Even before the Association for the Study of African American Life and History decided this year’s theme for Black History Month would be “Migrations,” author and playwright Darrell Godfrey was writing “Delta Son,” a book about his late father’s journey out of the cotton fields of Mississippi.
On Friday, Feb. 22, excerpts from the book, which was released just before Christmas, were read and acted out at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Maryland. And as the book’s words were brought to life, one could hear the fear and pain in the voice of Clarence Godfrey.
The moment enthralled those in attendance, as whites and Blacks, church members and strangers enjoyed something much more than a simple book signing.
“We have come a long way as a nation, but we still have a ways to go,” said Montgomery County Planning Board member Gerald R. Cichy, who participated in the event and said he read the book twice in preparation.
One particularly captivating passage came from a chapter titled “Cotton Picking Hell”:
“There were more gins in Sunflower County than anywhere in America. Aside from the penitentiary at Parchman Farm, cotton put more people to work than any business in the Delta.
“Once a child reached the age of 12, they could get paid to work in the cotton fields all day, five days a week.
“For six years I had prayed to God, hoping that he would spare me the misery of picking cotton for a living.
“And if my prayer wasn’t answered, my education was going to be taken from me and replaced with a pick and hoe.”
Godfrey, a senior graphics designer for the Montgomery County Department of Parks and Planning who has produced numerous successful plays and performances, said he was compelled to write about his father, who was part of a generation of African Americans who fled the South seeking education, opportunity and hope. The mass exodus, known as the Great Migration, was the focal point of this year’s Black History Month celebration.
“In the last years of my father’s life, as his health was declining, he began to share stories with me about his youth that I had never heard,” Godfrey said. “Remarkable stories … many he had kept to himself for over 60 years.
“I immediately began writing down everything he told me and I was literally amazed that he was still able to recite these stories with such clarity,” he said. “After nearly two years of him sharing all these stories with me, I determined that I could not simply store them away.
“I felt privileged that I was able to hear these stories before they were lost forever,” Godfrey said. “Too many of us don’t record the stories of our family’s past that tell more than just where we came from and who we were related too. I was honored to learn about the character of the people from his youth and all of the trials and tribulations they had to endure coming up in a state known for its extreme oppression of people of color.”
In an era of YouTube, Facebook and internet white noise, live theater such as Friday’s event was holy ground saturated with substance, and the cast members, including Lucile Hilliard O’Bryant, who played Clarence Godfrey’s tough mother, were convincing in their roles.
“Women were so important back then, and they are still important today,” said O’Bryant, a D.C. resident and schoolteacher. “It was the mothers who were the matriarchs of the family, who held the family together.”
As the cast went over their lines about an hour before Friday’s showtime, some talked about what being in the production meant to them.
“It is so important that we preserve our legacy,” said Anthony Brown, who sang an original selection called “More” during the production. “This was a piece of Black history that I didn’t know about, about the whole philosophy about picking cotton and how going to school for a young man was the exception and not the norm.”
Clarence Godfrey eventually got his education, earned a college degree and had a successful career in D.C. Darrell’s mother, Mary Godfrey, who was in attendance Friday, would do the same, not only going to college but also becoming the first African-American director of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
Darrell said that while there were many incredible things that he learned from writing about his father, one of the hardest moments was listening to him talk of when he was about 14 years old and how he really was being treated by the “white folks” who he thought were being kind.
“He realized that for several years he had been eating scraps that white folks were throwing out,” Godfrey said. “When he told me this story, it was the first time in my entire life that I had ever seen my father cry. It moved me deeply and I realized how much pain he had kept inside all those years.”