Zellie Rainey Orr

Zellie Rainey Orr is a researcher, historian and author whose work focuses on World War II and Black aviation history. During the summer of 1964, she participated as a Freedom School student.

I was 13 years old in 1964. That summer, volunteers entered my hometown of Indianola Mississippi. There was an excitement in the air. Of course, there was a lot of fear but I remember how exciting it all was. Leaflets and invitations to attend the volunteers’ mass meetings started going around. I had some older friends who were going to attend. Being 13, I decided to join in too.

“The Freedom School experience was extraordinary. It was my first time seeing books that had Black people in them, books written by Black people.”

I remember the mass meetings well. Few churches would allow the volunteers to meet in their buildings because a lot of the ministers didn’t want to get involved. As a result, we’d meet at what we called the Old Baptist School. It was a small building that was used as a school back when my parents were children. We’d meet once a week and when you got there it was like church. There was singing. We’d sing old gospel songs but give the words a civil rights twist, and there’d always be a speaker.

The Freedom School experience was extraordinary. It was my first time seeing books that had Black people in them, books written by Black people. I’d been writing poetry and plays since I was about 8 years old. When I went to the Freedom School, one of the teachers read my poetry and told me I was talented. Had I not met her, perhaps I would have never attempting a career in writing. 

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