Back Across Virginia: I Didn’t Want to Love You
Our five years of visiting the entire South would soon be over. As we left central North Carolina, George and I still had a huge portion of Virginia to cross, this time following the Blue Ridge Mountains back to D.C. for our flight home to Denver.
Did I suffer from National Historic Site Fatigue? I even felt ambivalent about looping off US 29 to see Appomattox. Maybe it was just plain old fatigue after weeks packed with chance encounters, tightly scheduled conversations, wrong turns, and too many roadside non-attractions across Virginia and North Carolina. But it was just after the 150th anniversary of Lee’s surrender to Grant in that village courthouse, and George wanted to stop there, so we took state route 24 through some of the most magnificent rural country I’ve ever seen. Mile after undulating green mile, completely devoid of franchise cluster-mucks, billboards, Econolodges, strip malls and stripper joints. Small, tidy settlements nestled between pastureland and patches of undisturbed forest, curvaceous scenery that could make anyone a Virginia lover. When we reached the Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, already in love with central Virginia, I fell even harder—the preserved village could not have been more quaint and frozen in 1865. It took little effort to envision two exhausted armies converging nearby, on the very same dirt roads that humped over spring-green horizons ravaged from four years of destruction.
One historical re-enactor played a Union soldier from Ohio, an occupying peacekeeper just after the war’s end. Engaging in his role play, George asked about conditions existing in the village on the war’s final days and after. The soldier lamented that he fought all this time to end slavery and ended up having to manage disputes between newly released freemen and their impoverished, resourceless former owners. “I have to prod Negroes to work for their their previous owners, to help plow the fields to fend off starvation this season. Then I have to prod the former owners to care for the Negroes even though they can’t pay them.”
The Ohio soldier created a portrait of structural, almost hopeless postwar deprivation and chaos I had never fully considered. My history books in school had always celebrated the surrender at Appomattox: the Union won, the slaves were free, and that was that. But no teacher or text ever detailed the desperate, immediate financial and institutional collapse of the South, farmers left with no viable currency or, in April, a single crop to bring to market. The soldier pointed toward the long, narrow roadway wending east and west and remembered for us his final sight of the Confederate men wandering to uncertain prospects. He said many of the Union eyes held tears for their erstwhile American brothers as they began the long march homeward to utter devastation.
Our retreat from Appomattox, however, was glorious. Back roads took us north by northeast through more gorgeous rolling forest and farm country and finally along the thickly wooded east side of the Blue Ridge, a pretty evening of prime Virginia.
The next morning, we stopped at Monticello, the highly organized preservation of the third president’s hilltop manor brought to us by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Despite so many historically accurate settings throughout our Virginia and North Carolina travels, I still expected a slanted presentation here, glorifying Jefferson with the usual panting admiration for the Age-of-Reason Rich Kids we call The Founding Fathers. The vast parking lots and hordes of middle class families waiting for shuttle busses seemed to guarantee a Disney version.
Expelled from the shuttle onto the top of Jefferson’s little mountain, George and I found ourselves jostled into the next scheduled tour of the enslaved peoples’ shacks, which lined the slope above extensive gardens. The slaves’ circumstances were brought to life with an excellent guide, Don McCraken, a former Navy man. Don stressed the dark side of Jefferson’s choice to go on enslaving people while living an unsupportable, debt-ridden life despite their unpaid forced labor. To manipulate grounds-keeping affairs and settle a power struggle, Jefferson even pitted two of his enslaved workers against each other, resulting in injury. As we leaned in to listen, marveling at the Jefferson Foundation’s boldness and honesty about the atrocious topic, a white woman with a strong Southern accent felt compelled, in distress and out of the blue, to assert her view. “Despite my many, many friends of the black persuasion, I have to say slavery was a norm of the time! Jefferson was a creature of his times, sir, and it isn’t fair to judge him by our standards.”
The large group turned to her in uneasy silence. Blonde and well-dressed, she boldly stated her objection and waited for a response. Don simply asked her, and us, if Jefferson had a choice. Several voices arose en masse to counter the blonde. It was undeniable that our third president freely chose to go on supporting the enslavement of his extensive work crew, which contradicted the very immortal words—all men are created equal—that had made Jefferson a world famous revolutionary and statesman.
Both of our other guides, including the garden guide, reiterated the importance of Jefferson’s dependence on unpaid, shackled labor. The manor house guide, Virginia, a University of Virginia history student, stopped to make a clear distinction between Jefferson’s famous words on equality, still displayed over his desk, and his dependence on enslavement. Still, she gave a mostly admiring tour explaining how his sensibility and genius informed his household arrangements. I pulled her aside after the tour to ask if she knew how the themes and facts of the guide’s presentations had altered with time. She answered that critical presentation was not an enemy to the tours but the Foundation’s goal, to present Jefferson as a remarkable human, a flawed man who spawned a remarkable but flawed new nation. Virginia told me that most guides scrupulously stress the role of enslaved people and use only that term today. That role is mentioned far more frequently today than previous guidebooks she’d studied, which glossed over slavery’s role in Monticello almost as an afterthought. One older visitor who overheard our conversation confirmed that his visit in the 1980s celebrated Jefferson as a patriot and inventor and barely mentioned the vile institution that made his patrimony and inventiveness possible.
George and I discussed how ending our journey at Appomattox and Monticello helped redeem our perception of the South. By having the enlightenment and courage to present the deeper truth about our original sin of slavery, the horrors of Civil War and the racist chaos that followed, Virginia’s historical presentations set a healing example for our entire nation. We gain nothing from a whitewashed version but self-delusion and entropy. From my earlier interview, Virginia Senator McEachin’s words echoed, his hopeful belief that Virginia would lead the US in race relations and advancing civil rights, healed by what Virginia “has already confronted and worked to change.” As George said as we left Monticello, “All these historic sites in North Carolina and Virginia are putting conversations about American realities forward. And they’re doing it knowing the conversation will be difficult, that we can’t go forward without facing the truth.”
After seeing so many depleted, struggling towns across the South, New Bern struck me as having achieved a small-city nirvana. At first.
Deeper south into North Carolina, after thirty-five miles of Inner Banks rail tracks and rusting single-wide trailers on shapeless lots, New Bern gave a brilliant first impression. With a beautiful causeway over the Neuse River—really a wide tidal strait—glistening water and marinas enfolded the town to its confluence with the Trent River. Now a retirement magnet for Northerners, New Bern seemed bigger than its 30,000 population.
George and I started out at the North Carolina History Center, adjacent to and including the former Colonial capitol, Tryon Palace, forming a formidable historic complex. Opened in 2010, the History Center wowed us, full of hands-on technological experiences for visitors and students. But it was more than electronic dazzle; the museum presented multicultural and unvarnished arrays of the state’s history. The roles of women, Indian tribes, slaves and their later progeny were presented front and center. Not The Pageant at all, but a surprisingly thorough and critical overview with an emphasis on putting visitors into historical time and inside different skins.
Sharon Bryant, the history center’s director for African-American outreach, took obvious pride in her role in shaping a diverse experience for visitors, especially for a steady stream of public school students. For George and me, she summarized New Bern’s unique racial history. The region had few plantations, and its harbor at the end of the Neuse River’s tidal sound meant free blacks could gain knowledge of and from the outside world. Though New Bern’s port was once a slaver’s hypotenuse in the Atlantic Triangle Trade of sugar, rum, and stolen laborers, by the mid-1800s an apprentice system promoted high skills, encouraging a cohesive community with entrepreneurs and educational opportunities. During the Civil War the Union occupied the port town for almost all of the war, housing thousands of black freedmen—“contraband”—who sought refuge. Many eventually fought in the Union army.
Sharon told us that before and just after the Civil War, New Bern was home to one of the most prosperous and socially advanced African American communities anywhere. But it shared the same fate as other black populations in the virulent white backlash after Reconstruction. In nearby James City, a black village settled by “contraband” freemen who had the temerity to strike for better wages in the 1880s, ethnic cleansing emptied the community when white landowners evicted most tenants. 7 North Carolina enacted disenfranchisement laws, denying the black vote and erasing the gains made by many blacks who had already held local and state offices. Violence and intimidation silenced black voices and eventually led to the usual Jim Crow society. It was not until the 1960s that civil rights leaders successfully integrated New Bern’s downtown.
