a vibrant and faithful contributor, even in childhood, to a large and shared family life — to her wedding on her lunch hour so she’d not miss a day’s work — to her one-day-a-week Saturday bus rides to Alcorn every year for almost eight years in pursuit of a college degree — from the long-day, low-paying work she did in hospital kitchens and cafeterias to help support her family — from the never-failing presence of the ideal friend, wife, and mother — for most of the last century and well into this one, she has been our, and Vicksburg’s, example.
She and her husband were my parents’ best friends, and her children, mine. They celebrated with her when she attained her first degree, and I celebrated with her when she received her Specialist’s Degree, soon after receiving her Master’s. I remember her telling me on that day that were she just a bit younger, perhaps in her 60s or so, she’d be pursuing her Doctorate that day. And I knew that she meant it.
Now, one of her granddaughters is the Head of the English Department at Hinds Community College. Her two surviving sons are professionals, one, a respected pharmacist; the other, an entrepreneur. Her three surviving daughters include a devoted caregiver; a retired banker, and the pastor of one of Vicksburg’s largest black churches.
What an exemplar she had to be to have such children as these.
Vicksburg owes her a true centenary on this coming Tuesday.
Years ago, when the Smithsonian’s StoryCorps came to Vicksburg, Miss Bessie was among the last to be interviewed. Her story, in her own voice, has both permanent and resonant access today in the new Civil Rights Museum in Washington where it will remain always accessible to generations of her descendants. They will be able to hear her own story, in her own voice, through the ages.
One of the best things about that whole project for her was that the Smithsonian made immediately available a free recording of that interview, and one that could be endlessly replicated without limits for all her family members and friends. And today they all have that recording.
What a gift to them, and to her.
In her own words. In her own voice.
I do not think this city and people yet realize what value we have here.
Where is another reference like hers that we can claim and access at The Smithsonian and at the National Civil Rights Museum?
For all of our tourist expenditures and efforts, where is that one living voice from that past?
From the last 100 years?
And all the successes of people like Mrs. Bessie Richardson Dillard whose 100th Birthday is Tuesday.
Happy birthday, Miss Bessie, from all of us.
And thank you.
Yolande Robbins is a community columnist for The Vicksburg Post.
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