Trying to shut off my brain and act like a normal American in Vicksburg, Mississippi
How much mindless pageantry could I take? Our first morning in Vicksburg, I soon found out when we joined a “ladies auxiliary” ceremony in the Military Park. We faced the ruins of a Civil War battleship, spit-shined politicians, and rows of seated women arrayed in white, Old Glories resting on each shoulder.
Flagless, scanning the scattered Ladies Auxiliary of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, George and I took places in the back row. I tried to pass as a normal American, appreciative of our veterans while inside I seethed over how often we sent soldiers into pointless foreign battles. The speakers stood under the skeletal battleship, their speeches kicking off the Auxiliary’s national convention. Just waiting for my chance to interview the National Military Park’s superintendent, I didn’t belong here.
The whole ceremonial shebang piled cliché atop cliché, all of it as hollow and marooned in time as the USS Cairo hovering over us. I felt terrible. Like a heretic stuck in a church service—a familiar feeling—I knew I should shut off my brain and cede the field to the faithful people around me. Listening to the speakers’ endless invocations of the women’s sacrifices, I felt sure wives of war vets endured challenges beyond my comprehension. Their common costumes, shared songs, and flag ceremonies must bond them in comfort.
I hated the bind these pageants put me in. I didn’t want to be the prick who made light of war veterans’ spouses and their hardships. Yet judging by the ages of most attendees, the war most of these wives’ spouses served in was Vietnam. Vietnam. Since America’s interference in that Asian civil war was based on official lies and Cold War panic, it’s hard to reconcile that twelve-year nightmare with tears for America’s virtue or preserving our “freedom” in any way. This pageantry didn’t want us to think about that, only cover the bloody truth with showy patriotism.
George absorbed it all calmly beside me. He interpreted my freak-out as a non-military person’s naïveté. The son of an Army officer who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, he pointed out that I wasn’t a sports fan, either, so I didn’t get exposed to patriotic ceremonies at games. “It’s got a Southern spin to it, too,” he explained, “which you’d know if you ever watched NASCAR. These ceremonies just throw red meat at the audience. They don’t ask for reflection. That’s really how the ceremony dishonors these women, treating them as if they can’t think.”
After this one finally ended, George answered a VFW official’s inquiry by pointing out that the whole concept of a veteran’s “auxiliary” seemed dated. Following recent wars in which women soldiers played crucial roles, how would they and their husbands join or gain support from the future “wives” organization? And where would he, as the son of a three-war vet, find a place to fit in? The official hurried to agree and just as quickly, hurried away.
Maybe I wasn’t up on ballpark-and-racetrack patriotism, but I was already deep into another kind of competition. Our whole experience of Mississippi would set cruel truths against misty myths. Myths had the home advantages on the field.
Harrison, Arkansas Part 2
When four members of the town’s racial task force welcomed George and me into the meeting room at the Harrison Chamber of Commerce, we new immediately it was going to be okay. We just didn’t know it was going to be wonderful.
Maybe they’d been armed for bear, too, with snooping Northerners requesting this very meeting—only to bring more torment for their town? But their good humor, the warmth of their welcome and the sincerity of their tone made us all relax.
There might be grim comedy to this, the best hearts and minds in the all-white town trying desperately to reconnect to African Americans and getting nowhere because… well, whites had expelled the blacks over a hundred years before. But it wasn’t funny. Later I read some of the postings on articles about the billboard and felt what the task force was up against. In anonymous comments, citizens sparred with citizens over references to white power. Many posts showed deep confusion about white privilege in our country, an unexamined feeling of betrayal, and that whites were superior, yet under attack:
“If white people had a country of our own, none of this would be happening.
Racist white people lost the Civil War. Get over and stop being a whining b*tch!
Racist? You just call them that because they are white, that makes you anti-white. The greatest racists of our time is in power now, and they intend to use their power to make sure the are no white children in the future.”
On our visit, Harrison’s notorious new billboard was just another giant anonymous posting shouting over the town, the exact author or group sponsor unknown. Ironically, the task force measured its success in the wider community’s reaction to the billboard’s message. Phones lit up from random citizens demanding, “What are we going to do about it?” and in came donations from random folks, with letters objecting to the new billboard. Layne took that as validation of the task force’s place in the town’s consciousness as the go-to people to combat outbreaks of racism that shamed the community, insisting, “that’s the real story of Harrison.”