Our conversation became more personal; when I asked about her own Southern identity, Sharon immediately blurted, “I’m a Southern Belle!” I didn’t expect that from an African American, but as Sharon opened up about her impressions of New Bern’s current status, I realized she was anything but complacent about conditions in the New Bern African American community. Her laments echoed those we’d just heard in tiny Swan Quarter, North Carolina: so many young people without jobs and so little black ownership of property and businesses. Incarceration cut deep where it still possible to get ten to fifteen years for marijuana possession. Despite empowerment programs to provide immediate vocational skills such as plumbing and electrical work, there was an exodus of young people.
North Carolina’s arch-conservative state leadership did not hold out promise of funding for social programs to buoy up the community. The state legislature had locked in safe seats through gerrymandering, she told us, “even in school districts,” resulting in an extreme right-wing government in Raleigh that hardly reflected the state’s diversity. Sharon was a great believer in the power of focused social action and involved herself in the ongoing Moral Monday movement, where progressive North Carolinians regularly protested cuts to public services and rollbacks of voting rights. It was clear that the History Center’s funding had been in the conservatives’ gunsights, too, especially during the Great Recession. “We barely survived, everyone working overtime to cover deep cuts in staffing.”
After our conversation with Sharon Bryant, George and I strolled around the History Center’s grounds, a marine park looping the shining, ultra-contemporary complex. It was disorienting to absorb the hard-hitting history inside with the sublime harbor side beauty of its surroundings. North Carolina had created a state museum branch dedicated to real, often critical history in a small city far from the state’s metropolitan centers. Like the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond and Historic Williamsburg, but public in its funding and origin, the North Carolina History Center cherished our shared heritage enough to tell the truth in all its tragedy, injustice, and magnificence.
The Center occupied a point only inches above the tidal waterline, which made me think of those Carolinians who weren’t interested in pursuing the truth. As in Tidewater Virginia and everywhere in North Carolina’s low-lying Inner and Outer Banks, existing settlements and new development were threatened by sea-level rise, but after the North Carolina Coastal Commission’s panel of experts predicted as much as five feet of rise by 2100, the legislature voted to reject the experts’ findings and prohibit state and local government entities from even pondering that accelerated sea level rise.8 (Shut my mouth, and here I thought true conservatives opposed government-imposed thought control.) Coastal developers even formed a group, NC-20, to forbid measurement of sea level rise and make climate change go away by silencing science.
But the rivers surrounding New Bern on this perfect spring day were behaving quite well, and our waterfront stroll around the complex led us past Tryon Palace, the colonial capital and renovated heart of the History Center. Heading past its walls towards downtown, who could not be in awe of this shimmering small city that hosted its own palace?
The walking tour was designed by Sharon Bryant and took us through post Civil War blocks of large, elegant homes built by and for prosperous members of its flourishing African American community. Large, handsome multistory Victorians lined one block, the historical markers indicating a checkerboard of white and black neighbors almost shocking to re-segregated 21st Century expectations. After the 1890s, when our modern predicament of racial separation and white privilege strangled the gains of emancipation, blacks’ prosperity deteriorated by design along with legalized disenfranchisement. North Carolina’s last black congressman of the late 1800s was expelled and had to flee his offices in Washington. Sharon had told us that the 1940s and 50s brought some revival of the black community; strolling past the opulent Victorian blocks to more modest postwar ones, we saw a small hotel and other shuttered black businesses along a busy diagonal, Queen Street.
Crossing north of Queen, our New Bernian state of awe began to deteriorate into distress. Guessing what was ahead, like a climate denier, I almost didn’t want to advance our steps here, to time-travel on foot back to the truth about our own century and unmask the illusions we maintain about our society. Like in most every other Southern town—just as in the North—poor and working class blacks had been ghettoized in New Bern, with all the current signs of inequality: abandoned houses, fast-collapsing shacks, more slowly collapsing family homes, empty lots where homes had been scraped away. On vacant lots and vacant streets, no kids played. Broken glass gave way to plywood as the favorite window treatment. Old strip malls spoke of once-thriving business corners, now emptied beside forlorn, weedy parking lots. Of course, there were signs of life around a busy liquor store in one strip, the only place open for business. Nearby, a series of human-warehousing brick housing projects lined our looping route back to the History Center. The projects crept up to the very ramparts of the Palace, as if they were the servants’ quarters for the shining complex on the other side. George noticed that the public housing right up against the Palace walls, saying they “mirrored the Civil War contraband camps.”
His observation horrified me. I thought of the valiant North Carolinians we’d met, all of them African American leaders committed to social betterment—Thomas Midgette, Alice Mackey, and Sharon Bryant—and all united in their shared misgivings about our society’s real progress. I stared toward New Bern’s downtrodden other half and didn’t know how to respond, my back to the palace wall.
Summoned to the school lobby in tiny Swan Quarter, North Carolina, a white grandmother told us, yes, she’d gone to area schools in the 1960’s. Eyeing George, a tall gentleman of the African-American persuasion, she denied that there was ever any serious conflict over integration in Swan Quarter and stressed that “everyone always got along just fine.” When I mentioned that I’d read of demonstrating students trapped and tear-gassed in the Hyde County courthouse in 1968, the grandmother laughed in spontaneous hilarity. Yanked from her as if by an irresistible punchline, her horse laugh was joined by other white women eavesdropping from the doorway. “Tear gas!” she cried, still breathless. “Nothing like that ever happened…”
Confronted by a living witness to contested history and being the object of her aggressive mirth, feeling like the dumb-shit outsider again, I didn’t know how to react. The laughing grandmother had been called to the lobby by the school receptionist and, unprompted, spoke her viewpoint to complete strangers who’d just arrived.
Skirting the Dismal Swamp as we passed into North Carolina, intent on reaching Swan Quarter while its schools were still in session for the day, George and I had just hustled along the shore of Pamlico Sound. Here the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge blended with the Dare County Bombing Range and merged into the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, mile upon mile of swampy forest alternating between dismal—dying stands of cypress forest—and sparkling views of the sound and canal-like estuaries. The Swan Quarter area was so obscure that no North Carolinians we met outside Hyde County had ever heard of it, but I was intent to update what I’d read in David Cecelski’s Along Freedom Road: Hyde County, North Carolina, and the Fate of Black Schools in the South. From the vantage of 1994,Cecelski detailed the 1968 the tear-gassing of high school protesters confined in the upper floor of the county courthouse. In the chaos, one teenaged girl fell from the window, breaking her pelvis and nearly sparking a riot. Part of what freaked me out about the laughing white grandmother in the Swan Quarter school lobby was my knowledge that the injured teenager now worked just down the hall in that very school as the staff’s child nutrition manager—had she not been off-site for a work conference, she could have easily overheard that grandmother’s denial of her own experience.
The school receptionist, who’d witnessed my exchange with the grandmother, signaled me closer. She arranged for George and me to speak with the principal in his office, footsteps away.
Principal Thomas Midgette, 53, African-American and a local native, welcomed us, then looked incredulous and stricken when I repeated the grandmother’s words. He personally knew many who were involved in the 1968 Swan Quarter boycott as adults and high school students, and he himself had childhood memories of being taken to the marches. He noted how local whites “often simply ignore the painful parts of their past and sometimes are truly unaware.” Thomas and George caught eyes and nodded in that black “uh-huh, tell it brother” exchange.
I could easily play the white Pollyanna, because I really did see progress all around us, within these very walls and in the skin tone of this principal. I mentioned that fifty years later, the boycott seemed to have been a success. In a twist of the usual post-Brown vs. Board of Education integration story across the South, in Swan Quarter the black public did not want to lose their prized local school and have their kids bussed elsewhere in the county. After having their voices ignored, the school community—including alumni and churches—initiated the shut-down by refusing to let their children attend classes. They sought outside guidance and legal help from the state’s branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. A year-long struggle ensued to keep their local schools from being closed for consolidation, including teach-ins and marches in Swan Quarter itself, which culminated in protests at the capitol in Raleigh. Victory came for the black parents and students, keeping the local schools open and integrating the entire district. It all led to the modern school we were sitting in, but Thomas did not seem at all celebratory.
