How a small-town librarian broke barriers in Mississippi

Pascagoula cousins discover their great-grandmother was apart of local Civil Rights history

How a small-town librarian broke barriers in Mississippi
Kathleen Folsom McIlwain broke racial barriers in the 60s as a librarian in Pascagoula. (Source: wlox)

PASCAGOULA, Miss. (WLOX) - Ruby Murray and Folsom Berry are cousins who recently discovered their great grandmother played a role in history during the Civil Rights movement.

Over the years, they’ve heard stories through their family about their great-grandmother Kathleen Folsom McIlwain, but it wasn’t until they partnered for an AP U.S. History project that they discovered just how significant her actions were.

The two teens created a video talking about the Civil Rights movement and their great-grandmother’s role in it.

“She was the librarian of the Pascagoula library. Then we saw this whole thing about the Mississippi sovereignty commission, how she stood up,” said Folsom.

Ruby and Folsom set out to learn all they could on their great grandmother and her unlikely role in the Civil Rights movement in Pascagoula, spending months researching and conducting interviews.

Kathleen Folsom McIlwain broke racial barriers in the 60s when she went against the sovereignty commission and allowed Black people to access the library’s full services, including sitting and reading inside the building and checking out books.

Her actions turned many people against her but, despite the hate and harassment she received, she stood her ground and refused to budge.

“The theme for the whole international history day was breaking barriers,” explained Folsom. “We figured that really fit and would be really cool to do something that had to do with our family.”

As they began digging for information and resources, they also discovered that Paul Hendrickson - a former Washington Post reporter and author of the book Sons of Mississippi - learned of Kathleen wanted to meet with their great- grandmother.

Both Ruby and Folsom described how Hendrickson showed up at Kathleen’s doorstep to learn learn more of what was happening at the Pascagoula Library.

“I emailed him and I did not think he was going to answer honestly. I doubt this guy will even remember what I’m asking him about. We interviewed him because he had that experience with her and he wrote about her,”said Berry.

“Who was this woman? What kind of strength and character she had to have. “In every darkness there are particles of beautiful light and Kathleen McIlwain is one of the particles,” said Hendrickson.

Kathleen Folsom McIlwain died in 2003. The Gautier public library is now named after her.

Ruby and Folsom also carry on their grandma’s name and say it’s an honor to share her legacy.

“Treat people equally no matter who they are or what they think on anything. Just respect everybody equally even it’s not the popular thing to do, like she did back then,” said Folsom.

The video made by the two Pascagoula students won first place in both the documentary category and the oral history category at the Mississippi National History Day competition. It was also chosen to be on display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. this summer.

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