CONTESTED HISTORY IN SWAN QUARTER, NORTH CAROLINA: “Nothing like that ever happened…”
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.
GUNNING FOR CONFLICT AND GETTING HARD TRUTHS: Richmond and Williamsburg, Virginia
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.
Virginia, One Hell of a Mother
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.
TERROR IN TENNESSEE
Looking for My Ancestor’s War Battles and Finding a Modern Riot
After exploring the site of my great-grandfather’s brutal battle in Franklin, Tennessee, we would soon learn about our nation’s first major racial disturbance after World War II, along with meeting a spirited defender of the Old South. By the way, George and I would also learn about the World’s Mule Capital and the filming location for Hannah Montana.
Our planned route south, out of Tennessee, already traced my great-grandfather’s Civil War marching orders. To set foot on another of Austin Patton’s battle sites, we crossed the Duck River, site of war skirmishes tand into the small city of Columbia. From my homework, I knew that Columbia was famous as the World’s Mule Capital and host of Mule Days. Besides being the filming location for Hannah Montana, Columbia headquartered the Sons of the Confederacy, and was the hometown of President James K. Polk, who led the country into the Mexican War to expand slavery’s reach. Columbia was also the site of the first major disturbance of the modern civil rights movement, the “race riot” of 1946.
George and I went to the visitor center to learn of any commemorative sites for both the battles of the Civil War and civil rights. We found the place unoccupied except for an older woman reading, or maybe sleeping, when George and I walked in. For a moment, I feared she had passed out, face down in an open book, and was about to check on her when her head popped up. Appraising the two tall men who’d disrupted her rest, she immediately became animated. Spry and wiry, apparently a volunteer manning the center for the afternoon, Deane Hendricks engaged us with fervor. When I timidly mentioned seeking Civil War sites and my great-grandfather’s possible battle here, Deane startled me by praising Klan founder and Confederate hero Nathan Bedford Forrest, and handed me a pamphlet about him, “Arch-Angel of Confederacy.” Deane asked what role my great-grandfather served in the Confederate Army.
Oh no. There was nothing to do but reveal that Austin was a Yankee, fighting for the Ohio Infantry.
Deane looked at me evenly and absorbed the news quietly, but not for long. She suggested we sit down, so I took a place at a small table while George kept his distance on the far edge of an adjacent bench. Deane sat across from me, folding her hands, and launched into a free-ranging tutorial about Civil War history. She went into moving detail about postwar starvation across Tennessee, along with many other personal hardships borne by ordinary Southerners. And did I realize George Washington was really a rebel? Confederates were merely continuing his work against another faraway, tyrannical power…The North!
A torrent of corrective information followed at random, including how the “redneck” was a result of deprivation, too. Returning Confederate soldiers didn’t have detachable collars to cover their necks, so they got sunburnt when working the farm. “Blacks and Yankee soldiers would laugh at them, call them red necks.” By the way, Deane went on, “Your General Sherman was a war criminal, period. Even though black people saw him as a God, he hated them. He let his men rape not just white women but black women, too. So many black people drowned.” Deane glanced over to George. “Sherman neglected them, wouldn’t even feed them.”
Daylight was burning, and I realized I had to squeeze in a question about modern Columbia. We needed information about the 1946 racial disturbance, so we could get oriented to the location, and seek local sources of memory and commemoration. But Deane ignored my question as a white couple entered. She sprang up and began to gush over Mule Day and the other wonders of Columbia, dismissing George and me without warning.
We decided to visit the county library, right around the corner. The reading room was busy but hushed, so when I asked a reference librarian if there were some commemorative marker or historical display where I could find out more about the town’s 1946 racial disturbance, I felt self-conscious. I lowered my voice but it carried; heads turned. My northern accent must have been obvious. Chairs swiveled. Books and newspapers were set aside. A librarian, Adam Southern, though, responded immediately and offered details. Adam was actually working on an oral history capturing the 1946 riot’s surviving voices.
One of his colleagues stepped forward and gently chided him. “Working on it, Adam? When are you going to take it out of the drawer and finish it?” Two other staff members gathered around like a settling flock, engaged but quiet, watchful (George later said, “more wary than watchful”). Adam went on, undeterred by the attention. Like any good historian he stuck to the facts.
There was no commemoration, he told me, and nothing marked. His colleague nodded, stating that most people in town either knew little about the riot or wanted to forget about it. In 1946, though, the violence brought national media attention to Columbia, largely because it was among the first racial disturbances after World War II and its protagonist was an African-American Navy veteran who’d just served in the Pacific. The vet grew concerned when a white clerk in a radio shop became aggressive with his mother. The small incident exploded: the vet and clerk got into an altercation, the shop window was smashed, the clerk crashed through it, and the vet was charged with felony intent to kill the shopkeeper—who was quite alive. A white mob gathered at the county courthouse.