After a moment’s hesitation he confided that integration itself had been one of the greatest obstacles to the progress of the black community “because it cut ties and systems within the black community.” It brought positive results, of course, since integrated schools were better resourced than the all-black, segregated ones Thomas remembered; one emblem of those times was a basketball court without bleachers. Among the black teachers he felt embraced, nested in a world of caring elders—who would also correct him at his home if need be, in the community at large and especially in church. But in integrated schools, Thomas recalled white teachers “who would hold hands with the white kids but grasp black kids by the wrist.”
He felt constrained in cultivating the embrace of connections among his own staff today. Most important, he didn’t see a lot of progress with economic justice in Hyde County, telling us “whites owned 99% of area farms.” Most of the working-class kids and those on public assistance continued to struggle academically. Despite being “the third in a linkage of black principals” Thomas also spoke of his own struggles—in reality, he was relegated to a dean, head only of the elementary school and not the upper grades, and sometimes the victim of the staff’s low expectations. “I get praised for being able to write a memo without errors!”
Thomas was anxious for us to continue talking with locals and jumped up to phone Alice Mackey at the Davis Youth Center, who as a student had been involved in the ‘68 movement along with school nutrition manager Mamie Harris Brimmage. Greeting us at the day’s end in her office, Alice echoed many of the principal’s misgivings about the county’s future, despite having seen so much progress, “which seems to have stalled.” She even wondered if Thomas Mittedge might not be the school’s last black principal as a result of power shifts in county politics. As one in daily contact with the area’s youth, Alice lamented their determination to leave the county after their schooling; “when they do get a college education, they don’t come back here, except to retire. There just aren’t any jobs, and almost all of the businesses are owned by whites.” She worried that too many people relied on public assistance, with too many young people lured by the “fat dollar” of drugs and the resulting high number of prison-bound kids.
From the high windows of this former school, I looked out at the trees wavering in late-afternoon breezes and the flat, cultivated expanses leading to Pamlico Sound, feeling that this litany of problems seemed so out of place in this pastoral landscape (until I considered that my seaside home town on Northern California’s coast had the same drug and brain-drain problems). Proud and proprietary as she was of the youth center, Alice raised her arms to the promise of that very panorama: “So…so much more needs to be done to build this county!”
Asked about the boycott, Alice seemed relieved to turn to the successes of 1968, the hard-won glory of what she called “the movement.” She emphatically verified the courthouse tear-gas incident and summarized a year of marches, rallies in the capital and press attention. She also looked back with astonishment at the array of national leaders who helped support their cause, including Ralph Abernathy and Josea Williams. The young protestors learned to practice non-violent resistance using Ghandian principles. She recalled her personal development with the same sense of wonder, emphasizing how the movement helped shape the person she is today. Organizing press briefings as a teenager gave her confidence in speaking to others, which later earned her positions in community leadership. “I learned more in the boycott year than many years of schooling. I learned to love and respect others as I earned respect from them.”
Alice connected us by phone at last with Mamie Harris Brimmage, now home from her school conference. After a small-town series of near-miraculous connections, George and I headed several miles from the youth center without an address or any prior rendezvous arrangements. We almost bypassed Mamie’s dinky one-lane hamlet just off a stretch of old highway. Still, as if taking a role in some enchantment, two men working by the roadside were looking for us, one being Mamie’s son-in-law, who directed the older man to lead us to her mobile home.
Now in her early 60s, Mamie welcomed us inside and recounted the details that lead to her injury at the courthouse in 1968. Trapped on the second floor and affected by the tear gas fumes, she sat near a window trying to get fresh air but felt unable to move, her mind completely addled. “I just sat there wondering about my next step and hoping to be rescued by my family.” Instead, she toppled back and slipped out the window—“I was not pushed.” Her pelvic injury was so severe upon falling that she lay in a body cast for eight weeks, after which she had to learn to walk again.
Mamie did not blame the local sheriff, contradicting contemporary news accounts that local law enforcement deliberately escalated matters. The culprit was instead a state trooper they called Bigfoot, who had a reckless and perhaps racist nature. “Bigfoot was the one who used tear gas and trapped the kids.” Mamie was surprisingly magnanimous and reconciled about the event and struck me as an earth mother personality, caring for and nurturing people, not grievances. Her satisfaction with the movement was palpable. “We kept our school open after all that. We won.”
Mamie’s moment of gratification matched that of Alice—a fond look back at a youthful pinnacle. As a white schoolboy at the other end of the continent from Alice and Mamie, facing another once-provident ocean, I recalled my own distant but real young Californian’s sense of wonder at those faraway civil rights successes. I’d cheered on my idealistic Southern peers, believing America would finally fulfill its promise; that I too could face adulthood in a much saner, fairer society. But leaving Mamie’s little lane of trailer houses now and passing one yard that was nothing but waist-deep mud, I questioned whether economic equality would ever match our civil rights victories.
“Hyde County is a microcosm of our problems,” George said. “A successful struggle fifty years ago doesn’t bring much of a solution today.” He echoed Thomas’s lament that integration had so many unintended negative consequences, North and South. George’s youthful experience in Dayton, when his family returned from their stint at an Army base in Kentucky, was to witness the loss of community. Legal integration progressed but industrial jobs vanished. Black businesses shuttered and elders no longer stepped in to help guide other folks’ kids. “When white people suffer economic losses, black folks get slammed.”
Learning that integration was not an unmitigated positive jolted my own idealistic certainties as we rejoined the highway and stopped at the original Hyde County courthouse. A friendly middle-aged white guy pulled up in a pickup and explained its survival in 2003 during Hurricane Isabel. “The old building took in plenty of water, though. We’ve lost so much in this community,” he said, “and even our fishery is in serious decline.”
As the evening went dark, I felt impressed by the area’s endurance but could not ignore the locals’ lament for its stymied progress.
Leaving Fredericksburg and heading to Richmond, always gunning for conflict and controversy, I reviewed Virginia’s recent fights over Confederate icons. Even among the young, the Lost Cause still caused trouble throughout the state. In the Blue Ridge valley town of Lexington, law students at Washington and Lee University won demands to have Robert E. Lee’s ownership of enslaved people denounced. They also had Confederate flags removed from a campus chapel, but only after considerable pushback from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. In Richmond, students at Freeman High School had a schism over elimination of their mascot, the Rebel Man. A petition was circulated to retain the Rebel, easily gathering over a thousand signatures, while senior Charlie Bonner became a target of resentment when he spearheaded the movement to replace the mascot. “For many current Freeman students and teachers, seeing a Confederate soldier brings up images of violent inequality and their struggle to rebuild a decimated culture,” he told the Washington Post. For his efforts, Charlie was ridiculed and instructed to commit suicide on social media. Over a year after the Rebel mascot petition, controversy over Virginia’s Confederate icons remained so volatile that Freeman High’s principal did not respond to any of my many appeals for conversation.
As George and I entered Richmond, we decided to visit the Museum of the Confederacy first. We wondered whether it would be another cluttered Confederate attic of nostalgia and revisionism cloaked as “heritage.” I confess to hoping I would find stubborn, and quotable, expressions of Lost Cause bitterness.
Although it shared a snug block with the White House of the Confederacy, the downtown museum itself was a relic of mid 20th Century architecture, concrete brutalism squeezed under, beside and between the walls of an expanding university hospital, almost hidden at the end of a long driveway. It turned out to be surprising in its seriousness and depth, reflected in a complete wall display of the key battles of the Civil War as they unfolded in time and place. The collection’s centerpiece was a comprehensive array of Confederate flags in their many permutations over time. John Coski, the museum historian best known for The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem would soon become the national media’s go-to guy in the wake of the Charleston church massacre and its explosive renewal of the Rebel flag controversy across the South.
