High school student Sydney Shavers’ quest to follow her ancestor’s story was the featured program at the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site on Martin Luther King Day.
As the nation celebrated the life and work of Dr. King, the park hosted “Elvira’s Eyes,” a documentary produced by 17-year-old park volunteer Sydney Shavers. The film follows Sydney’s quest to document more fully the story of her great-great-great grandmother, Elvira Sophia Abernathy, who lived during both slavery and segregation.
Sydney, a 2011 graduate of the Maggie L. Walker Summer Youth Leadership Institute, was inspired by two newspaper articles. In 1939, the Hickory (N.C.) Daily Record published a piece about Abernathy on her 106th birthday, entitled “Ex-slave is said to be County’s Oldest Person.” Seventy years later, in 2009, the Richmond Times Dispatch ran an article entitled “Civil War birthday planning continues. Organizers want to incorporate voices of slaves, women.” Moved by these two items, Sydney determined to study her ancestor’s story and produce a documentary that she could share with others.
“Elvira’s Eyes” is the story of Sydney’s genealogical journey through 106 years of an African American woman’s life and her family’s triumph over societal challenges. Abernathy was born into slavery in 1833 in Burke County, North Carolina. She was enslaved during the first 28 years of her life and free during the last 78 years of her life. As Sydney observed, “She never witnessed a world without slavery or segregation.”
After the Civil War, Abernathy and her family remained on her former master’s plantation as sharecroppers and – having been taught to read – she encouraged her offspring to pursue their own education as a way to improve their lives. To this day, Sydney says, education continues to be an important value in her family’s life.
After the screening, Sydney discussed the techniques she used to discover and interpret Elvira’s story so that others might do the same with their families. During the Q&A, one questioner was so impressed by Sydney, she asked, “What are your future plans, because I would love to vote for you one day!”
The crowded audience included Liza Mickens, the great-great granddaughter of Maggie L. Walker and a close friend of Sydney’s. Both young women are inspiring examples of the values of education and community spirit that their ancestors – and Dr. King – promoted.