African-American history has played an integral role in the shaping of politics, economics, and culture in the United States. Growing up, how did you learn about the accomplishments and struggles of African Americans? Were you in a classroom? Reading a book? Talking with relatives or friends? How has your understanding or knowledge of African-American history changed and/or developed over time? What do you think is the most effective way to pass along this rich and growing history to future generations?

Kalyn Chapman James

I learned about racism from firsthand experiences growing up in Mobile, Alabama. Growing up in the Deep South was at once beautiful and fulfilling and cruel and unfair. One set of my grandparents had been share croppers and the other set were business owners (Chapman Shoe Shop in Prichard, Alabama), so I saw both sides of their experiences which made my life very balanced. I went from picking peas in the fields & feeding pigs and cows to learning how to shine shoes, counting money and operating a cash register. I loved both sides.

I learned about African-American history through my family and movies like Alex Haley’s Roots. My parents drank from the segregated water fountains and shared stories about entering movie houses at the side door and being forced to sit in the balcony and have popcorn and ice thrown at them from the white patrons below. My knowledge has changed over time from reading more about our culture and taking some college classes. Also through movies about our peoples. Despite growing up in the Deep South, having a young man hanged in my home town in my lifetime (Michael Donald), and being called a Nigger by strangers and hearing the word Nigger from the mouths of my white “friends,” I was inspired to become the best person I could be and control my destiny. Although I went through a period of detesting that treatment, I was never taught to hate. I became a part of history by becoming the first, and still ONLY African-American Miss Alabama (Miss Alabama 1993) to represent our state in the Miss America Pageant. It is how I paid for my education, spoke to thousands of students about the importance of education and inspired young women who were following after me. I now read books about our history with my children. I took them to the Civil Rights Institute and the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. I watch any and all stories about our struggles and discuss it with them. I want them to know where they came from and the struggles their grandparents endured and the beautiful legacy of triumph we share. We continue to learn and grow together. It is so important that our young people are always reminded of the people who laid down their lives for our advancement and that the fight for true equality stills goes on. Also that they continue to honor the struggles by living to their full potential and valuing the lives of each other and supporting our community by giving back in any way they can. The African-Americans is one of my favorite shows and I always look forward to watching with my children and discussing what they have seen. This show is a gift to our community.