Geraldine Wilson and the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project

Chaplain of Tougaloo College, Reverend Edwin King, wrote on May 29, 1964, “The ‘long hot summer’ is about to begin.” That following summer, nearly one thousand volunteers, traveled to Mississippi to work with the local Black community and civil rights activists. The goals of Freedom Summer involved registering Black Mississippian voters and to enroll Black children into Freedom Schools, institutions designed to educate and encourage the participation of Black youth in the movement. By August 4, 1964, four people died, 80 beaten, 1,000 arrested, and 67 Black churches, homes, and business burned or bombed by white Mississippians.


When I began researching the biography of Geraldine Wilson in 2014, I wanted to know how a young Black woman from Philadelphia found her way to Jackson, Mississippi in 1964. Although Wilson participated in various civil rights organizations and movements up North, she was a first generation Northerner and her family never ventured down South, the region her maternal grandfather fled with his eight children in 1913 to Pennsylvania. I longed to know how her mother felt, who was only three at the time she left Florida, about her eldest child travelling to south to participate in Mississippi Freedom Summer. I wanted to know how her daughter felt going to the region her family left. I simply wanted answers.

She remembered the “palpable fear of travelling the back roads of Mississippi at a time when Civil Rights workers were being beaten and killed, or the bravery and quiet heroism of the workers and citizens who supported the Movement at great personal risk”. 

Geraldine Wilson’s Obituary, 1988

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Hilda Wilson, Geraldine’s mother, worked full time in the Philadelphia Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) office during the 1960s as chairwoman. Wilson’s work involved managing the daily operations of the office, coordinating volunteers and fundraising events, and she spoke on the behalf of SNCC and their civil rights efforts to local churches, organizations, and schools. Her daughter, Geraldine Wilson also volunteered with the organization. In the spring of 1964, Geraldine assisted with interviews for Freedom Summer applicants, informed local students of the Mississippi Movement, and packaged supplies to be shipped to southern SNCC chapters.

Before discovering the Freedom Summer digital archival collection at Wisconsin History Society (WHS), I only had a few documents pertaining to G. Wilson’s activity with the Mississippi Movement in regards to that summer of 1964. This included her resume which gave a basic description of her work, a quote from her obituary featured above, and her Freedom Summer application. Through the WHS’s Freedom Summer collection, which includes over 30,000 documents and images about the work of civil rights activists,  I found a number of sources detailing not only Geraldine’s work in Mississippi, but also her mother’s organizing efforts in Mississippi. One item helped me answer my original research questions–How did Hilda feel about her daughter travelling south and how did Geraldine feel leaving the North?

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This article published in the Philadelphia Bulletin on June 26, 1964, provided greater insight into the twenty young adults from the city who volunteered with Freedom Summer. Most of the volunteers were White, as where most volunteers in the entire project, and the majority of volunteers from Philadelphia were women. This article was written five days after three civil rights activists disappeared in Philadelphia, Mississippi (Andrew Goodman, Micahel Schwerner, and James Chaney remains were found in August 1964). Writer Joseph R. Daughen cited Hilda Wilson who expressed, “We [parents] are very concerned and upset. We hoep [sic] that this incident (the disappearances of three northerners) will be the last of its kind. Still, this is something that has to be done…They are all stable, intellifent [sic] people and they’re fully aware of the dangers that face them.”

The article also highlighted Geraldine Wilson and captured her thoughts prior to her journey to Mississippi. At this time she was 26 years old social worker and according to the article “will work in a community center when she goes to Mississippi in August.”

I think I’d be less than human if I weren’t scared,” said Miss Wilson. “There is nothing in my previous experience to prepare me for the brutality or jails that I expect to find.” Despite her fears, she said, nothing can stop her from going. “The kinds of things that happen to Negroes in Mississippi must be stopped,” she said. 

The article also featured the names and stories of other volunteers. Their names: Madeline McHugh, Marjorie Henderson, Morton Thomas, Marianne McKay, Barbara Bloomfield, Larry Rubin, Charles Askew, Stanley Boyd, Robert Brenton, Richard Frey, Anne Hartman, Pamela Barton Parker, Eleanor Patterson, Dana Purvis, E. Christian Powell, Gretchen Schwartz, Henrietta Smith, Linda Wetmore, and Michael Yarrow.

Lingering research questions include when did Wilson move to Mississippi? This article stated August; however, sources vary on the date she arrived to Jackson. Did Wilson solely work in community centers? She stated later in her resume and speeches she worked with voter registration and freedom schools. Most importantly, when other volunteers left in August to return home, why did Wilson choose to stay? What are the stories of the other twenty volunteers?

Christina

 

 

 

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