I met John Coski after his museum lecture on the Civil War’s true ending, or endings, in which he’d stressed how common desertion and looting were among the Confederate soldiers near the war’s finale, even worse amid the chaos in the far-flung western battle fronts, especially in Arkansas. Hardly Lost Cause mythology, though John told me the museum had in fact been founded in 1890 as a shrine to Confederacy. “Lost Causers consider the modern museum itself to be the lost cause now that we strive to be objective. They view our relics and artifacts as icons. They see us as defaming, being sacrilegious.” Along with a new building, the museum plans to expand with a civil rights focus. Some find this change controversial, diffusing its mission. “But we can have a Nixon-in-China advantage,” John explained. “We can capitalize on it to be a positive force in educating the community.”
While appalled by regional nurturing of grievances across the South, he was just as irritated by Northern preaching about “freeing slaves” as the sole motive for engaging in civil war—“true but oversimplified.” He noted the national attention on mistreatment of Union POWs at Andersonville, Georgia, which, appalling as it was, was “probably worse for Confederates at the camp at Elmira, New York, but untold. These falsehoods feed Southern identification as a besieged minority, resenting the North’s holier than thou narrative. White Southerners are the last acceptable stereotype for ridicule,” he lamented, which helped well-nurtured grievances stay alive across the South.
So far in Virginia we’d found few signs of hard core conflict over commemoration, and I dared to hope I would hear some heated words in my conversation with African-American state senator Donald McEachin. He’d taken bold action to protest attempts to overlook Virginia’s ongoing struggle against racial mistreatment and inequality. As a representative in the House of Delegates from adjacent Henrico County in 2007, McEachin introduced a bill expressing “profound regret” for Virginia’s enslavement of African Americans and exploitation of natives on the 400th anniversary of English settlement at Jonestown. The resolution passed unanimously in both chambers, unprecedented in American legislative history.4 But the legislature didn’t follow this progressive direction in 2014, when it introduced another resolution honoring Virginia’s ardent segregationist, Senator Harry Byrd, instrumental in shuttering the state’s public schools in the 1950s. As a state senator now, McEachin joined a spontaneous Black Caucus walkout when the vote passed.
When I asked if the protest had lasting effect, the senator sounded surprised that I expected any. He said it was not so important to have an effect on the other senators, changing hearts and minds, but to be true to oneself. “For me, the walkout was individual. Personal.” He felt integration in education had been misinterpreted, often overlooking the importance of school boards being integrated, not only classrooms. “Funding needs to be provided in full for every school’s programs and materials,” he added, stressing that integration has been a clear success in improving African Americans’ access to better educational facilities—a success often overlooked, which is why McEachin found honoring the legacy of Harry Byrd so intolerable.
The senator detailed progressive setbacks that continue well into the 21st Century, including efforts at voting access and exempting Virginia from EPA mandates. We discussed the ongoing disconnect between coastal concerns over sea level rise versus inland conservatives who cannot abide any possibility of climate change’s role in the oceanic floods lapping at Norfolk’s doors. But McEachin remained sanguine about the possibility of progress. He expressed a warm regard for his Southern roots, declaring that though he felt American first, he was emphatically Southern and Virginian next. McEachin felt especially Southern when he went north, distanced by Yankee coolness in human encounters and missing the warm niceties of Southern encounters. As an African-American in the South, he said, “at least one knows where one stands with race—it gets expressed, not obscured, as in the North.” When I asked about his hopes for Virginia’s future, the senator blew my mind, his voice sincere and passionate. “I am full of hope. Virginia will lead the US renaissance in race relations and civil rights. The healing will arise on the honest basis of what Virginia has already confronted and worked to change.”
* * * *
Driving from Richmond to Williamsburg, George and I didn’t know what to expect. Would Historic Williamsburg be a frill sewn onto the American Pageant, a decorative disguise for our nation’s rough-edged colonial origin story? Would it celebrate a fake history imposed on Virginia’s colonial capital?
Before we knew it, we were crossing a martial mustering yard, two uneasy, clueless tourists watching 1770’s fife and drum demonstrations from various parts of the country. A living history project—the Revolutionary City—surrounded us.
We engaged a history enactor at a nearby apothecary shop. Mostly staying in 18th Century character, Aubrey Moog freely discussed women’s 1770s roles, insisting “Williamsburg women had to be seen outside of modern expectations.” In their own way they had “soft power” within family and community as well as becoming successful business owners. She filled in a fascinating portrait of colonial Virginia, where most colonists were small farmers, after all, absorbed in a constant struggle to survive. Here in the capital, though, women could exercise some freedom where the more complex economy had more opportunity, and could own property (powers soon to be restricted during and after the Revolutionary War). In royal matters and colonial governance, Aubrey stressed that most men couldn’t vote, either, except for the white Protestant property owners—and only those with developed land—and only in sending delegates to the House of Burgess.
Aubrey sketched an unrelenting portrait of a purely privatized, stratified economy. Most people didn’t gain education or even literacy and numeracy unless there was a practical need for knowledge. With no public schools, a man’s level of educational attainment matched one’s economic status, while women’s formal learning was even more unlikely.
A caste system was in effect, every individual carefully positioned on a social spectrum. Even curtseying signaled superior or inferior rankings by the length and depth of the gesture. A well-positioned black person, such as a governor’s slave, might secretly look down on whites from poorer working families. In colonial era Williamsburg, blacks probably had better relations with white society than later in the American enslavement calamity—even more atrocious in the early and mid 1800s—and were often skilled artisans. More than half of Williamsburg’s population, enslaved people would often have Sundays free to roam and could visit beyond the capital. A white assistant apothecary, say, could have a friendship with a slave. One wealthy business matron freed all her slaves and was rumored to have an “intimacy” with one of the males she owned.
Despite the stratification, Williamsburg’s social manners were looser and more bawdy than those of New England’s Puritan culture. “Christmas involved multiple days of drinking and debauchery, and sexual intimacy could be very public,” Aubrey told us. Virginia was founded on economic advancement, profit, entrepreneurial expansion and individual struggle, not on Puritan spiritual ideals and rule-bound repression, a sharp contrast set to explode into North-South conflict in eighty years.
As George and I took leave of Aubrey and strolled to the Capitol, we became enmeshed in a staged drama that began at the gates and then unfolded beside and all around us. Costumed advocates for independence read proclamations from the Continental Congress, while colonists gave impassioned speeches farther down the main street against the royal menace. The acting and costumes were credible enough to keep the whole Colonial Williamsburg shebang from descending into cheesy melodrama. The street staging intensified with the dramatic return of a young local man who was regarded as a spy for the Crown.
I appreciated the tone of doubt, debate, and fog-of-war contestation; nothing was simplified, nor were we persuaded to cheer the American Pageant version (though some visitors, prodded by actors, did call for the young man to be hanged). Out of this tumult, a much more intimate drama unfolded down the street between two slaves, Agnes and Jack, who were romancing each other but were haunted by losses of their former partners—Jack’s wife and child sold away to unknown locale and Agnes’ husband gone to an early death. After we witnessed their uneasy back-and-forth, in which their deprivations molded their wariness, we were joyously led to a stage where Jack and Agnes jumped the broom.
The following morning, George and I compared impressions of Williamsburg’s surprising reality-based presentation of colonial history, skillfully blending entertainment with unblinkered facts about America’s original sins. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s current approach was a deliberate focus on strict accuracy in its mission of citizen education. The Foundation’s had evolved since the 1950’s when Virginia was so steeped in segregation that blacks could only visit Williamsburg one day a week and black enactors had to live in separate (but equal, I’m sure) quarters.
George mentioned the relatively few African-Americans present at Williamsburg, either as visitors or re-enactors. We had seen a few blacks in colonial costume the day before, and spent the second morning re-exploring Williamsburg in search of “Africans.” In front of the silver shop, we eventually found a thirtyish guy, who immediately told me he wasn’t in character today, just directing people into the shop and checking tickets, and didn’t want me to use his real name. “Cooper” was pragmatic about the whole concept of slavery, and viewed it globally—in Rome, for example, and in Africa itself long before the Atlantic trade. Cool, he viewed the entire enterprise of Virginia colony as about making money and viewed slavery as “a necessary extension of that purpose.” Yet Cooper viewed the daily lives of slaves in Williamsburg as more horrific than Aubrey did, stressing owners’ brutality. “Though they were the majority, slaves did not rebel because their families and loved ones left behind would be punished.” As pragmatic as he was, Cooper felt that emotional bonds were far stronger than all others, which explained why slave owners used fear of breaking up families as a form of control.
