By John Davis, Oxford Citizen
To say that Cynthia Parham cared about her community would be an understatement. A big one. Parham has lived in Oxford and Lafayette County her whole life. <>
She grew up in Abbeville, graduated from Lafayette High School and then helped raise sons who graduated from OHS in the 1990s.
Parham is very involved with her church, East St. Peter Missionary Baptist, located off Highway 30, where she serves as clerk and is a member of the choir.
“I was the choir president, but I don’t have that job anymore,” said Parham, who serves the community as an Allstate Executive Agent during the day.
Parham is also the president of the Oxford Development Association, which is the one of the oldest African-American organizations that has been established. She is also a member of the Oxford Heritage Foundation, which has been the driving force behind the renovation of the Burns-Belfry Museum & Multicultural Center. For those that may not be familiar with Burns-Belfry, it is dedicated to African-American History and there is still more to do complete the efforts.
“That building is an ever evolving door to a century that our kids know nothing about. And it’s our job to make them interested in knowing about it,” she said. “Growing up here, with all the things that came through with segregation and (James) Meredith and all of that, seeing Oxford come together, which we did, to make something out of nothing is just really a proud thing for me.”
Oxford, to Parham, doesn’t change, the people that live in the town, and make up the community, drive the change.
“When you come to Oxford, you come to visit but you end up staying. That’s the ambiance that our town throws off,” she said. “That is why I’m proud of our town. Everyone that comes in to me tells me that Oxford is growing but I see Oxford as coming into it’s own. When I was young, the people that molded me came from the old school. From growing up from there and seeing them walk and talk the right way and do things that were right, it only made me want to do the right things.”
One of the things that Parham is so proud of is that the people that helped shape her way of thinking weren’t just African-Americans, they were people from all walks of life and all races.
“From my principal who was John Smith in Abbeville to Leonard Thompson who was one of our leaders to Samantha Redmond who was one of my teachers, Susie Marshall and Reverend Arthur Herod and Ms. Della Davidson,” Parham said. “Those were fighters and forerunners and these people made it happen. And my parents believed in respect first. I never wanted anything to get back home to my parents.”
Raising children was done differently when Parham was doing that job on a daily basis. Everyone was close knit and stood together, she said.
“If I knew were your child was, I didn’t have a problem calling you and saying ‘Michael is out there,
would you get him?’ Our kids, we didn’t teach them to go through a color barrier,” Parham said. “The kids had respect for each other and the parents had respect for each other. There was a sense of closeness when my kids grew up and the closeness came with the parents. They have those same friends now and that is something to be very, very proud of. My parents, especially my mom, used to say there should be no place in Oxford, Mississippi that you shouldn’t be able to go and be comfortable. And there’s not. It took a little while, but there’s not.”
Parham’s husband, Thomas, of 39 years worked for John Leslie, the former Oxford mayor was so beloved by the town.
“When I got out of high school, I started worked for John Leslie and that was nothing but knowledge to work for John Leslie,” she said. “He was the one that introduced me to my first boss in insurance, Marti Stark. I worked for her for 18 years.”
Black History Month is emphasized at Parham’s church. The youth minister puts on a program each Sunday. Parham said that the Oxford Development Authority will have a short Black History Month program on Feb. 27, but Parham didn’t think there was enough emphasis put on it, or enough emphasis on history overall.
“The Burns-Belfry building is open. If I can herd African-American kids in there and just say ‘Look, you don’t realize just how good you have it. There are some folks that really fought for you to be here,’” Parham said. “They don’t have to go through anything. All they have to do is walk. I don’t think they know they have an advantage. I don’t think they have a clue because they don’t think that could happen to them. We have a new era coming up. Our police chief is Joey East. He is a little bit older than my kids and now he’s police chief. Look at that. You can be anything you want to be. As parents, we should be pushing our kids to be something. But I don’t see enough of that.”
The parents, and the community, should be more involved in teaching about that history, Parham felt.
“They need to be proud of where they live. I’m proud of where I live. When someone comes to do business with me, I hope they are doing business with me because I know what I’m doing, I’m good at what I do and because I love where I live and I want you to love it also,” Parham said. “I don’t need you to come do business with me because I’m black because I know that. I don’t need you to verify that. I need you to know that where you’re coming is a good place. We love people in our town and we love people around our town. You can not find a more graceful set of people if you look around Oxford. I could tell you people that came here five years ago that wouldn’t leave. Oxford is just that kind of place. We grow on you and you become a part of us.
“I don’t think that story has been told enough, the stories of the Leonard Thompson’s and the Susie Marshall’s. Those stories are not told enough for people to understand and how important those folks were to the cost of their living right now,” Parham continued. “On the same hand, there is a John Leslie and a Will Lewis, Pat Patterson and a Richard Howorth. They don’t know the cost that those folks had to pay. I just don’t think we teach enough personal history.”