As remembered by Robert Covelli
July 20, 2010
Eugene Covelli was born in 1920 in Calabria in southern Italy and immigrated to this country in 1924 with his three brothers and sisters. He'd lost his mom in the old country, and he spoke of an aching hope he felt when he passed the Statue of Liberty, barely tall enough to see over the railing on the ship's side. His father had a home waiting in Lackawanna NY, just outside of Buffalo, where he worked in the steel mills and the kids grew up in working class housing, their home owned by the company.
My father enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps and worked in the Douglas Fir woods in Oregon during the Depression. In the war, he served at Pearl Harbor and taught judo. The Army declined to let him fight in combat, and as a result he suffered profoundly. After the war, he took advantage of the GI Bill and earned from the University of Wisconsin a Bachelor of Science in Education, specialty History, and his Master's Degree from the University of Buffalo.
At his first teaching position, he introduced his students to the plight of the Sioux in the Dakotas, asking the kids in his classes if they could do more than discuss the problem. His students, some of his colleagues and he organized a non-profit and a drive to raise cash, clothing and supplies for the Rosebud Nation, bringing four select young Sioux to western New York to live, studying what go lightly by the name of 'new ways.' Under circumstances that weren't clear to me then, five years old at the time, and haven't become clear since, my dad lost his job during the events of those days.
Proving his courage appears to have been very important to him, which leads to his involvement in Mississippi. Contrary to what I might have expected, not the slightest suggestion has ever arisen that he was anything other than dedicated to the cause of non-violence and justice for all Americans. It's possible that he wasn't in Mississippi long enough to lose his temper, but let's leave that for another day.
He was sent to Hattiesburg, where he lived with a preacher and the preacher's wife. He came home with taped recordings of his hostess and host talking about their lives and pasts and the history of slavery in the area. My dad recounted a day when the preacher's rooster bit his leg, and his wife had to prevail on him with pleas and sobs to spare the animal, whose name, if memory serves, was John Kennedy.
Local white men gathered in trees behind the house, according to my father, shouting, "Nigger lover," and assorted endearments once by dark of night. My father said that he went outside, so that whatever was going to happen would happen to him alone and not the two old people, as well. My dad said that he shone a flashlight into the trees and the fellows scattered.
One night driving with several volunteers, my father reported, a car passed them and slowed down in front, when a second car drove up close behind. The driver of the volunteers was a man from Indiana, who apparently pulled off the road into a low ditch alongside and got them safely out of there. He was from southern Indiana, as it happened, and Mississippians thought he was mocking them when he spoke, but he used the same southern inflections as theirs, which he'd learned in the Ohio River Valley.
A school teacher, my dad glowed about the Freedom School. More than once, later on when he confronted apathy and discouragement in ghetto schools in the north, he remembered little kids braving violence in Hattiesburg, in order to make it to school and learn. Several photographs from that summer picture him wrapping both arms round a beautiful little girl who was evidently his favorite student.
His memories of voter registration reflected more routine than anything. The obstacles were by and large known to me already, bogus literacy tests, distortions of the law, etc. He didn't remember anything dramatic occurring, simply escorting people to whatever office existed, where citizens registered. That exercise in democracy sounded very much like a walk to the corner store, which is, perhaps, exactly as it should be.
At summer's end, my father returned to Buffalo, although we lived in Philadelphia PA, because I was staying in Buffalo with family and he had an idea in mind. One of my cousins had friends in theater. Together, a dozen people presented a performance including a folk singer with a guitar ringing out 'Oh, Freedom'; a recitation of a powerful Kenneth Patchen poem about racism; skits; taped interviews (again, if memory holds up); slides of Mississippi; and heartfelt requests for support of the cause of civil rights.
That night I was pleasantly amazed to hear a lovely African American actress ask in finely articulated English if the director wanted her lines recited, "in the dialect." With dozens of friends, members of my family and strangers, I held up hands and sang "We Shall Overcome." I learned a bit about organizing a stage and presenting drama, too, from professionals who were having a blast doing it.
In the last skit of the evening, taken from experience of dear friends of our family, a little white girl asked her friend, "Henry, why are you so black?" Whereupon the young man contemplated and replied, "I don't know, Wendy, why are you so white?" On a beach, they were digging in the sand. Together they pondered the gravity of their questions of each other and, at length, Wendy cried, "Let's go swimming!"
My dad died in May of this year. I'm glad that his contribution is being acknowledged, particularly here, among his peers of that brave and revolutionary season.
Deep in my heart, I do believe ...