Ironically for a man working in the costumes and living the roles of the Revolutionary era, Cooper felt his own history education in school had been unbearably boring. Most of what he knew of early American history came from his work here at Williamsburg as well as study on his own. He revealed that though he grew up twenty minutes away, he’d never heard of Colonial Williamsburg as a living history museum and only learned of it through a girlfriend who worked there. He had an unemployed brother-in-law who refused to earn his keep by getting a Williamsburg job “because he didn’t want to dress like a clown.” Cooper had an opposing attitude; thwarted from access to this historical site as a schoolboy, he made a career of immersing himself in its widening narratives.
Cooper was less than enchanted with the average visitor. When he was in role as a 1770’s enslaved character, he encountered a few visitors who “tried to play back but don’t have a set of instructions,” voicing no end of anachronisms and off-tune racial innuendo. Once, when Cooper was working outside the jailhouse monitoring visitors on the steps, a white man approached him and asked first thing, “What did you do to land in jail?”
This struck me as an almost too-perfect encapsulation of our renewed struggle with racial equality in the two-thousand teens and our national need for the kind of honest “citizen education” that Colonial Williamsburg is reenacting.
At our next stop in North Carolina’s Inner Banks, we’d get tangled in the swamp of citizen education for ourselves, visiting the site of a 60’s school boycott and its angry backlash—and the wounds still open today.
After recovering from an annoying bout of brain surgery, I’m starting up the blog again and finishing the last major stretch of our journey—Virginia and North Carolina. Those states were our last jigsaw pieces of the South, so along with Kristen’s recent travel in Louisiana, we’re done with the whole puzzle, our goal of exploring every southern state. But the South remains puzzling, maybe even more so than before we embarked on this project. It’s an intimate bewilderment now, as if we’ve been dating the entire region on and off for five years, jig-sawing between intense affection and irreconcilable differences.
To add to the bewilderment, since our travels in May, new conflicts about old issues have exploded across the South, most notably the church massacre in Charleston leading to removal of the Confederate flag from official sites. Even my old nemesis, slave-trader, Klan founder, war hero/ war criminal Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, will have his body disinterred from its monumental grave in a Memphis park. That 1860’s war never ends, does it?
- One Hell of a Mother
Watching reruns of The Virginian as a kid, I thought the conscientious title character from that state was too good for the trashy Western likes of me. Now, heading to the Old Dominion as a grown-up aware of the state’s self–mythologizing of Cavaliers and wealthy old families, I figured Virginia would be like a refined old Confederate general stuck knee deep in his own bullshit. Despite its aristocratic image and traditions—Mother of Presidents, Mother of States—Virginia has long been mired in extreme controversies. In 1951 black high school activist Barbara Johns led her classmates to denounce segregated schools and demand access to equal educational opportunity; the governor responded by shutting public schools statewide for weeks and completely closing those in Johns’ county for five years. The 1967 Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court case began when a multiracial couple challenged Central Point police who’d barged into their bedroom and arrested them for being married while having different skin tones. In 1999 Reverend Jerry Falwell of Lynchburg accused the British preschoolers’ program Teletubbies of gay menacing. Mistaking his plush purple pelt for gay apparel, the Virginia Reverend bullied poor Tinky Winky nationwide.
In the 21st Century, Virginia’s habit of stirring controversy extended beyond attacking cartoon characters and denying equality into denying science. Acting on the behest of dirty energy profiteers disguised as the American Tradition Institute, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli investigated University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann in 2010, including personal correspondence, which UVA called “an unprecedented and improper governmental intrusion into ongoing scientific research.” Meanwhile, back at the plantation, old-timey corruption reigned. Disgraced Virginia Governor McDonnell and his wife were charged with accepting gifts and loans from a wealthy Virginia businessman in exchange for promoting his company. The jury also found first lady Maureen McDonnell guilty of eight corruption counts as well as obstruction of justice. As I write, the governor is bound for prison.
Before setting foot in Virginia and considering its deep history, I planned to focus on the usual themes for our project—conflicts between preservation and oblivion, forgetting and revision, denial and commemoration. As our earliest settled British colony as well as the state most bloodied in the Civil War, Virginia must balance colonial and revolutionary glory with bitter defeat. Hosting the capital of the Confederacy, Virginia endured the losing side’s humiliation, trashing the very national heritage the state originated when Jamestown was founded in 1607. Born as an English money-making venture obliterating natives’ prior claims and home to the very first stolen African “servants,” the state really birthed us all. Instantly committing both our original sins while cradling the whole American shooting match in stark inhumanity, Virginia’s been one hell of a mother.
- “You’d have to put a fence around Virginia to preserve everything”
Inevitably, when I mentioned my destination to friends in Colorado, some cautioned me that modern Virginia wasn’t really Southern at all, “nothing like Mississippi or Alabama.” They might make that point about Maryland or even Kentucky, neither tethered to the Confederacy—though not for lack of trying—but to me Virginia’s Southern identity was granite-solid, literally monumental. Massive equestrian statues celebrating Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis punctuated Richmond’s Monument Avenue. Manassas National Battlefield, where two major battles emboldened the Confederacy in the early days of the Civil War, was a silver dollar’s throw from the Walmarts and strip malls of northern Virginia, enveloped by Washington DC’s suburbia.
When we exited I-95 near Fredericksburg, the only vaguely Southern image was the smiling but sinister fake “colonel” on a KFC sign. Along a chaotic commercial strip of unplanned, unhindered development, orange barrels lined semi-rural pasture and forestland, an ugly scab being widened from four to six lanes. Given that the town straddled four major Civil War battlefields, I could only wonder what human and martial remnants of war’s carnage were being churned by earthmovers or buried under asphalt paving.
We soon realized we were lost in Fredericksburg’s intensely trafficked rural outskirts. Turning around and heading downtown, we were flabbergasted. Historic Fredericksburg was a model of preservation. The center was a forty-block cluster of buildings and homes from the 1700s and 1800s, having survived ferocious Civil War battles as well as the contemporary trend toward Disneyfication of quaint places. Fredericksburg wasn’t cute or precious. The centuries-old residences looked well maintained but lived-in. The town celebrated claims on a visit by Captain John Smith in the early 1600s as well as George Washington’s family residence. The slave market was remembered by a small stone marker.
George and I joined locals enjoying a spring evening, packed foodie restaurants lining a bustling main street not far from where the Union built amazing prefab pontoons to cross the Rappahannock River and take back the town from General Lee’s forces. Runners jogged the greenway winding above rapids that marked the fall line between hilly Piedmont and flat, swampy Tidewater.
On our first Virginia morning, just south of the town center, we visited Phillip Greenwalt, Historian at Fredericksburg Military Park and co-author of Virginia war histories, Bloody Autumn: The Shenandoah Valley Campaign of 1864 and Hurricane from the Heavens: The Battle of Cold Harbor.
Phillip stressed the need to understand the true span of the Civil War, being able to grasp the young nation’s emerging perspective as battles intensified and corpses piled up. That meant realizing in the war’s early years Americans had no idea whatsoever they were about to embark on our nation’s greatest catastrophe. Fredericksburg’s December 1862 battle came when few expected the war to last a few months longer, let alone until 1865. In the early battles, the Union avoided any damage to Southern property, which also meant Yankee soldiers returning slaves to their Confederate owners in ‘61 and ’62. Only in the last half of the conflict did most Union minds seriously consider slavery’s moral and spiritual abominations.
Phillip told us that some visitors can’t appreciate those grand abstractions, asking why battlefields should be preserved at all when they were just blood-soaked commemorations “of men killing each other.” Fundamentally, Phillip said, “the real story is not the senselessness of men killing men, but the evolution of the human struggle to determine how we all should treat each other.”