Of course, many people in Harrison suspected the Klan was behind the billboard. Nate explained that stirring up conflict was “the mating call of white supremacists” and wondered if global white power fanatics might be behind it, hiding racism behind accepted values. Such was the racists’ success at rebranding that a local Latina picked up a Klan flyer at a local event just to be polite.
All four task force members sighed in mutual exasperation. “We had to tell her,” Layne said, “that’s it’s okay to be rude to terrorists.”
Their candor pushed the meeting beyond small-town boosterism. I swear, it was something almost spiritual, which is hard for a non-spiritual, non-religious guy like me to admit. (In fact, for Patty, who was also the Chamber president, racial reconciliation was “almost a calling.”) To me, long-fallen Catholic, their work on the task force to improve racial relations had led them to embrace concepts similar to (gulp) Christian redemption. Not your usual Chamber of Commerce project.
It had been a long project, too, going back ten years, and without advisors or mentors. The task force found its way alone in the dark to overcome Harrison’s reputation. Their approach, after some stumbles, was simply to seek, then share, the light. “It’s just us, trying things out, nothing more,” explained Carolyn, who touched me with her quiet pride in the themes they’d gathered and settled on through the years—“Prepare our Community, Proceed with Civility and Respect, Reach Out in Reconciliation.”
George, ever the community activist, gently challenged the group to explain exactly they’d done to Reach Out. A lot, it turned out—prodding the community to celebrate MLK day, inviting speakers, encouraging links between Harrison students and diverse counterparts out there in the “real world.” But even Love Your Neighbor activities and peace forums didn’t guarantee success. They couldn’t engage the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a brainstorm about connecting black pastors hit a wall because Harrison had no black pastors. “I don’t know what do then,” Carolyn said of her failed outreach, repeating, “It’s just us, trying things out, nothing more.”
After our conversation and a whirlwind tour of Harrison’s town center, George and I found the scenic route to Little Rock, our next stop. Arkansas Highway 7 lived up to its promise as one of the most mind-blowing drives in the state, “if not the world.” As we crested over Ozark ridges exploding into autumn, I felt again the South’s seductive pull. It wasn’t just the scenery, though, but these encounters with Southerners doing their best to make the world a better place. They confronted the wrongs of their history, I thought, with more honesty and positive action than most Northerners.
It would be easy for any writer to play up stereotypes, whether those mired in Southern racism and its real hardships, or those of Southern hospitality and gracious living. That’s all just red meat to throw at Northerners, reassuring us in our smugness that the South is “special,” and “different,” like some brain-damaged stepchild. Even in these blogs I go for the catchy titles and clichéd lures about grits and the Klan. But everywhere in the real South there were people who really were special, moving forward, brave and persistent enough “to try things out, nothing more.”
Nothing more than the best we all can do.
George and I cracked stupid, nervous jokes about the likelihood we’d get in bad trouble on our way across the Ozarks in Arkansas. “You won’t be lynched,” George told me. “You have special white-skin immunity.”
“I think it wears off when I’m seen around a black guy,” I said. “Anyway, I might get lynched just for having Yankee license plates.”
We hid our uneasiness by playing up these ignorant Northern stereotypes about Ozark country. Never mind that local folks were cordial. Never mind that the autumn hills were drop-dead gorgeous, rolling through an outdoor-recreation mecca. Ever since I heard that Harrison, our small, isolated destination, had a notorious racial history I wanted to visit and see for myself.
George would later challenge how I dragged him into dubious or even dangerous situations. He was right about my impetuousness. I could always wear my white skin like a calling card while he wore a black one like a target.
That was no joke. Because nearly all of Harrison’s black community was chased out of town during racial turmoil in 1905 and 1909, the town had a terrible reputation in the region. On Halloween, Harrison kids in ghost costumes were accused of wearing Klan sheets. Even for racial reconciliation events, out of town students of color had to be coaxed to visit. Despite assurances and warm welcomes, minority visitors thought they’d need protection to survive their stay.
Inflicting one more gash in the town’s tarnished reputation, a Ku Klux Klan activist rented a Harrison Post Office box. Even though the Klansman lived in another town, he wanted that special Harrison address for his mailings. On our way to meet with town’s racial relations task force, George and I spotted a huge new billboard near our meeting place: Anti-Racism is A Code Word for Anti-White.
