Author, activist, and actress Denise Nicholas’s historical fiction, Freshwater Road
(2005), is based on her own experiences as a Freedom Rider during the summer of 1964 when civil rights activists from around the country descended on Mississippi to protest segregation and Jim Crow laws.
Nicholas' main character is nineteen-year-old Celeste Tyree, a student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Passionate about the Civil Rights Movement, Tyree joins a volunteer group called One Man, One Vote. The organization's chief goal is to help black voters register to vote in the Deep South, where despite new laws, the specter of segregation and Jim Crow still hangs heavily. For example, although "Whites Only" signs have been removed from many bathrooms and drinking fountains, there is still an unspoken understanding that black men, women, and children who use facilities frequented by whites risk being harassed, attacked, or even killed.
There are also dangers for volunteers like Celeste. To highlight these dangers, the author cites a number of real-life incidents. These include the murders of three activists in Neshoba County, Mississippi in June of that summer. James Chaney from Meridian, Mississippi, along with two New Yorkers, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, traveled to speak with a church congregation about helping to register black voters. After the meeting, the three were pulled over, arrested, and held in a local jail for hours. Finally, they were released. However, on their way out of town, they were pulled over again, abducted, and murdered. An FBI investigation later revealed that the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County Sheriff's Office, and the Philadelphia, Mississippi Police Department were all complicit in the abduction and murder of the three activists.
Against this backdrop, Celeste travels to Pineyville, Mississippi, where she falls into a routine of teaching students black history and civics at the Freedom School, along with nightly voter registration events. In between, she stays at the house of Mrs. Owens. Her sponsor, Reverend Singleton, drives Celeste to the school and the voter registration events. Gunshots through windows and intimidation become near-daily events. The struggle feels insurmountable at times to Celeste. When she does convince a community member to register to vote, that person often faces lost employment, at best, and violence, at worst. The antipathy toward her work from white folks is practically a given. Even some of the black residents are angry with Celeste. They believe she is making waves and causing even more problems than the ones that already exist for the black community in Pineyville.
The status quo for most black Americans in Pineyville is hellish and unsustainable. Buying and driving a car is reason enough to be shot at and attacked. Celeste figures, if members of the black community are going to be shot at anyway, they might as well try to register to vote to gain some modicum of political influence over their situation. Even when members of the black community "stay in their place," many of them lack indoor plumbing, refrigeration, or any avenue for social or economic advancement.
Meanwhile, the narrative also checks in periodically on Celeste's father, Shuck, back home in Michigan. While he still faces racism, the North is a place where a black man like Shuck can own a business, save up for a Cadillac, and more or less go about his business as he pleases. In fact, Celeste is a little bothered that Shuck is more worried more about the "wild" black youths in his neighborhood than he is about systemic racism.
Being apart from her father, who disapproves of her decision to go to Mississippi because he is (understandably) afraid for her safety, inspires deep feelings of loneliness and isolation for Celeste. These feelings are compounded by the fact that Celeste is long estranged from her mother. In an attempt to fill this void, Celeste finds a maternal bond with a local Pineyville woman Odessa Robbins. She also pursues a romantic relationship with Ed Jolivette, a fellow activist who traveled to Mississippi to help with the voter drive. These bonds help steel her for the climax of the book when she helps lead a group of community members to the hostile county registrar, where they stand up to intimidation and register themselves to vote.
Pulling from Nicholas's own personal experiences during the Freedom Summer, Freshwater Road
paints an illuminating and infuriating picture of oppression and racism in the Deep South.