Author Tells Philadelphia Audiences Family Story of Being Lone Jews in 1960s Mississippi

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Jo Ivester
Jo Ivester

Jo Ivester was 10 years old in 1967 when her family uprooted from their 10-room suburban home in Newton, Mass., outside of Boston to two trailers in Mound Bayou, Miss., becoming the only white family in the all-black town in Northwest Mississippi.

Her father had a successful private pediatrics practice in Newton, but wanted to do something that would make a difference. An opportunity presented itself: moving to Mississippi and opening a health clinic that served one of the poorest areas at the time.

“He was excited by the idea, he thought this was important and he never thought twice about it,” Ivester recalled.

Not everyone in the family was thrilled. Her mother, for instance, went along somewhat reluctantly but knew it was the way for their family to stay together.

Ultimately, her mother, Aura Kruger, became an inspiring figure in their town. Once they arrived, she was recruited to teach at the local high school — though she had no prior teaching experience. She taught her students literature and politics and connected with them in ways Ivester said still impacts her former students.  

“She was good at it, and it really helped her become the independent woman that I knew as I grew into adulthood,” Ivester said of her mother, who stayed with teaching until she was 65.

Later, she helped her mother create a journal of her life and, when they inquired about getting it published, they received particular interest in the 50-page section about teaching in Mississippi.

Ivester, who now lives in Fort Worth, Texas, took stories from her mother and intertwined her own thoughts and memories for The Outskirts of Hope: A Memoir of the 1960s Deep South, published in 2015.

For her book, at the encouragement of her editor, Ivester returned to Mound Bayou for the first time in 40 years. That brought back some unpleasant memories but also reinforced the ideals she learned there.

Her family lived in Mound Bayou for two years before they faced no choice but to leave.

“My mother had a very rosy, optimistic memory, and sometimes things weren’t quite as good as she remembered them or chose to see them, so in my 10-year-old voice, I tried to bring in some of the more difficult aspects,” Ivester explained. “The further into the book you get, the more my own voice comes through. The linchpin of the book, when we had to leave, was because I was assaulted and we were told it was political in nature, it was part of our civil rights work and that we had to leave for the safety of the town.”

Part of that, Ivester recalled the town priest saying, was because of her mother’s teaching methods.

Kruger taught literature and politics that some parents viewed as controversial, and they feared for the safety of the students due to the subject matter.

“Some parents were nervous about that and thinking that there would be retribution if the KKK knew about what was going in the classroom. They feared for the safety of the teenagers.”

The school board had a meeting discussing whether to allow Kruger to continue her teaching methods and decided to wait a week. The day after the meeting, Ivester was attacked.

However, the lessons her mother taught in the classroom made a lasting impact, as Ivester learned. For instance, she used Shakespeare to teach the students about prejudice — something that, as a Jewish person, Ivester’s mother had a personal connection with.

“Interestingly, when we got to Mound Bayou,” she said, “one of the things my mother realized in her classroom was there was a lot of prejudice against Jews within the black community, so the relationship between the African-American community and Jewish community has been a very mixed one. There has been working together for civil rights but there has been tension, and my mother chose to address that head on, and she used Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice as a way of doing that.”

Using Shylock’s famous “I am a Jew, if you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech and substituting “a Jew” with “black,” she taught the students to recognize their own prejudices and created a bond.

Hers was the only Jewish family in the town, Ivester recalled. There was a Jewish community in the next town over, 8 miles away, but they chose to stay in Mound Bayou and connect with their community there. In doing so, they brought their Jewish heritage in a different way.

On her return to Mound Bayou, in which she interviewed several former students and patients as well as one of her assailants, a friend told her if her family never moved there, he would have never met a Jew.

For her, living in Mound Bayou shaped her life in many ways.

She remembered a colleague of her dad’s who came to visit and asked her if she ever forgot that all of her friends were black.

“At first, I thought he was joking because I could look around at them and see them and I knew that they were black. What I forgot was that I was white, that I was different, because my friends accepted me. The acceptance stayed with me for the rest of my time there in Mississippi and then after,” she said.

“I, as a result of having lived through that as a child, am comfortable interacting with people from a very different background from myself, whether it’s a different color or nationality or language or religion,” she added. “I seek out interactions with people who are different from myself and enjoy them and I believe that’s what has to happen as a society for us to get past the prejudice and discrimination. We all have to be at that point. I recognize that I was given a tremendous gift as a child to have that exposure when I was so young.”

For the past week, working with the Anti-Defamation League, she visited local schools and synagogues such as Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El and Congregation Beth Or, and talked with students about the civil rights movement, her family’s story — and what they can do today.

She hopes younger students in particular, like the ones she spoke with at Bala Cynwyd Middle School and Lankenau High School, understand that the issues of the civil rights movement are not just a chapter in a history book.

“I want to talk with everybody,” she said, “but the young people, in particular, I want to recognize that they can have the courage to make a difference, that one person standing up can really matter and that there are things they can already do today even still as students just by reaching out to people who have a different background from them … I try to get them talking amongst themselves about brainstorming through ‘What can I do?’

“They’re clearly our future and they have to know what our past is in order to participate in the future,” she added, “so I’m helping to bring the past alive.”

Contact: mstern@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740

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