Huh? Maybe the weak motel coffee couldn’t wake our brains, but after a glance George and I didn’t really get the message. Then it dawned on us the billboard was accusing racial harmony advocates of attacking white people. Weird in a virtually all-white town.
In fact, the billboard had just recently attracted more unwanted attention to Harrison. Wikipedia had already posted that with the town’s “negative image…racial attitudes remain in question, as attested by a recent billboard sign on the eastern edge of town.” News media from as far away as Europe poised to pounce on Harrison’s need for “attitude” adjustment. The UK’s Guardian was already devoting ink to the town’s agony.
In town for only a day, I didn’t know what the hell to think. We arrived at our morning meeting with the task force unable to guess what would greet us behind the door—defensiveness, bitterness, suspiciousness of our motives for visiting? George looked grim. I figured he was loaded for bear.
But he would soon be disarmed, and so would I.
Free of fake history, but decked out in early 19th Century native Indian costumes, Travis and Jennifer spoke with straight-ahead 21st Century bluntness. In the hallway of Oklahoma’s only antebellum plantation, we had a hurried, intense conversation before a troop of giddy schoolkids arrived on a field trip. I was glad the kids would have these two student interns as guides.
When asked about Southern identity, Travis told us he was Cherokee first, Oklahoman second, and “not really much Southern at all.” From the eastern border with Arkansas, he seemed surprised that anybody would assume otherwise. His fellow docent at the Murrell Plantation, Jennifer, felt Choctaw first, but strongly Southern, too. She’d grown up close to Texas in far south Oklahoma and felt the pull of the heritage.
George and I met them in the rural, 1840’s mansion set in the rolling green pasture and woodland south of Tahlequah. Rumored to be haunted, it sure felt Southern, oozing gracious living with spacious interiors, period furnishings, and rough shacks just outside. This excellent restoration of Oklahoma’s only remaining antebellum plantation told the tale of rich European-American fortunes wed to Indian tragedy, just after the Trail of Tears exiled Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws and other tribes from Carolina and Tennessee. The plantation filled us with questions about the ownership of slaves and their role in the family’s success; Murrell himself had ties to the Confederacy.
Travis and Jennifer both felt their history educations steered them away from such Oklahoma atrocities as the 1921 Tulsa riots (not mentioned at all in their schooling). In their texts, the Trail of Tears “got a paragraph” Travis said, squeezing his thumb and forefinger. We talked about the pressure not to discuss painful episodes from history. The two young Indians felt their elders did not want to disturb the current peace under those old storm clouds.
The wood shacks turned out be early settler cabins moved to the grounds. When George and I walked a short distance into a natural area, a local man warned us about nearby “wild dogs.”
We learned about European-American wild dogs at the nearby Cherokee Heritage Museum. Exhibits told the Trail of Tears narrative, complete with 1830’s documents and re-created sound effects of the terrible conditions, the whiplash of cruelty. Not only did the whites steal the lands of the Southeastern tribes, but a staggering number of Indians died on the long forced march into Oklahoma.
This history is tough to face, but the museum presents it with dramatic clarity and elegance. A grace note is that upon leaving the Trail of Tears rooms, the exit takes the visitor through a gallery of native success stories in contemporary Oklahoma.
We had to hit the road, still freaked out by the cruelty of the Trail of Tears narrative. We were bound for a place that wasn’t necessarily going to make us feel any better: a town in Arkansas bedeviled by a rogue Klansman and notorious for having expelled its entire African-American population.
George, who is black, was not necessarily happy about my plan to stay there after sundown.
First morning in Tulsa, we passed officially into the South: at a local diner, we were asked, “you want grits with that?” Yes, we had entered the Grits Zone. (They were, to be sure, gritty).
Three years ago, when my writing partner Kristen and I drove to Oklahoma for the first time, I remember crossing into both the “y’all” zone and the “hon” zone right after we crossed the border into the Panhandle. I liked being “y’all” all by myself, and being “hon” to all the females.
But things got serious. I had joined Kristen to cover the 15 year commemoration of the Oklahoma City terror bombing in 1995, along on my own a simple quest: to find out if Oklahoma was really in the South—as opposed to West or Midwest. I quickly found that most Oklahomans I spoke to jumped to self-identify as Southerners. When I learned about segregation in the 1950’s from Kristen’s aunt, I thought I had made some ah-hah discovery—even though OK was never in the Confederacy, it endured all the same conflicts and changes as the Deep South did during the Civil Rights era.