It got worse and worse. Black veterans and citizens also gathered, just a block downhill from the courthouse around an African-American commercial district, the Mink Slide. Some were armed, and when four police officers entered the Mink Slide, gunfire wounded all four. As white citizens encircled the district, state police arrived and went on a rampage. The officers rioted, shooting and stealing at random, conducting warrantless home searches to confiscate private weapons, and arresting over a hundred black citizens, all deprived of any legal recourse. Police killed two African-Americans held in custody. The overt violence sparked a six-month grand jury case over law enforcement’s unlawfulness.
Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer with the NAACP, came to the prisoners’ defense. Eventually, white juries dropped all charges against the white officers. Only one of the hundred blacks was ever convicted.
In the aftermath of the legal case, more state police villainy involved Thurgood Marshall in an incident confounding to those of us who grew up learning of him only as the hero of Brown vs. the Board of Education and as our first black Supreme Court Justice. In the fall of 1946, when Marshall left Columbia after the last trial, state patrolmen trailed his car. The officers stopped him on fake driving violations, essentially chasing Marshall and his associates through the woods and eventually taking him—Thurgood Marshall!—into custody for driving while drunk. The charge was so obviously bogus that a country judge dismissed it.
To this scene, out of a Jim Crow nightmare, Adam, along with his colleague Elizabeth, added a final chilling detail I had not read in any summaries of the riots and the legal cases. With Marshall alone in their patrol car, the officers intended to isolate Marshall at a river sandbar. “This was the historical ‘legal’ lynching spot,” Adam added. Luckily, after the fake drunk charge was dropped, Marshall’s allies escorted the legal team back to the highway.
Clearly, the 1946 Columbia riots marked a made-for-Hollywood instance of state terror in the U.S.A. Its perfect casting included a war veteran demanding respect and a valiant lawyer on the verge of becoming an American icon. The story was one of ultimate vindication for human dignity.
We followed Adam’s directions a few blocks west to scout our own impressions of the Mink Slide today. George and I weren’t surprised that Columbia did nothing to identify the site or remember it publicly. The watchful/wary reception my question inspired at the library still embarrassed me, making me feel every inch the intruding Yankee blundering, uninvited, through Dixie. Still, the short stretch between the library and Mink Slide was its own monument, a sad one erected not by hands but by hands off, decades of neglect. Blocks of soaped-over shops, weedy lots, abandoned gas stations and warehouses, shut-down businesses in an old brick storefronts led past a faded sign, “Dump’s Café,” and to the corner of West 8th and Main. Here was
the site of the 1946 riot, the once-segregated but thriving black business district. Now segregated from commerce and life itself, three impressive old two-story brick facades faced Main with sagging, rusting arcades and ply-boarded windows. A vacant lot faced an abandoned warehouse and an empty parking lot. Mink Slide looked like it had been abandoned for all the sixty-five years since the police rampaged there.
George and I strolled one block north, up a sloping, more promising block that connected the forlorn corner to the classic, light marble courthouse atop the hill. From this angle, downtown Columbia was a beauty, a collection of elegant brick commercial buildings ringing the courthouse’s tall, pillared white clock tower overlooking mostly abandoned businesses.
This pretty City on a Hill looked like a dead zone.
We tried out a theory: maybe the riot was so traumatic to Columbia it never recovered? It remained physically divided between white and black. East of the courthouse a shabby warehouse district occupied a holler-like bottomland. Across that holler and lining a hilltop opposite, a low-density mix of isolated smaller houses scattered on rural-like lanes, a few black folks walking here and there, a few places beautifully maintained and renovated, but most forlorn, and a few collapsing. The west side, on an opposing hill, was identical except it had white faces, more money for renovations, and an air of satisfied prosperity.
Had something altered, shifted, in the town’s orientation? Why was the county seat of a proudly historic region in the very middle of Middle Tennessee all so lifeless? George speculated it was truly that lawless riot of law enforcement, that travesty of justice in the 1940s, become an original sin that had cursed the town ever since.
Just down the road, we’d soon find an even more cursed Tennessee town, its sin so original that George didn’t want me to set foot in the place.
My Blood Claim on Southern Real Estate
Finding my great-grandfather’s battle ground in Franklin, Tennessee
Even if Franklin, Tennessee had been a toxic hellhole, I would’ve visited the town, site of one of the Civil War’s most sadistic and deadly battles. But just south of Nashville, Franklin was one of the richest communities in the entire country and fastidiously preserved, its village squares and quaint shops giving off an aroma of self-satisfied affluence.