Unlike at Deep South battlefields, Phillip saw few Fredericksburg visitors who stirred up Lost Cause controversies over interpretation of the war, though he knew of occasional encounters with the KKK. While we visited, he guided other visitors to ancestors’ sites or clarified details of the battle with calm authority. Phillip’s ability to feel the struggles of ordinary soldiers and civilians, and to evaluate perspectives rather than be embedded in them arose in part from his own upbringing in Baltimore; being a native of a border state, he always felt “halfway between North and South.” He agreed with George that the Civil War might be our true origin epic even more than the Revolutionary War, because the northern victory established our nation as truly unified states rather than as an affiliation of former colonies.
When I mentioned that commercial development must be burying any last chance to preserve Civil War locations and sites all around the town, Phillip sighed and conceded the difficulty with treating all significant battlegrounds as sacred and worth preserving. “You’d have to put a fence around Virginia to preserve everything.”
- “Hand-made respect for the past”
Only a few miles east of Fredericksburg, at a rural crossroads, the small family-run White Oak Museum, once a schoolhouse, did its best to preserve and commemorate a small corner of Civil War history. The crossroad was just far enough from town to escape its busyness and construction; set in rolling pasture and woodlands, it took no imagination to envision the landscape as it was in the 1860s. The museum grounds even featured reproductions of winter camps, including sunken bunkers, scattered throughout adjacent meadows. I was curious to meet the owner, full of expectations and stereotypes about a backcountry, obsessive Confederate defender and looked forward to collecting some juicy material.
D.P. Newton founded the museum on family land with his parents, building the outdoor sunken bunkers himself, then continued to develop and refine his collections with his mother’s help after his father died. In his 1960’s boyhood, D.P. played in these meadows and creekbanks, finding bullets and equipment scattered everywhere from battles and skirmishes a hundred years before.
When we visited D.P. on a sparkling May afternoon, he was assisting a family with ancestral connections to the Fredericksburg battles. In a small warren of displays, many faces stared out from Civil War portraits, including lots of Newton ancestors, and well-catalogued collections of bullets, weaponry, uniforms and equipment found in the nearby meadows and woods, plus an excellent indoor re-creation of soldiers’ winter encampments. Exhibits were clear-eyed about money as a motivator for soldier’s joining the Cause–$30 for willing Confederates. (For $300, drafted Union soldiers could buy a substitute to fight in their places). Renowned for its authenticity, the collection was a resource for Civil War re-enactors. D.P.’s dedication to and quiet pride in the small museum was palpable.
Now in his 60’s, sad-eyed D.P. had a grizzled visage that didn’t match his gentle and ingenuous manner of speaking. Joined by his associate Ken Pitts, a friend from childhood, D.P. responded to inquiries with a boyish sincerity, in a curious accent with rounded vowels and hints of an almost Canadian or Scottish “oot” and “aboot,” plus a soft Southern drawl. (I later learned that his was a Tidewater dialect much-studied for its Early American purity). When he and Ken reflected on their Southern identities, they proclaimed that they were Virginians first, then joked that no, they were Stafford County natives first—but not really, after all—they were natives of the village of Falmouth above all else. Rooted in this plot of land since birth, they claimed that they rarely went into Fredericksburg itself. When I asked if he ever tired of being surrounded by the Civil War and its buffs and enactors, both D.P. and Ken firmly responded that they never did. They found satisfaction passing on knowledge and helping people connect to family ties about the war’s soldiers, lost and found.
Ken and D.P. both expressed concern—even in these surroundings, essentially a random cemetery for thousands of Civil War corpses, with Fredericksburg stuck in a long tug of war between the Confederates and the Union—that few current school kids seemed to be taught much about Civil War history. Ken confessed he didn’t know much either until he began to understand that his own relatives had fought for the Confederacy. “Everyone feels closer to the war experience when a genetic web was strung,” D.P. added, “no matter how thinned and brittle.” He’d seen those webs grow stronger and more complex as DNA compelled contemporary people to study ancestors’ roles. D.P. produced an album of his own ancestors, including an African-American great-grandfather and a great aunt with African features, whose droopy eyes mirrored his own. D.P. noted that interracial pairings were common—often between a white man and black woman—among pre-war poor folk.
Surprised by D.P.’s openness about his African-American blood connection, I wondered what he made of the civil rights movement when he was growing up and how it affected the local area. Both he and Ken still expressed wonderment; having spent their childhoods playing with local blacks, they’d puzzled over why those friends had to go to separate schools. They’d assumed the human rights clashes in the 50s and 60s were a problem for adults for whom there had “always been segregation,” but not for kids. They had no recollection of local violence, except for one incident at a basketball game, where one black attendee was physically abused. Local schools began to be integrated one level at a time after 1962, just when Ken graduated.
D.P. felt his heritage was vanishing, estimating that only ten or fifteen percent of the locals were still connected to the “old ways.” High taxes made it hard for many to remain in parents’ homes. Today, D.P. and Ken didn’t recognize anyone in shops and around the community, seeing only new faces as Stafford County became lured into the widening web of northern Virginia’s DC exurbia. I wondered if D.P.’s lack of partisan attitudes about the war arose from the purity of his connections to a disappearing world, tethered to a small plot of land and removed from the 21st Century’s ideological battles.
As we headed back to town, I was ashamed of myself as a writer whoring for material, expecting, even hoping for old-timey prejudice and delusion to spice up the chapter. Instead, I was surprised by admiration for D.P. and told George I hadn’t met anyone like him anywhere. D.P. indicated no impulse to choose camps or hustle viewpoints. Neither D.P. or Ken glorified the war or sought justification for the Confederate cause. The facts dominated their views without attempts at slanting or sentiment.
George noted that both men reminded him of Ruth Ann Butler in Greenville, how their homey museums existed to help others find connections almost lost to the blur of history. “They put a lot of love put into the displays,” George said. “Hand-made respect for the past.”
We would soon see whether that respect would be on display in our next stops further south in Virginia and North Carolina.
A Confederate Defender at the Ground Zero of Civil Rights Marches
Marooned in the lot of the Bedbug Budget Motel on the edge of Selma, Alabama, I sat beside Kristen in our rental car, trying to stifle my laughter. Ever the intrepid journalist, Kristen already scored a great contact on our first morning in town. We hoped to talk to the town’s warring parties over the placement of a memorial to Klan founder and Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, which had been beheaded. Now Kristen captured one of the warriors on her smart phone! I was laughing because Kristen was being so professional and well-mannered, while the woman she’d contacted was being belligerent and resistant, saying something about “carpetbaggers who don’t know anything about the South.”
That was us. Northern know-nothings. Carpetbaggers, complete with fresh bedbugs.
Here’s Kristen’s account of her conversation with this Friend of Forrest defender from her chapter, “Ghost Moon Over Alabama.” This also includes her insights into Selma’s place in Civil Rights history, where the battles still rage over who should and should not be commemorated:
Confederate patriot Patricia Godwin shot a question right back when I asked her how to find the controversial monument to Confederate Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest in the cemetery in Selma, Alabama.
“How’d you get here from Colorado if you can’t even find Selma’s cemetery?” she asked.
I’d already explained to Mrs. Godwin, who is a Friend of Forrest, that Lee and I were writers from Colorado researching the South and that we wanted to see what remained of the memorial, located in one of the two Live Oak Cemeteries in Selma. The seven-foot granite monument once had Forrest’s bust atop it and was used for target practice with rotten fruit before finally disappearing in March 2012, provoking a battle over its restoration.
“We could be here until the twelfth of Never and you wouldn’t understand the South or what it means to be Southern,” she said. “Why can’t you people just leave us alone? We just want to be left alone, just like we wanted to be left alone in 1861. You people come here and make history political. And don’t even get me started on slavery. That’s a time we cannot relate to. Every time someone puts a pen to paper or finger to keyboard they get it wrong. I will not talk with anyone about slavery. That’s something I had nothing to do with.”
Mrs. Godwin spoke in a breathless rush of aggrieved accusation. … She kept repeating: “I’m not going to talk with you.” Then she would launch into another tirade about people like me.
