Recently I was asked by the feminist journal “Sinister Wisdom” to write a small piece on what had become of the women’s community that called itself Camp Sister Spirit. I had known the founders for years, and had some knowledge of what happened. Here was my response:
I first came to Sister Spirit, just east of Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1995, at the end of a research trip I’d taken farther south. But I’d met the Hensons way earlier when they rolled into the Midwest Wimmin’s Festival calling themselves “The Dixie Dykes”. They’d brought their little crafts booth and were fundraising, they said, to try to put together a feminist bookstore in Gulfport, Mississippi. They were an energetic, round-cheeked pair with an almost evangelical fervor for their work – to educate and bring the ideals of feminism to the women of the south.
By the time we saw them the next year, they’d gotten involved with Robin Tyler, who was then promoting the Southern Women’s Music and Comedy Festival in north Georgia, and who was encouraging their efforts. They’d also tangled with the folks at RhythmFest, another southern festival, who evidently saw their efforts as direct competition and had attempted some half-hearted ‘This town ain’t big enough …’ swaggering. But the Hensons, who said the south was big enough for everybody, explained they had different aims. The other festivals were run as businesses and out to make a profit. Sister Spirit, they explained, aimed to become a feminist adult education center.They wanted, they said, to change women’s lives.They held festivals for some years in various locations and finally, with the help of financing from some women of means in the New Orleans area, managed to buy a scrubby little run-down farm in Jones County where the illiteracy rate among women was somewhere above 30% and women, white or black, were at the bottom of the heap.
They had their share of friction among their own when Wanda, blue collar daughter of Pentecostals, tangled with white collar urban “lipstick” lesbians who couldn’t quite see her as being in the same pool. She was uppity, obstinate and opinionated – and absolutely driven to bring her suffering, closeted sisters up out of the pit. With equally loving and hot-tempered agitator Brenda by her side, she couldn’t be stopped.
Then one of the camp’s newsletters, which credited the success of the fledgling venture to “good lesbian energy” got into the hands of a nearby Baptist Church, and the fight was on. Gunshots in the night. Dead pets. Nails in the driveway, and Brenda’s car run off the rural road. A granddaughter coming up to visit prompted a rumor that these evil Lesbians were now stealing area children. It was ugly. They put out a call for reinforcements, and women from all walks and all parts of the country came. But in many cases, the ones who responded were no more equipped for life under siege than those already there. Wanda, who was on disability after a fall at work had injured her back and hip, had to have a stern talk with her son, Arthur, telling him, “if they come for us you’ll have to help me, because I can’t run.” When I heard of the situation, I begged them to pull out, to come up to Missouri and lay low until things settled down. It wasn’t Wanda’s style. Instead, she called Oprah and dared the other side to meet her there. They did. That too, was ugly. The best line of the day was when the Baptist minister tried to explain to Oprah that she just didn’t understand the ways of Mississippians. “I was born in Mississippi,” Oprah returned in a cold voice. “I understand it just fine.”
But time went on, and just what the Baptists feared happened. Over time, people got to know them, and realized they were just people. And the perception in the community of Camp Sister Spirit began to change. But by then Wanda was exhausted and in debt, and Brenda had cancer. They stepped aside and let others carry on. And those others passed it to others, with each generation of leadership less able, and those gone before still trying to heal. There’s no question they made their place in Ovett, Mississippi. The proof of that came when Hurricane Katrina hit the poverty-stricken community. Women, mostly lesbians from all across the country who had visited there in earlier times, loaded their trucks with chainsaws, non-perishable foods and dollars, and came to help. A few days later, a note appeared on the door of the local firehouse. “We’ve been up too many nights and we’ve got to get some sleep. If you need anything, go on down to the camp. The girls will take care of you.”
Folks at the general store now refer to that original outraged Baptist as “that little Hitler.” They’re over it.
But the land is now idle, the buildings empty. Brenda passed in 2008. Wanda opened her little medical clinic down on the coast and she treats victims of the Deepwater Horizon spill. It might be considered a failure, overall. Except everyone who set foot on that little patch of earth in the Mississippi pine belt was changed by it, challenged to show their best, and worst, and depths of character and courage they would not have imagined themselves to possess. I don’t think any of them saw themselves as having engaged in any vital part of the history of Civil Rights. But the women of color over in Hattiesburg, I’ll wager, would beg to differ. We saw it in their eyes in the checkout line in the grocery stores, where we got accustomed to people who had read the local paper and its stories of “that business over in Ovett” We expected they would move away from us and steer their children clear so nothing of our difference would rub off. The clerks, on the other hand, would break into wide smiles and whisper softly and so their mouths moved hardly at all, and say “Come on, girl, come on up, honey, we’re with you.” What we took away from that experience humbled us. We are none of us the same. It is too soon to know whether that small encampment in the Pine Belt will just fade quietly into the history of Jones County or will become known as the “Stonewall of the South.” What we know is that we who were there were changed fundamentally.