I had to pay homage to my great-grandfather by walking in his footsteps. Years before, a historian at the National Soldier’s Home and Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio informed me that my great-grandfather had fought for the Ohio Infantry in Franklin. Austin Hill Patton was a teenage arrival from Ireland who fought for the Union. Since Austin enlisted so young, and since his son did not father my father until late in life, and since my father had me later in life, too, I ended up weirdly close in generational time to this Civil War ghost. I knew nothing more about him than what I learned in Dayton —that Austin entered what was then the Old Soldiers Home still in his forties, dying from a long list of physical ailments. The Dayton historian had told me it was no wonder he was in such terrible shape; my great-grandfather had fought in the “worst of the worst.”
Franklin, Tennessee. Three patchwork Civil War sites were stitched into the town’s development. Pizza joints, boutiques and golf courses covered the graves of generals and cannon fodder with equal disregard. George and I visited Carter House, a central point in the battle that once overwhelmed the entire town. I had a sentimental idea that I would stand in my unknown great-grandfather’s place, draw him closer and somehow dust off a century and a half of oblivion. I had a proprietary feel for this small farm, this set-aside of open land within the town, my own blood claim on Southern real estate. What I ended up learning was bloody, all right, and that I was tied to a much wider swathe of the South.
The battle of Franklin lasted only four or five hours on November 30, 1864. It was nearly suicidal and/or homicidal on both sides, pent-up vengeance seizing the forces for past humiliations and stand-offs. As the short November afternoon melted into darkness, the curtain was raised for “the last great drama of the war.” In a family’s cotton fields and private gardens, the armies unleashed lunatic violence and hatred. Many scholars describe the battle at Franklin as a psychodrama rather than a strategic maneuver. Some speculate it accomplished nothing and would have resulted in the same outcome—the next battle in Nashville—no matter what happened here at Franklin.
The excruciating Civil War ordeal of the Carter family was detailed with speed, passion, and poetry by our guide Robert Donald Cross, associate historian for the Battle of Franklin Trust. “Don’t call me Johnny Reb, I won’t call you Yank,” Rob said, then led us through the home and the family’s story with vivid detail, in the elevated diction of the era. We ended up in the basement, just as the family did as they waited out the siege, bullets flying ceaselessly above them. Scores of bullet holes still riddling the outbuildings and walls gave silent testimony to what must have been relentless pandemonium overhead.
Rob stressed the battle’s terrible losses. Over two thousand men were killed within hours, more killed in less time than on any other day in the entire war. Corpses were left standing, propped by other corpses. The Carters’ fields of wheat, corn and cotton, then worked by their twenty-eight slaves, were now cemetery-like green turf. Franklin was built over countless unmarked graves.
As we wandered the site, George said, “Rob’s so intense, but keeping a lid on himself, like a pressure cooker. History is like a creation he wants us to understand. He’s expressing his art, trying to convey the best interpretation, to take us there.” George stared at a greensward that sloped toward a highway. “I just wonder, how is all this important to me?” Walking on, he wistfully answered his own question: “I guess, because I’m an American. It’s part of our kinship, and so, it must be part of me.”
We came to a slave cabin, cater-corner from the Carter House. Unlike a brick, gabled pump house nearby, the slave residence was a rough-hewn, one-room wooden shack with a dirty mattress thrown on the floor. “Where were the slaves,” George asked, “while the Carter family gathered in the basement?”
Back at the museum, Rob was working historical magic. With no more than my great-grandfather’s name and town, Springfield, Ohio, he had uncovered in-depth information on Austin Hill Patton’s Civil War engagements throughout the South. The vague scraps I’d learned in Dayton became a feast of specific data. Rob had memorized footnote citations and sub-numbers and knew arcane guideways to identify ordinary soldiers. Austin Hill Patton, 19, enlisted on January 27,1864, and mustered into Company I, 101st Ohio, 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 4th Army Corps. At the Franklin battle, he was probably sent to reinforce the center of main area near Carter house. My sentimental goal more than attained, I got chills thinking of that Irish kid enduring that carnage. My own great-grandfather shot or dodged some of those bullets still lodged in the walls.
But Rob told me so much more. It turned out that Austin took part in the Atlanta campaign. He served in several battles heading south into Atlanta—Rocky Face, Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain, Atlanta, and Jonesboro; battle grounds I had already seen with no idea of Austin’s presence in them. After that, presumably while Sherman went on scorching earth through Georgia, Austin was assigned to the Western campaigns, taking him north again, into the heart of Middle Tennessee: Columbia, Spring Hill, Franklin, and finally Nashville.
Weird how blood bonds animate the imagination’s capacity for connection.