“Not everyone can be Southern,” she said. “It’s a God-given gift. Not even all Southerners are Southern. But you have to be born in the South to understand the South. Nobody can understand what my people went through in those four years of war.”
She asked me how I defined the word racist.
“Someone who doesn’t see people as individuals, but only in terms of their race.”
Mrs. Godwin paused, evidently considering that. “My definition of a racist is someone who perpetuates and defends their race,” she countered.
Making me a racist by default since I had two little white babies, definitely perpetuating the white race.
“Racist and racism were words invented by Leon Trotsky,” Mrs. Godwin declared. “The words were designed to shut down talk.”
Making racism a made-up, communist propaganda point? Or was it the noble act of perpetuating and defending your race? Could it be both?
Mrs. Godwin believed that Selma’s Nathan Bedford Forrest monument was a sure-fire tourist magnet and that its opponents were crippling development.
“Confederate Circle will be an historical learning site,” she wrote potential donors, painting a picture of more Confederate battle flags, historical markers, wrought iron park benches, and re-landscaping with Southern trees, flowers, and shrubs.
It was difficult to imagine how LED lighting, and flags would improve the ghost-whispering Southern landscaping at Live Oak Cemetery. Statues of sorrowful angels, corroded by the weather and blackened by age, their faces spoiled, eyes black holes, mark the graves. When we were there, a late afternoon’s slanting sunlight made golden the alleys of trees, hung with ragged gray lace, ruined fingers of Spanish moss draping their branches. The moss was almost monstrous; spider webs caked with dust; ghostly yet graceful. Here were transience, death, and dreams made visible.
Construction cluttered the cemetery’s center. Within yellow tape, we found a monument to the Southern generals, a confederate flag, and the empty pedestal meant for Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bust. The scene was meaningful. Commemorative statues to Confederate war heroes litter the South. Should they stand behind construction tape, symbolizing the ongoing need to build and rebuild the mythic memory of the gracious lost cause; or should it be crime scene tape around them, because these men fought for slavery?
The questions over Southern commemorations couldn’t be clearer. Who had the power to decide what should be remembered and celebrated? Would it be a memory that everyone could celebrate, or only a few? How could African-Americans—or anyone appalled by slavery—celebrate Confederate “heroes”? Was the flip side equally true? Were Civil Rights monuments just for the descendants of former slaves?
“Our history began long before Martin Luther King came here,” Mrs. Godwin had told me with great bitterness.
* * * *
Civil Rights leaders chose Selma in part because it had a sheriff, Jim Clark Jr., cast in the Bull Connor mold. Martin Luther King and others learned in Birmingham that brutal sheriffs with bad judgment allowed Americans from Alaska to Maine to witness racist injustice in a way that a million sermons and court cases could not. Sheriff Clark made Selma the perfect stage for the voting rights struggle. Selma’s white power structure, disenfranchised blacks, and brutal sheriff would focus the nation’s attention on voting rights.
That’s exactly what happened. At the start of the Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights on March 7, 1965, six hundred marchers made their way across the Selma side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Fifty troopers stood shoulder to shoulder at the other end, another fifty deputized white men behind them. The marchers, armed only with bedrolls for the fifty-four mile walk to Montgomery, realized they weren’t even going to make it across the bridge. A trooper warned them they had two minutes to disperse, but as soon as he spoke troopers began donning gas masks and were ordered forward.
The kneeling, praying marchers scrambled to their feet as the troopers attacked them with tear gas and clubs. John Lewis, the future U.S. representative from Georgia, was beaten unconscious. The deputized whites threw themselves into the melee. Afterwards, the Civil Rights supporters reorganized themselves at the A.M.E. Brown Chapel. The troopers’ violence inspired thousands of people from across the country to come to Selma and join them.
“What happened in Selma … is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said in a message to Congress on March 15, 1965. “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
* * * *
Touches of architectural elegance look out from Selma onto the green, soft banks of the Alabama River. The town, in character as part as frontier South, boasts far more Western-looking storefronts than does most of the West.
Selma has one fine old hotel, the St. James, an antebellum place where slave traders stayed, then Confederate officers, and then, when it was their turn, Union officers. Benjamin Sterling Turner, a slave who ran the St. James before the war, became Selma’s first black tax collector and was elected twice as a U.S. representative during Reconstruction. A man who secretly taught himself to read and write, and who fought for the restoration of Confederate soldiers’ rights, he lays buried in Selma’s beautiful Live Oak Cemetery. He deserves a monument.
Selma’s disrepair and decay felt hopeless to Lee. I wasn’t so sure. With good leadership, couldn’t the rear-end collision between the Civil War and Civil Rights become an evolution? Couldn’t it be unmoored from the old nightmares?
Lee and I walked over the broad Edmund Pettus Bridge to the scruffy former Voting Rights Museum, which had moved into new digs in town. We wandered through the Voting Rights Park, a place choked with kudzu, Spanish moss, and graffiti. Selma sleepily totters on the eastern bank of the wide river, its resentful, thuggish, and graceful ghosts out in midday. There’s an air of what novelist Tom Franklin, talking about a similar place in Mississippi, described as a “defeated feel, a lingering of old sin that makes it sweet in a rotting kind of way.”
…Lee and I, from a West bloodied by its own Indian wars, were naïfs in that bloodied place, wandering through the antebellum St. James Hotel, peaking in through arched windows at the foliage filling the ruined foundry that had supplied the Confederacy. Selma’s relentless sense of history wasn’t a motionless mural depicting past dramas, or even a sociological case study of rural poverty and the lingering damage from slavery and segregation. Its history in fact was alive, either slithering alongside us as we walked, threatening to pull us in and trip us up with its sticky tendrils, or pulling us along on feathered wings of hope. It was up to each of us to decide how we saw it, how we embraced its breathing energy.
Overlooking Selma before we left town, Kristen had a lot more hope for its future than I did. Kristen even said she’d invest in Selma if she could, that it’s sure to come back, its empty historic storefronts just awaiting development. I never would; though it’s true that there’s a kind of faded grandeur about the place, I felt pretty hopeless about Selma’s future, those imploding buildings and vanished businesses. What I felt was a void, as if, if it were out West, tumbleweed would be rolling across the vacant lots and listless streets.
When we’d crossed the Pettis Bridge on foot, this iconic site in America’s freedom struggle ended abruptly in weeds . Across the busy road, there were vestiges of river walkways that now treaded pointlessly, without guidance or interpretation, into a jungle of mossy woods tangling the river banks. Empty storefronts that catered to a vanished commemorative tourism were soaped over. Amateur artworks faded in old kiosks.
There was nothing across the river now, making the historic span seem an afterthought, a bridge to nowhere.
Birmingham Overcomes the Terror of its Recent Past
Having grown up watching re-run news clips of Birmingham police slamming children into walls with high-pressure hoses, Kristen and I weren’t exactly well disposed to appreciate Alabama’s largest city. Apart from its 1960’s violence against human rights, Birmingham has suffered from a weak image throughout the nation, hardly charismatic like New Orleans or dynamic like Atlanta. On our drive across north central Alabama, again following the route of the Freedom Riders fifty-plus years later, I expected Birmingham to be a bigger Anniston, hollowed-out and dispirited by a tragic place in civil rights history.
I hardly expected we would gush over central Birmingham’s vibrant downtown or its careful, educational curating of its recent history. The city is actually the Anti-Anniston—a growing, confident city, not only respectful of its tragic past but showcasing it to educate all of us.
It was easy to explore Birmingham’s self-guided pathways along the Civil Rights Trail, clearly marked and linked along the west side of downtown. Kristen and I learned about the city’s bat-shit crazy forms of apartheid; one segregation- era “law” forbade whites and blacks playing checkers or dice together. Crossing Kelly Ingram Park, without clear plans, Kristen and I found ourselves swept—literally, by a church worker wielding a broom on the sidewalk–into the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls were killed by white supremacist terror bombers in 1963. As we studied a gallery of commemorative photos near the church entry, a volunteer appeared at our side, spontaneously taking us on a tour of the church. With the site’s tragedy heavy in the atmosphere, I felt, as a devout nonbeliever, that I was being transported through a sacred space.
