Thirty-seven-year-old Michael Rosa of tiny Itta Bena, Mississippi lost a research paper he wrote as an undergraduate student. "I wish I had been a more serious student, then. I wish I had realized what I’d written and the importance," he said.
Rosa remembers turning in his paper and then forgetting about it until this fall, 15 years later, when taking a graduate political science class.
Again, he has been asked to write a research paper and it is due in two weeks.
Both assignments? Write about a significant Mississippi black history incident.
If only Rosa could figure out how to put his hands on the paper he wrote in 1994 on Emmett Till, a paper that included a personal interview with one of Till’s murderers, Roy Bryant, the assignment would have more personal meaning today, he said.
"Back then, we didn’t have computers, printers and copy machines. But I wish I could get the original paper back. That would certainly help with this assignment," he said.
Rosa has a fascinating story to tell, even if he cannot recover the most important student paper he has ever written — probably the most historically significant paper he will ever write.
Rosa was studying black history at Valley State University, the small, historically black college near his hometown in the heart of the Mississippi Delta in 1994 when a black history professor issued the first assignment that is close to the project he is currently trying to finish.
The first time around, Rosa knew from the start he wanted to write about Till, a 14-year-old Chicago schoolboy who was murdered while visiting relatives in the Delta in 1955. The event is said to have sparked the modern civil rights movement and it is a piece of history that has picked up interest in the past few years as the FBI investigated this civil rights cold case.
This fall, Till’s original casket was moved to the Smithsonian museum for protection and eventual display, after the Chicago cemetery where his body is buried was subjected to grave robberies. Till’s grave was unharmed but his original casket was found abandoned in an old shed.
A racist grandfather can easily poison his family’s beliefs for generations to come. But the circle was broken for Rosa, he says, because his grandmother made the difference. Rosa’s mother worked long hours and his maternal grandmother, "a kind soul," took care of him.
The family was poor and lived at the edge of the black side of town where Rosa "saw racism while I was growing up on a daily basis."
Other white kids went to the town’s all-white private academy. But Rosa lived 100 feet from the public school and decided to go there — from elementary through high school.
"Some of the white families got together and offered to pay for my tuition to the white school. They didn’t want to see me go to the public school with black kids. I was the only white student."
A neighbor woman once offered to pay for his schooling through college, if he would change to the private academy. "I told her ‘no’ and she said, ‘…well, at least don’t associate with any of them.’"
Rosa knew, as a young child, he did not want to "be this way."
Recently, as a mentor at the public school, Rosa was asked by the administrator if he had any ideas for how to reach out to white children and get them to come to the public school.
"It’s tough. When I was growing up, one side of town was all white. Now there are only three white families left. Everyone else has moved out into the country and they home school or send their kids to the Pillow Academy over in Greenwood."
Meanwhile, Rosa said he plans to sit quietly and try to think back and remember as much as he can about the interview he had with Roy Bryant so many years ago.
"I really do remember most of what he said, very vividly. It is important history and I want to be able to pass it on to others."