Our conversation with Rob turned to his thoughts on certain Southern attitudes. A lifelong Tennessean, Rob felt “Southern xenophobia regarding the Civil War was sickening and idiotic.” He rebelled against the very term “Union” (favoring “Federal”) and the assumption that any Northerner is “just a Yankee.” He studied military history and found his passion for recovering soldiers’ stories after his father told him of his own great-great grandfather’s history in the Franklin battle.
See what I mean about blood bonds?
After closing time, Rob’s conversation got more personal. Inspired to join the service at age twenty-one, after the 9/11/01 attacks, he hoped “to fight on behalf of a “specific victim, to carry their picture with me into battle.” So Rob was devastated, during training, to be dismissed for heart murmur. He struggled, agonized by a sidelined feeling. At rock-bottom emotionally, he sought his pastor’s counsel. “My pastor told me flat out that I was an idiot. It was obvious, given my education in history: my calling was to educate others on war.”
That’s exactly what Rob devoted his career to, right at home in Franklin. Along with many public presentations and outreach for the Battle of Franklin Trust, Rob also counseled Vietnam veterans, drawing out their funniest stories, then eliciting the worst. “They hunger for their stories to be told truthfully.” Because the vets tell themselves tales of self-delusion in order to cope with atrocity, Rob explained, they struggle to be “truthful even to themselves.”
Another associate joined us and our talk turned to current social topics.. The two young historians thought that our times were “the worst, the most divisive, ever since the Civil War.” As at so many other cultural-historical stopovers on this journey, the staff at Carter House seemed astute and super-informed. The whole place gave the vibe of reverence for the past’s horrible burden and respect for those who sought to learn more, commemoration at its best. This was honoring the past and our ancestors with digging for depth. This was accepting the outcome of the search, no matter how savage or contradictory to some shallow patriotic or nostalgic narrative of our national story—that self-serving slant on history which George and I had come to call “The Pageant.” This wasn’t pageantry at Carter House; it was public truth-telling. Maybe this was the real patriotism.
Taking leave of Rob, full of gratitude, feeling I’d finally discovered my great-grandfather, I also felt the sting of history’s slap here in Middle Tennessee. Starting with my great-grandfather’s role as a youthful infantryman here, and after Rob’s intense interpretation, I’d felt blindsided by raw injustice and wanton violence, old blood gushing under my feet. I felt revulsion at what ought to have been unnecessary struggles for basic equality. The past was a wretched place. Would it always be?
Pleasure Ground on a Killing Field
Our Velveeta War Summit in Chattanooga, Tennessee
After our dead-end search for traces of George’s great-grandmother in South Carolina, we set off across the Appalachians in search of my great-grandfather’s Civil War battle site in Franklin, Tennessee. We took a few days to get there, first detouring into Chickamauga National Military Park. The Civil War battlefield had accidently saved a chunk of natural beauty in Chattanooga’s staggeringly ugly suburbs, a greensward built on war corpses. We learned that Civil War veterans had come together here in 1889, giving birth to the very idea of preserving the major battlefields: There will be no place here for…the show of wealth; no place for lovers to bide tryst; no place for pleasure-seekers or loungers.
In fact many visitors used the battlefield for lounging and pleasure seeking —bikers, joggers, and picnickers. I don’t know about trysting, but who knew what was shaking in those blushing thickets?
The battlefield parkland was stately, faithful to its “hallowed ground” sentiment and full of white marble monuments to military units from many states. Weirdly, combat started by accident and ended with a random, surprising breech of Union lines, the Confederates’ last victory on the South’s road to defeat. Often drunk, commanders on both sides could not communicate strategies, leaving troops in uproarious confusion. The Civil War’s second-bloodiest battle after Gettysburg ended with Chickamauga Creek running red.
Sunny and absorbing as this pleasure ground/killing field excursion was, our Chickamauga stopover also felt existential and stomach-churning, revelatory of things we didn’t really want revealed. George wondered about the “utility” of visiting battlefields at all, and I felt a chill, realizing he had named my own doubts about these touristic outings. Utility. The word mocked our very presence here, the very possibility of authenticity in travel and travel writing.
We soldiered on, even so, through the park’s heaps of historical fact. In the museum, we learned of the Union’s overall acceptance of Southern slavery. The North’s real fight and passion was over its extension into the Western territories, not the inhuman institution itself. Even Lincoln’s emancipation move may have been merely strategic. Not exactly our high school lessons of unmitigated Northern virtue.