Soon our volunteer guide, Isaiah Perry, expanded the talk of church facts with mention of the bombing. Then he gave us the whole history. Isaiah was amiable, yet so serious, pausing to think before he gave such considered, careful, honest answers. We asked about everything—he always responded, unabashed, open. He had witnessed and participated in the ‘63 movement, the children’s rebellion, defying his school principal (who was under the gun himself from white supremacists) to join the marches. Isaiah himself was not injured, but he witnessed the infamous hosings and dog attacks on 6th St. He saw Birmingham’s violently segregationist Commissioner Bull Connor going by in his giant water-gun tanker.
Isaiah escorted us to the northeast corner of the church, where the bomb was set off, taking out a huge chunk of the wall, including two windows and gouging the face of Jesus out of a central stained-glass depiction. He briefly guided us outside again to see where the detonation demolished the basement; then the very spot inside where the girls were killed while chatting in the ladies room. Later Isaiah showed us the clock that stopped when the electricity was cut at 10:22, a frozen moment when four American girls, full of promise and looking ahead to the joys of their young womanhood, were murdered in the safest place in their world, their own church.
Studying the church gallery’s pictures of the pandemonium following the bombing–a woman being dragged away, police detaining clergymen, Rev. Fred Shuttleworth’s boys under threat at their school–I naively asked Isaiah about this maddening mystery: how could those men, all thought by their mothers to respect women and children, do such things without unmanning themselves to themselves? Isaiah answered without hesitation that when it was the norm among peers to act that way, “those rules, those courtesies were blasted away by groupthink.” And blacks, he emphasized, were not included in the taboo against such violence.
Kristen’s words from her chapter “Ghost Moon Over Alabama” capture the political and social forces in Birmingham that clarify the audacity of Alabama’s 1960s terrorism. She begins, ironically, with the very nonviolent philosophy that had trained Isaiah and the other children in the crusade:
One marker [on Birmingham’s Civil Rights Trail] includes parts of Martin Luther King’s nonviolent strategy for the Birmingham protesters. Protestors needed to refrain from violence of the fist, tongue, and heart.
As the weeks wore on, adults couldn’t keep missing work in order to protest, be jailed, and then skip work to protest and be jailed again. Children stepped in. On the first day of Birmingham’s Children’s Crusade nearly a thousand children, ages six to eighteen were arrested. Scenes of police brutality against adults had distressed American television viewers. Now they witnessed children attacked by dogs and plastered against brick walls by the bruising force of water cannons.
There were no black police, bus drivers, or firefighters in Birmingham then, and it was illegal for a black secretary to work for whites. Birmingham’s notorious Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor (in charge of schools, the police, the fire department, public health, and libraries) closed the city’s sixty parks rather than obey court-ordered desegregation.
The people of Birmingham had given Connor a landslide win just two weeks before the Freedom Riders limped into Birmingham on that Mothers Day in 1961, aboard the other bus, the one that hadn’t been burned in Anniston. Connor knew they were coming; he in turn alerted the KKK with a promise that there would be no police presence. His officers would be visiting their mothers. The already injured Freedom Riders, also terrorized the entire way from Anniston, were again savagely beaten, this time at the Birmingham station.
Civil Rights leaders took note. They decided that if they could defeat segregation in “Bombingham,” the most segregated city in the country, it could be defeated anywhere. People would picket and march on the streets; they would participate in sit-ins (sitting down in segregated stores and restaurants) and they would boycott segregated establishments.
Project C (for confrontation) began in April 1963, with twenty-four college students sitting-in at four downtown lunch counters, including Woolworths. The stores responded by closing their doors. Black preachers throughout the city wore blue jeans to church, a serious breach of etiquette in the formal black churches of the day. Pastors told their congregations to skip buying new clothes for Easter. The boycott was on, as were the marches.
Connor’s force arrested hundreds of marchers. They arrested Martin Luther King on April 16; that gave him the opportunity to write his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail in the margins of newspapers, the only paper he was allowed. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” is one of the famous lines from that letter. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly…”
Connor labeled King and the rest of the Civil Rights leaders communists and ordered his men to handle the protesters with violence that ended up on the nightly news across America and around the world.
That was the backdrop when a terrorist bomb killed four schoolgirls on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Birmingham’s most famous church. It might have been a scene from the Middle East violence: twenty other congregation members were injured. Later that same day, a white Birmingham mob murdered a black teen. The investigation into the bombing closed inconclusively in 1968 only to reopen three years later when it was discovered that FBI director Edgar J. Hoover had ordered that evidence incriminating four Klansmen be kept secret from the prosecutors. It wasn’t until 1977, 2001, and 2002 that the three surviving bombers were finally convicted and sentenced to spend their old age in prison.
In his eulogy to the four girls killed here, Martin Luther King Jr. told mourners that God can wring good out of evil and that history has proven that unmerited suffering is redemptive. “This tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience,” he said.
As Kristen and I explored central Birmingham, it became obvious that it has redeemed itself as a vibrant, forward-looking city, definitely with an African-American face, but also relaxed and welcoming to all. Again, in Kristen’s words, our first impressions of today’s Birmingham:
If Anniston felt like its moment has passed, Birmingham seemed poised on the threshold of greatness. Our first visit there was like getting to Oz after being lost for a good long while, far from any yellow-brick road. Downtown Birmingham sparkled despite a lack of rain over the past weeks.
We drove into Birmingham’s university district on a gusty autumn morning, the wind scattering sunlight. I felt as though we’d discovered an obscure jewel of a city that the rest of the country had forgotten, or perhaps written off. My searches for Birmingham online included a racist website using the city as a cautionary tale of what happens to majority-African-American cities.
After our visit I thought, if this is what happens, bring it on. Birmingham boasted flower boxes, tidy streets, and corners and sidewalks so wide and rounded that they felt more akin to a plaza in Paris than an American urban intersection. Art deco towers rose above green parks. They weren’t the outsized glass and steel skyscrapers of Denver or Atlanta, but something more human sized, ten or twenty stories, some of them roofed with terra cotta tile, some fret-worked as intricately as a baroque Italian church.
We breakfasted in a café that looked out a walkable, bike-able cityscape. Dozens of people were out and about, even on a cold, gusty morning. I realized how empty Anniston’s sidewalks had been. People there needed to drive to ever more distant stores. Anniston had been a ghost town whereas Birmingham was full of people, even human works of art, like the man wearing tight, purple short-shorts and high boots despite the chill. I was back in my comfort zone. Our waitress was dismissive, proof that we were nestled back in modern, urban America. It was great. …
“Yes, the crime rate was as high as Orlando, Florida, tied for third highest in the nation. But it was worldly enough to have a great Korean restaurant filled with Korean businessmen laughing over jokes in Korean. Magazines regularly rated Birmingham as one of the best metro areas to live in, with good salaries and low living expenses. It had a biotechnology and medical research center—the reason for all the purposeful walkabouts we saw on the university district’s streets. The university, with its huge hospital, was the biggest employer in Birmingham, and the second largest employer in the state. The city also was a banking hub, and it still had steel, the industry that built the city.
It was a smaller steel industry, to be sure, than in Birmingham’s heyday, but they were paying their workers this time.
Kristen’s understated reference here is to the decades of peonage and forced labor, the use of the legal system to re-enslave black workers after Reconstruction that manned Birmingham’s industry after the civil war, that evil phenomenon detailed in Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name. Even as we exited the city via 4th Avenue, its historic structures quickly revitalizing, an emblem of all the optimism of a city that has overcome its tortured past and flourished now as an African-American metropolis, I couldn’t shake away that shadowy feeling of wrongs still buried and unresolved. I felt so privileged to have met Isaiah, so moved to have stood the sacred ground in his excellent company of a witness to 1963’s terror. But the terrorists never really saw justice, or faced charges in a system dragging out its justice for over forty years. Obscene.
If we felt we’d found redemption alive in modern Birmingham, we would soon find the Anti-Birmingham: Selma, a town whose very name has become synonymous with Alabama’s violent segregation era.