Osceola Mays

Singer and storyteller from Dallas, TX






Osceola Mays talks about her mother and grandmother teaching her about poems. Audio clip excerpt from "Osceola Mays: Stories, Songs and Poems." Directed by Alan Govenar. Produced by Documentary Arts, Inc. 1996.

Osceola Mays. 'Gilliam's Storm.' Spirituals and Poems. Documentary Arts CD 1006. Order from www.documentaryarts.org.

Osceola Mays. 'Gilliam's Town.' Spirituals and Poems. Documentary Arts CD 1006. Order from www.documentaryarts.org.

Osceola Mays. 'The Black Man's Plea For Justice.' Spirituals and Poems. Documentary Arts CD 1006. Order from www.documentaryarts.org.

Osceola Mays. 'The War Is On.' Spirituals and Poems. Documentary Arts CD 1006. Order from www.documentaryarts.org.



Before radio and television, reciting poetry was part of many families’ entertainment. Children memorized poetry at home as well as at school, and parents as well as teachers prized strong recitation skills. Osceola Mays’s deep repertoire, learned from her mother and recalled across the decades, are exceptional, however. Her poetry—and spirituals—are direct links to the era of Jim Crow segregation following Reconstruction and also to slavery, the Civil War, and Emancipation, and they serve as a different sort of primary source document than what may be found in textbooks. Today oral poetry is experiencing a renaissance. From poetry slams to the national Poetry Out Loud competition sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts that thousands of high school students enter annually, young people are again engaged in recitation—and composition—of diverse forms of poetry.

Osceola Mays’s story and artistry provide rich content to introduce students to oral poetry and spirituals and to folklore as historical evidence and a record of race relations history.


Students may:

Big Ideas

Folklore and History

Intergenerational Traditions



Osceola Mays’s story and photos
Radio clip
Music clips
Video clip
Everyday Music Field Notes

Time Required

1-2 class periods


Texas history, social studies, English language arts, music


Review Osceola Mays’s story and the media clips. Choose Big Ideas that you find relevant to your curriculum and your students. Copy Everyday Music Field Notes and other worksheets students will need and cue the audio and video clips. 

Class Discussion

Students may read the story and listen to the audio story independently, in groups, or as a class. Using the Everyday Music Field Notes worksheet will help them focus more closely. In a class discussion, raise some of the Big Ideas above, depending upon your curriculum and students’ needs and grade level. Here are questions to spark discussion:

Suggested Activities

Students may work independently or collaboratively to:

Using Osceola Mays’s naming story as inspiration, interview family members about naming traditions and share naming stories in small groups or in class. Draw nameplates to illustrate your name stories.

Osceola Mays recognized that her mother and grandmother taught her love and discipline by teaching her poems and songs, which also entertained her as she learned the skills she would later need as a domestic maid working for white families. Make a list of things that you have learned outside a formal school experience. If possible, include the person who taught you. Choose one skill or tradition and write a short essay or poem about it to share in class.

Choose part or all of one of Osceola Mays’s poems to memorize and recite in a class presentation. Team members might choose different stanzas for a group recitation.

Explore the Poetry Out Loud website, www.poetryoutloud.org, including sample videos of students’ recitations. Useful sections include information for teachers and students, an anthology of poems, and a recitation guide. Choose a poem to memorize, practice, and recite in class. Poetry Out Loud judges look for evidence of understanding, body language, tone of voice, delivery style, physical presence, voice, articulation, and dramatic appropriateness. Osceola Mays was master of all these elements, which you can see in her video. Organize a class poetry recitation. 

Osceola Mays and her husband Clarence had to leave rural East Texas to find work in Dallas during the 1940s and lived there the rest of their lives. Research migration, population distribution, and the urbanization of Texas in the 20th century. Add your family’s migration and moves to personalize a class report or essay.

Research the Emancipation Proclamation, signed January 1, 1863, by President Abraham Lincoln, and how it finally went into effect June 19, 1865, in Texas. Do further research on the celebration called Juneteenth. Present findings in an essay, oral report, Web page, or skit. Try to include poetry and music (see Resources). Discuss how Juneteenth fits in the context of Texas’s Celebrate Freedom Week.

Brainstorm historical events and choose one about which to write a poem. Memorize the poem to recite in class.

The African American point of view of social justice expressed in the poems that Osceola Mays learned as a child differed from the point of view in most history books published before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Write a poem or short essay about the importance of identifying and analyzing point of view in news stories, history, textbooks, TV, and websites.

Watch a segment from the film Osceola Mays: Stories, Songs, and Poems and listen to Osceola Mays recite poems she learned as a young child. Students may also listen to her recordings. The different versions of the texts are indicative of the oral tradition.

Spirituals were very important to Osceola Mays, connecting her through her mother and grandmother to the era of slavery, when spirituals developed as a unique African American genre. Also known as sorrow songs, spirituals express a longing for a Christian heaven, visualized as freedom. Play “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and write a poem or draw a picture describing the imagery you see as you listen to these spirituals.

Memorize one of the spirituals that Osceola Mays sings or research other spirituals. Ask the school music specialist for sources. 

African American artists have long found audiences in Europe more accepting and enthusiastic than they experienced among white people in the United States. After World War I, many African American musicians were wildly popular in Paris. Listen to the CD Texas in Paris and imagine how the three Texans, Osceola Mays, John Burrus, and Bill Neely, enjoyed Paris and how Parisians reacted to them. Write a poem from Osceola Mays’s point of view about her first trip to Paris.

Assessment Strategies

Field notes
Name stories
List of life skills
Skits or short plays
Web pages


Civil War
Emancipation Proclamation
Jim Crow
naming traditions
oral poetry
point of view


Analyze information
Primary and secondary resources
Civil War and Reconstruction
Emancipation Proclamation
Celebrations, Celebrate Freedom Week
Point of view



Handbook of Texas Online www.tshaonline.org/handbook

History of Jim Crow www.jimcrowhistory.org

Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest http://poetryoutloud.org 


Osceola Mays. Spirituals and Poems. Documentary Arts CD 1006. Order from www.documentaryarts.org

John Burrus, Osceola Mays, and Bill Neely. Texas in Paris. Documentary Arts audiocassette. Order from www.documentaryarts.org


Osceola Mays: Stories, Songs, and Poems. Directed by Alan Govenar, 28 min., 1996. Order from www.documentaryarts.org.


Govenar, Alan. Osceola: Memories of a Sharecropper's Daughter. Illus. Shane Evans. New York: Hyperion, 2000.