Earlier, at a Waffle House breakfast, George and I had tried to define our ever-shifting Civil War attitudes over omelets gooey with processed cheese—a Velveeta War Summit. In the down-home chain diner’s cheery, multiracial atmosphere, we discussed our ways of relating to the Civil War, individually as Northern African-American or Average White Guy, or together as Westerners, or as Yankees, in the eyes of locals; and as ordinary modern Americans appalled by secession and slavery. Now at a popular pull-off-spot in the battlefield park, George and I roved different paths. He got itchy as the lone black guy while exploring a watchtower, feeling singled out or unwelcome, sensing the uneasiness of other visitors with his presence. When we rendezvoused at the car, I felt his estrangement. He wondered aloud if he was just being peevish, the unappeasable Race Man.
It stabbed me, how George had to suffer slights, then wonder if he really did. The battlefield was definitely White-landia, not only in the complexions of the visitors, but in the marginal mention of black roles and black stakes in this great battle. Here, of all places, the contest over who really possesses this history, who really belongs, went on and on. “The uneasiness is on both our parts,” George said. “Like neither me nor those white folks can know what the other is thinking. It’s like an awkward dance. The little courtesies just don’t flow. It seems to happen more down South, especially in places where ‘history’ happened. I felt it at Fort Sumter. I felt it in Charleston. Like I’m not supposed to breathe the rarified atmosphere.”
“Maybe we should stick to the Waffle House,” I tried to joke, thinking of the way adoring white waitresses fussed over him. The way a trio of girls at a fast food joint had gasped in joy, mistaking George for President Obama. Then he got to Chickamauga, and damn! That white stare that asks, what the fuck are you doing here?
At our last battlefield stop, a hilly overlook, vintage muscle cars lined the lane. Each one featured pairs of young women with fluorescent hair. We were told it was a photo shoot for a Chattanooga salon, Zombie Candi. The stylists posed, all
laughter and playful hauteur, while alone on the hood of one of the cars was the single black girl. George glanced at her, smiling sardonically. “I know just how she feels.”
* * * *
After Chickamauga’s battlefields, in old Rossville, we sought Cherokee chief John Ross’s house, a now-dilapidated wood structure surrounded by smelly ponds and helter-skelter commercial buildings.
I wondered what John Ross, the founder of Chattanooga, would think of the suburban town named in his honor. Rossville’s ugliness, notable even by metro Chattanooga standards, sprawled with no value but expediency. Here was a town which looked as if nothing was ever planned or improved over a couple hundred years. The site of one of America’s most tragic ethnic cleansings, Rossville today was nearly all-white, a centerless heap of strip businesses from the twentieth century’s cheap-gas car craze.
How beautiful the forests and hills must have been—like those shrouding the nearby Chickamauga battlefield—when Chief Ross lived here. Leaving aside Ross’s conflicting reputations as either the Moses of the Cherokee or an exploitative fraud, a blunt plaque underscored Andrew Jackson’s hostility to the Cherokee plight. After Ross failed in complicated legal challenges to stop the Indian Removal Act, in 1838 the Cherokee were ejected from Georgia and Tennessee on that deadly and torturous forced march to present-day Oklahoma , the Trail of Tears. Reduced to leading the removal himself, Ross lost his wife, who died en route.
A chain-link fence barred us from the historic home. It was a sad but apt commemoration: visitors fenced-out of the story, clinging instead to the metal bars and wondering which side encircled the real prison.
GHOSTS IN AN UNDEAD HISTORY
Starting the Search for Our Lost Ancestors in Greenville, South Carolina
As George and I sped toward Greenville, the horizon looked hazy, even haunted.
But in the South, it seemed too tempting to apply “haunted” to nearly everything in its ghostly, undead history. Sometimes the physical beauty of Southern landscapes tantalized me so that I couldn’t resist what waited to ambush us from those thickets and rocky outcrops.
Without knowing it yet, I was already traveling in the path of my great-grandfather’s ghost, northward to where he’d fought in Tennessee. As a teenage Irish immigrant, he’d joined Ohio Infantry in the horrific Civil War battles of Franklin and Nashville. I imagined that bloody terrain, beyond the horizon, daring me to follow his footsteps.
But first, we had another errand here in South Carolina, tracing the steps of another ancestor lost to recorded history, George’s great-grandmother. We couldn’t prepare ourselves for what was next, what we’d find and what had vanished.
* * * *
The Greenville Cultural Exchange Center was a homey museum of the city’s African-American history, where founder and curator Ruth Ann Butler devoted her afternoon to George’s search for his great-grandmother. Though George had followed every lead we obtained at the South Carolina State Archives in Columbia, the results were pathways to dead ends. He still had only those rumors of her pioneering preaching. We did not have so much as a name, only George’s sister’s belief that their great-grandmother’s name started with an “L.” We had L.’s husband’s name, and her daughter’s—George’s grandmother’s—record of birth in Greenville, dated 1905. We knew that L. died young, because within a few years, her daughter was an orphan.
