As last May approached, many students scrambled to find an excuse not to return to their small hometowns. Mary Afton Day planned for quite the opposite.
Mary cringed as she told me about her first memories of Marion. “Even though we only lived there for nine months when I was 2-years old, Marion is associated with a gashed upper lip and a broken into family car,” Mary said. A scar remains to remind her of those memories.
She never expected that one day this place would once again become her home.
As a Living Democracy fellow in the College of Liberal Arts, she was required to spend a summer in a partnering Alabama community. During that time she would implement a project to address a community issue.
She took it as a sign that Marion was one of those communities. “It just seemed to call my name for a second chance,” Mary said. “I wanted to prove to myself that Marion was worth it.”
Mary then met Frances Ford, executive director of Sowing Seeds of Hope. This faith based non-profit builds responsibility by creating opportunity for Marion’s youth. As the relationship between the youth and the community forms, Frances envisions those same student leaders returning after college to support Marion’s progress.
“I was quickly confronted with this strong disconnect between two different generations living in the same town. I felt as though I knew more about Marion than many of the students," Mary said. So, she decided that her summer project would focus on bridging this gap.
Mary, with the help of her four interns from Francis Marion high school, decided on a photo voice project as a solution toward this problem. “My idea was to empower an individual through photography. I wanted to give the town a voice,” Mary said.
The set of photos highlights different aspects of Marion that each citizen believes is an asset to the community.
This project led Mary to a seat next to Mattie Atkins during a meeting of the West Perry Arts and Crafts Club. What she ended up learning was far more than how to sew a quilt.
It was at this meeting that members uprooted Marion’s rich history. “I realized that if the youth would just listen to these individuals who fought so hard for their freedoms, then a strong connection could not be avoided,” Mary said.
Mattie is a 75-year-old African American woman, born and raised in Marion. She experienced the height of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement that greatly affected this rural society. In fact, Mattie still calls the courthouse Jericho because she and fellow activists peacefully segregation by walking around the courthouse seven times everyday.
What surprised Mary even more was how the empty presence in the town is a consequence from their fight for freedom. Mattie explained that the African American community decided to boycott Marion’s businesses. In time, many of these shops were forced to shut down.
Mattie clarified that no one acknowledged the long lasting effects the boycotts would have on Marion’s future generations. Now her grandchildren live in a ghost town.
That’s why Nathan Harris’ Sons, a mom and pop clothing store located at 401 Washington St., means so much to Mattie. “It’s just as vital to Marion today as it was to its past,” Mary said.
Before students leave their hometowns, they should take the time to listen to history not just read it from their textbooks. It was at these meetings that members uprooted Marion’s rich history and formed the bonds that would bring the students back.
“What I learned in Marion was that everyone has a story to share that will steal your heart, but only if you’re willing,” Mary concluded.