Three women shared stories about their encounters with racism and how they overcame the incidents as part of the 1619 Voices Project.

Three women shared stories about their encounters with racism and how they overcame the incidents as part of the 1619 Voices Project.

Remembering oral histories adds to our collective memory of slavery. Vernon Butler, from Flushing, Michigan, told us how his great-great-grandmother and her children escaped slavery in Mississippi.
USA TODAY
Talking about racism is important precisely because doing so makes us uncomfortable. When people share their experience with racism and hate, it helps us understand each other better and brings us closer to conceptualizing a more accurate version of our countrys history.
As part of USA TODAYs 1619 Project, we collected personal stories from readers.
The final installment of USA TODAYs 1619 Voices Project features three women who told us about their encounters with racism, and how they confronted and overcame it. In one instance, a reader told us how she learned about hateful crimes committed by her white ancestors.
Were telling their stories because we want to create a dialogue, helping people understand why we avoid talking about race, said USA TODAY Washington correspondent Deborah Barfield Berry.
We also want to show how confronting our discomfort can educate others and sometimes lead to healing, Berry said.
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Helen Owens, 57, of Banta, California, told us about how one instance of racism she experiences in childhood stayed with her for the rest of her life. It happened when a friends father said he didnt want his daughter to spend time with Helen anymore, because Helen is black.
That was the worst thing that ever happened to me, in terms of being a little girl and hearing for the first time that someone really didnt want me around because my color, Owens said.  Not because of my character, not because of the person I was, but because I was black.
Helen Owens, shown middle right, shared stories of growing up in Hunters Point, in San Francisco, CA. She’s pictured here at age 12.
 (Photo: Helen Owens)
Helen said she thinks people dont like to talk about painful experiences such as hers because theyd rather not acknowledge that racism exists in daily life.
People are afraid to talk about it because they dont want the issue to come up, Owens said. They dont want to be called out to say that I look at you different because of what you look like.
People can also make harmful assumptions based on race, like inferring that someone doesnt belong in a particular place.
Shelley Sumpter, 69, of Minneapolis, MN told us a story about how a woman assumed she and her family were in the wrong place due to their race. One day, when Shelleys family stopped to ask for directions on their way to the cemetery, a woman told them there were no black people buried there and that their family therefore couldnt be buried there.
St. Mary’s Cemetery, in Alexandria, MN, where Shelley Sumpter’s family is buried.
 (Photo: Shelley Sumpter)
When we got there to the cemetery, she was shocked when we went to place the flowers, Sumpter said.
Shelley told us that even though the woman wasnt kind to her at first, Shelley waited for her to see that she was wrong. Now, the two families are friends and keep in touch. Shelley said the woman and her husband place flowers on the graves belonging to Shelleys ancestors when she and her family cant make the trip.
To show that were not forgotten, Sumpter said.
Another reader learned how her white ancestor upheld the peonage system in early 20th century Georgia. When Mary Garvey, 71, of Long Beach, Washington learned that she is related to John S. Williams, an infamous murderer of black fieldhands, she wondered why her family never talked about it and felt ashamed.
Now, Garvey says its her obligation to make sure shes honest about the true version of her familys history.
Sometimes you have to open up wounds to actually let the sunlight in, so the healing can at least start
Garvey tries to grapple with her familys past and with the countrys past as a whole. She tries to recognize the land that Americans took from Native Americans and wants to see more people acknowledge painful truths like her own family story.
Helen Owens also says that people need to turn toward themselves so that a national healing process can begin.
When people understand or theyre able to understand who they really are, not just from the outside, but form the inside, we all do better, Owens said.
When we share stories about ourselves and our pasts, we get closer to understanding a truer and more accurate version of countrys history.
To hear the full audio story featuring Mary Garvey, Helen Owens, and Shelley Sumpter, click here. 
In 2020, reparations are one way that people say we can acknowledge harmful truths about our past deeds. To learn more about the debate over reparations and the steps some groups are taking, read Deborah Barfield Berrys story about reparations, Antigua, and Brown University.
Find more stories from USA TODAYs 1619 project at 1619.usatoday.com. For more black history content in February and beyond, visit the page at blackhistory.usatoday.com.
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/black-history/2020/02/21/three-womens-personal-stories-helping-re-tell-black-history/4793577002/

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