I felt as if we were on the edge of some crucial discovery. Ruth Ann continued with her roll call of Carolinian names if she were resurrecting a lost soul each time she found someone. “I have never not found a person,” she assured George.
As Ruth Ann and George continued checking, exhausting computerized lists, I became distracted but enthralled. The Cultural Exchange Center seemed exactly the right place to be, occupying a vintage house on a tranquil tree-lined street at the edge of Sterling, Greenville’s historically African-American neighborhood. Ruth Ann Butler had created the museum in 1987, inspired to preserve the city’s black history.
When George took a moment to enter notes on his tablet, he mentioned our book project to Ruth Ann and left me a moment to chat with her. It was a distinct possibility that George’s great-grandmother had attended an early, vanished version of the neighborhood’s first black high school. A later, larger incarnation of Sterling High School was legendary; Rev. Jesse Jackson was an alumnus. Ruth Ann, a one-time history teacher who’d written a history of the school, had herself attended Sterling High alongside Rev. Jackson. Ruth Ann told me that when school integration was on the horizon, Sterling High burned in 1967. Officially the cause was faulty wiring, but many considered it to have been racially motivated arson. At this point, Georgepulled me aside. “I think we’ve got all the information we’re going to get here,” he said.
Over that evening’s dinner at a Mexican joint, George got on my case about why I hadn’t jumped in sooner to interview Ruth Ann Butler about her own identity as a Southerner. “I gave you an opening, and you ignored it. You need to talk to more African Americans,” he said, as if I didn’t talk to one big skinny African American every day of this journey, the one across from me, climbing again atop his high race horse. He had a point, though; most of our conversations in Georgia and South Carolina had been with whites. But his reprimand sideswiped me because I had deliberately kept out of the discussion at the Cultural Exchange, thinking our mission there was to focus on the search for his great-grandmother and not my inquisitions of Southerners.
George scoffed. “You have to reach out more. You can’t dismiss the importance of black people.”
“Have a heart,” I told him, steaming behind my glass of Dos Equis. His stern, Mr. African-American-Know-It-All demeanor heightened my insecurities about our whole Southern identity project. I felt like the Clueless White Westerner again, tongue-tied, slow-witted and feckless. Whether planned or random, our encounters with Southern folks were unpredictable. Later I reflected that we were just irritable, waking to an uncomfortable truth. Though Ruth Ann Butler had never not found anyone, maybe George’s great-grandmother would be her first hopelessly lost soul. The center’s database only chased us into more false leads and dead ends. And it made me wonder what had compelled us to chase her ghost on our journey in the first place. What were we really looking for? Why had I become so invested in searching for a young woman whose footprints had long vanished? The Lady Reverend Starts-with-“L” was completely unconnected to me, and a stranger to her grand-grandson George as well.
What was I really doing down here in Dixie, anyway? Who the hell did I think I was, interpreting the entire freaking Southern U.S.A. in tinker-toy rental cars and budget motels? Ours, the Quality Inn, was hosting Gun, Knife & Militaria Show attendees from all over the region. That night, somebody punched through a wall a few doors down. In the morning, the manager repaired a kicked-in door next to ours. In the disrupted breakfast room, the trays of powdered eggs and instant grits were empty, every scrap, as if invading Gun and Knife Militarians had devoured all of Greenville at dawn.
* * * *
Next morning, in the Carolina Room of the Greenville County Public Library, no matter how much we might be shooting guns and knives in the dark, our search continued. When George asked about local orphanages, the librarian produced zip-locked packets of articles and clippings, a treasure trove of news about Upstate South Carolina orphan care from late 1800s through the 1950s. The daunting pile was instantly simplified when we realized that —of course —all orphanages had been segregated. Possibilities narrowed to the Colored Orphanage in Pickens, twenty miles northwest of Greenville. Only one tiny clipping, lonely in its zip-lock, referenced the Colored Orphanage in passing. Leafing through the white files for any accidental scrap of further reference to the black ones, I found a typical quote from one white orphans’ home, which stressed in cheerful prose the children’s great fortune to be housed with such caring folk: “Children from any section of our country are welcome provided they are fatherless, of tender years, and in need of aid.”
And provided they were white.
Encouraged even by the microscopic clipping about the Colored Orphanage, we left Greenville through a tangle of exurban sprawl to Pickens. I was psyched by the first humps of the Appalachian foothills, cloaked in color. Maple leaves sighed down, orange and scarlet.
Pickens was a small, quiet county seat, dating back to the 1820s, with handsome, historic brick storefronts lining its main street. Housed in the former jail, the county museum had an obliging curator who verified that a colored orphanage once existed here. But he did not have any specific knowledge of, or location for, the long-vanished institution.
