PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

March 11, 2013

History comes to life in Port Arthur

Erinn Callahan
The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR — It’s been a century since the death of one of the civil right movement’s key figures — and the birth of another one.

Harriet Tubman died on March 10, 1913 in Auburn, N.Y. — just a month after Rosa Louise McCauley was born on Feb. 4 in Tuskegee, Ala. Today, the world remembers her as Rosa Parks, the woman who took a stand for racial equality by taking a seat on a Montgomery bus.

“Rosa Parks was a whole lot different than Harriet — she was quiet. She didn’t want to be involved with the civil rights movement, but she got thrown into it,” said Melissa Waddy-Thibodeaux, a historical re-enactor who brings both Tubman and Parks to life. “But I think Harriet would have thought she did her own thing in her own way to help move things ahead.”

The same can be said of Waddy-Thibodeaux. An actor by nature, the Houston native has spent the past 30 years channeling key women in the civil rights movement — such as Sojourner Truth, aviators Bessie Coleman and Willa B. Brown, Lavinia Bell, a slave who escaped from Galveston, Tubman and Parks — as part of Flying Geese Productions.

“I didn’t want to have an agent tell me where to go and when to go — I wanted to keep doing what I wanted to do,” Waddy-Thibodeaux said. “That’s why I’m still out here scraping the ground doing it on my own, because I like being independent.”

 Waddy-Thibodeaux’s act has reached as far as Germany and Belize. On March 11, the day after the centennial anniversary of Tubman’s death, she brought her latest production, “A Celebration of the Life and Times of Harriet Tubman,” to the Port Arthur Public Library, 4615 9th Ave. With spiritual hymns and the otherworldly baying of hounds coming from a speaker, Waddy-Thibodeaux aided a group children from Wee Care Child Care Center in retracing Tubman’s route on the Underground Railroad.

A growing number of children from the current generation are surprisingly ill-informed about Tubman’s impact on the struggle for equality, Waddy-Thibodeaux said.

“It’s scary,” she said. “A lot of them think the Underground Railroad was Martin Luther King in a train driving underground. So this 100th year, I’m really pushing Harriet hard so people will learn more about her and won’t forget her. I’m here to teach, and to give honor to Harriet.”

Of course, one can hardly discuss the civil rights movement without mentioning Rosa Parks. Waddy-Thibodeaux made sure to discuss her as well.

“A lot of people think that Rosa Parks was tired. She was not tired at all — that’s a misnomer,” Waddy-Thibodeaux said. “If she had gotten up that day, maybe the civil rights movement would never have started.”

It wasn’t just children who benefited from Waddy-Thibodeaux’s performance. James Alexander and his wife, Elizabeth, traveled all the way from Kountze to watch this piece of their history come alive — something they felt their public education was lacking.

“There’s so much African-American history, and in public schools, it’s like it’s a secret,” James said. “We’ve come to be enlightened.”

Elizabeth said she was grateful for Waddy-Thibodeaux’s role in keeping Tubman and Parks alive.

“I’m glad we have things — I wish there were more things like it,” she said. “All Americans need it. It’s part of our history.”

Email: ecallahan@panews.com

Twitter: @ErinnPA