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Reliving civil rights

BY REBECCA KOONS | FEBRUARY 16, 2010 7:30 AM

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The late 1940s saw plenty of social change, including the beginning of the end of segregation and discrimination.

It was the concept of this cultural upheaval that put the wheels in motion for author Jeffrey Copeland’s account of the 1948 Shelley v. Kraemer case in Olivia’s Story. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that courts could not enforce racial contracts on real estate. Shelley v. Kraemer, Copeland said, was one of the most important legal decisions made in America’s history.

“I can clearly remember the discrimination going on when I was a kid,” he said. “Things were changing, but there was still a lot of work to be done.”

He will bring this component of American history to life at 7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.

Feeling the need to go beyond the legalese of the trial, he presents the humanity behind what happened. As a native of St. Louis, where the case originated, the compulsion was even greater. For Copeland, narrative nonfiction allows him to get inside a character and express certain voices and actions.

A career as department head and professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa is also reflective of Copeland’s humanitarian edge. Kenneth Baughman, an assistant professor of English at UNI, said Copeland is quite sensitive to the “human dimensions of situations” and “not at all slavish to bureaucratic constraints.”

Olivia’s Story takes on the perspective of Olivia Merriweather Perkins and the efforts of her and several others to challenge the covenant of segregated neighborhoods. Taking on the role of leader, Perkins had a naturally strong, kind, and giving demeanor.

Copeland’s mission was to make sure her voice in the book was just right, which meant numerous interviews with her friends, family, and former students. Not only was he delighted by what he discovered, but he received the same reaction from each interviewee with regards to Perkins.

“Olivia was one of the most beautiful people I have ever heard of in my life,” he said. “I never once heard a bad thing about her — she was universally loved and admired.”

Sorting through personal accounts and legal jargon was an arduous process, with a year devoted to research and interviewing. Though the opportunity to speak with those involved was a respite of sorts from dry official documents, it was more than crucial to making sure the story was accurate.

In addition to the historical importance of Olivia’s Story, the idea of making monumental sacrifices for one’s beliefs is something Copeland said he hopes resonates with readers. The work of a few people led to influence the lives of many, particularly in this case, rings true of George Santayana’s famous remark, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

“Getting people to talk about a time period that was very disturbing and unequal was tough,” Copeland said. “But it helps people understand the past and why we are the way we are today.”


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