So that’s how it was going to be. George could contact further leads from home in Colorado, but our face-to-face prospects here had gone cold. Aiming for our next destinations and appointments over the Blue Ridge into Tennessee, we took a detour up to Mount Sassafras, the very top of South Carolina.
On our Sassafras perch we peered southeast, so high and so distant from Greenville’s sprawl we saw no signs of human settlement. Maybe this was the way the Cherokee saw it, an endless forest, the far blue mountains merging into a flawless sky.
“Another absence instead of a presence,” George proclaimed, cryptic.
But I got it. Maybe. Black Americans’ search for their past was a reach into an absence–lost records, vanished orphanages and burned schools. The cruel paradox made me admire Ruth Ann Butler’s efforts even more, her forthright energy and joy a kind of poetry connecting the unconnected, calling home the names of the nameless.
A CONFEDERACY OF THE MIND
Under the Rebel Flag in Columbia, South Carolina
The Confederate flag still waved high beside the State House in Columbia, South Carolina, next to a statue of a rebel fallen to the Lost Cause.
That flag marked the epicenter of the capital city. I remembered the national controversy, in 2000, when, after a damaging boycott of South Carolina sponsored by the NAACP, the rebel flag was removed from the top of the State House dome to this place on the grounds. Even this small compromise, moving the flag a few hundred yards, was hard-fought. The conflict continued into the 2010’s without resolution. It underscored the passion of some white South Carolinians for their slaveholding heritage. State Representative Leon Howard believed the taxpayers deserved better than more of South Carolina’s “confederacy of the mind.”
The state’s Conservative Action Council still wanted to restore the flag to the top of the dome, staging protests in full Confederate regalia. Their chairman asserted that the flag’s removal was “ethnic cleansing” for European-Americans and claimed that whites no longer had a place in a multicultural society. His secretary added that the rebel flag “stands for the Confederate troops who sacrificed so much and in many cases paid the ultimate price for the freedoms we know today.”
Amid the State House’s subtropical gardens, a 2001 memorial by a Denver sculptor paid homage to African-American contributions. I could see in Ed Dwight’s bronze frieze those who really paid the price for the freedoms we know today. I couldn’t think of a single freedom—or a single advance or achievement—we gained from the Confederacy’s secession. Dwight’s frieze choked me up with its upright truths. In a wide V, the figures spanned the centuries: from transports of bound slaves, to nineteenth century freedom fighters, contemporary judges, athletes, astronauts (of which Dwight himself was the among the first), and, as George said, “just plain ol’ people at work, the ones we sometimes forget to commemorate.” Beside the bronze panels, Dwight’s memorial included a map in black marble depicting the Atlantic slave trade, a gathering of lines linking West African nations to a tight web of netting, cinched at Charleston harbor. I was glad South Carolina had the guts to present this ugly aspect of its true history, even if it was tucked beside the State House. But why wasn’t this the memorial occupying Columbia’s busiest intersection, beside the Confederate battle flag?
The Civil War brought the near-total destruction of antebellum Columbia. In February 1865, General Sherman’s scorched-earth march took a left turn after Savannah and cut a diagonal back inland to destroy the capital of the state where the Confederacy was born. A widespread fire, its causes still controversial (of course), preceded Sherman’s approach. A Union division advanced ahead of the incendiary General and either started or fought the ensuing conflagration of Columbia. When Confederate forces retreated, they reputedly set cotton bales alight, adding to the flames. Sherman finished the job the day after the great fire, destroying every remaining vestige of the city’s transportation infrastructure and industries.
The city never fully recovered. Unlike Macon, Savannah, and Charleston, with their extensive historic zones, Columbia had only a patchwork of remnants. Maybe Columbia needed progressive goals, not another debate on flying the rebel flag.
* * * *
Before we left Columbia, George needed to visit the State Archives. He wanted to search upstate South Carolina for traces of his great-grandmother, (All George knew was that she may have been a pioneering female African-American preacher and did not even have her first name.) We hoped that this state agency, charged with preserving records of all kinds, might have the genealogical key. But first we had to find the facility, leaving Columbia to meander into the forested hills north of the city where we circled a gleaming, curvaceous complex in wonderment. “This can’t be it,” we both blurted, astonished at the scale of the place, the sterile plaza, the sea-green wall of windows, the long setback arrayed with concrete, barrel-style barriers.
Inside, the state archives offices welcomed us immediately. The state archivist explained the course of other such obscure ancestor searches. “It’s so hard when there are no clear paper records,” he said, “because birth certificates were rare before the early 20th Century. But it’s not impossible.” Around us, other visitors, often elder and middle-aged family pairings, worked away diligently at genealogical records. Our archivist hit upon a new, last angle, telling George to try church records around Greenville, where family lore believed his great-grandmother had settled.