Now I realize how naïve I was. There was never any mystery or controversy about Oklahoma’s Southern status. When it became a state in 1907, Oklahoma’s first law was to create legal racial segregation—Jim Crow.
Yesterday, looking over the ruins of Tulsa’s Greenwood district, where the empty streets, the steps and driveways to nowhere still evoke the 1921 Greenwood Race War as if it happened yesterday. To my travel partner George, it was like a Civil War battlefield without grave markers or monuments—or explanations, a ghostly blank. In fact, many of the black victims of the white mobs were buried in unmarked graves.
Greenwood cements Oklahoma’s tragic place in the South’s racial nightmare. The Confederate Flag, which had no connection to the state’s true history (having become a state more than forty years after the end of the Civil War) flew over the state capitol until the 1970’s—the same era when the taboo to discuss the Race War on Greenwood by both whites and blacks began to lift.
Prosperous, well-educated, African-American Greenwood neighborhood was destroyed by raging white mobs—thousands of houses burned to the ground or strafed from the air (by Sinclair Oil -provided planes), hundreds killed or injured, and a whole community driven from their homes. Many took refuge in the surrounding woods, only to be confronted by white strangers bearing guns.
Greenwood prospered again after the 1921 attacks, the former residents rebuilding without access to loans or insurance compensation. ( Julius Pegues of the Franklin Hope Center told us many of the residents were skilled builders.) But the neighborhood revived only to be destroyed again by 1960’s “urban renewal” and is now just a small remnant of itself, squeezed under a freeway overhead and a minor league ballpark on its flank.
Even though a brilliant new monument (by Denver sculptor Ed Dwight) and a cultural center stand today to educate and commemorate the vanished community, and many studies and books are devoted to Greenwood’s history, it remains unknown to many Americans, and even most Oklahomans. It’s as if the “largest civil disturbance in our country,” that attack on Americans by Americans in America, is still a secret history for most of us.
The completely emptied Greenwood streets we wandered are explained away by some locals as victims of the freeway construction and decline of black household fortunes in the 1960’s. Footsteps from Greenwood dead zone, though, a whiter neighborhood named Brady Heights is reviving and gentrifying with Tulsa’s official blessing, even though it’s bisected by two freeways.
Brady Heights is named for Tate Brady, a Ku Klux Klan member who participated in the white mob that destroyed Greenwood.
We left Tulsa to search for two of Oklahoma’s once thriving “All-Black Towns,” where Southern blacks fleeing sharecropping penury and prejudice hoped to stake claims in Oklahoma’s 1880s land run. They succeeded until racist officials decided all-Black communities posed a political threat and imposed Jim Crow even before statehood. Today many of the towns are ghosts. (Is this a ghost story?)
We found Red Bird, a dispersed crossroads today, and Tullahassee, the oldest town, where collapsing buildings indicate past grandeur, stone churches and even a college. Seven stray kittens greeted us on an abandoned main street, and cast-off sofas decorated a side street.
We’ll drive from Denver to Tulsa starting Sunday, Oct. 20. in my ancient Honda Civic. (If the gov’mit is still closed, we’ll sneak onto Interstate 70 and act like the federal highways are open. Closed govt= no speed limit? Probably not, and my Civic can’t go very fast anyway.)
This leg of our long journey across the South starts with an end point. Even though we’ve been traveling across Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and Texas,
and even though we have a lot more terrain to cover, the Tulsa trip will represent the “official” ending of the book—because we like the symmetry of beginning in Oklahoma (in April, 2010, our first road trip there) and ending in Oklahoma, full circle.
The Trail of Tears, forced Indian relocations in the early 1800’s, tragic expulsions from ancestral homes in the Southeast into Oklahoma, ended near Tulsa. We’ll be exploring another chapter in America’s history of ethnic cleansing, the race riots in Tulsa’s African-American Greenwood district in 1921. White mobs attacked the whole community, destroying a neighborhood so prosperous it was nicknamed the “Wall Street of the West.” There was even aerial bombardment of homes and businesses, perhaps the first (and only?) attack from the air of Americans by Americans in America.
We’ll be visiting with scholars and citizens to get a sense of Tulsa’s attempts to commemorate the event. We’ll also meet with Denver sculptor (and astronaut) Ed Dwight, who designed the Greenwood memorial.