Leaving the records offices, we admired the archivists’ professionalism, the time and effort taken with outsiders, no questions asked, the very model of a first-rate, egalitarian government service. The scale of the place puzzled us, this magnificent, modern, self-contained palace of records, expensive for any low-tax state on Great Recession starvation budgets. Then, crossing the enormous, bomb-proofed plaza, all so far from the central city, it hit me. I recalled the tales of chaotic property claims in the post Civil War Low Country, how legal documents had been shipped to secure, inland, soon-to-be-burned Columbia for safekeeping. Given the state had been threatened with outright destruction in the Civil War, it was no wonder South Carolina had housed its records in this tucked-away, terror-proofed facility.
The air was heavy and faintly smoky over the capital, just over the wooded horizon. The afternoon’s foggy drizzle evaporated into red-filtered haze. I realized that without planning to, George and I had followed Sherman as if on a march ourselves, from the outskirts of Atlanta down through his fake-out in Macon to his real target in Savannah. Now, we’d ended up tracing Sherman’s cinder trail to his final bonfire here in Columbia. Imagine the ashes, I thought, on the day Sherman’s men torched the city, and/or Confederate soldiers lit cotton bales to deny him the spoils of war.
A citizen fleeing Columbia’s destruction would’ve tasted ashes even on this distant hilltop, ashes still sifting over all that we have won and lost.
It’s All Settled: Searching for Something Wild in South Carolina
Where the Hell Was Everybody?
Heading out of Charleston, detemined to find South Carolina’s “wild” landscapes, George and I passed through north end neighborhoods few tourists explore. An easy stroll from the groomed, cobblestoned historic district, narrow streets squeezed scruffy multi-family conversions and shacks into charmless blocks. Stray dogs wandered empty, weedy lots. Here and there, a human being actually emerged, wandering alone or waiting for a bus against the slap of traffic. The solitary faces were almost always black. Where had we seen this before? “Macon,” George said, “just southeast of the historic homes area. And the south side of Savannah, exactly the same. City neighborhoods that look like rural shantytowns.”
We would end up in truly rural shantytowns after we fought our way out of town, surrendering to the ease of Interstate 26. A diagonal straight to the capital city, the freeway cut across the Low Country’s dense woodland, heavy traffic zooming through what appeared to be a complete wilderness. Only the fast food signs and oil company logos poking above the greenery told us we’d returned to Anywhere America. This generic, corporate-logo landscape blurred on, flat and featureless, so we decided to abort the autobahn. We escaped on a rural route that would wind to Columbia via Congaree National Park.
Almost immediately, on the two-lane blacktop toward tiny St. Matthews, we re-entered the South. The forested “wilderness” skirting the Interstate was nothing but a green façade screening the Carolina reality of pastureland surrounding shabby, isolated farmhouses and rural holdings. Every inch of it looked claimed and settled, whether tended or neglected.
South Carolina as a whole ranked 42nd in median income and this region was even poorer than the state average. St. Matthews existed on barely two-thirds of that. Forlorn and discarded-looking, the town was blur of country highways emptying into long-gone businesses and abandoned gas stations. As far as real estate values, a MasterCard could mortgage a house or trailer, or both. Poor as it was, Calhoun County was not as desperate as its neighbors, ranked “critical” in poverty rates.
Outside St. Matthews, heading into open country, we found a surreal, white-tufted landscape cut into the dense pine and beech forests. Here the white fields would be intense and bright; there they’d fade, the tufts just emerging. “Cotton!” George called out. “It’s cotton. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it growing before.”
The fields, in several stages of growth, had a vivid, fantastic quality, especially against the dark, lurking borders of forest. Completely giving in to our gee-whiz touristic status, we stopped the car to take pictures of…well, cotton. Soon we passed small, nameless settlements lining the obscure road, just as shacky and run-down as those poor neighborhoods in Macon and Charleston, the faces just as African-American. But instead of those urban zones’ emptied disquiet, these crossroads villages hopped with agrarian busyness. Men hoisted bales onto awaiting trucks and warehouses teemed with movement. Women in storefront snack bars stirred steaming pots while kids criss-crossed dirt turnouts on bikes.
Even among Southern states, South Carolina ranks high in its percentage of rural residents, around 40 percent. George and I wandered deep within that world now, devoid of fast food, franchise services, and big-box retailers. There were no stressed-out, hunched humanoids staring at tiny screens; around us, people moved with exuberant steps and emphatic gestures. This cotton country had an eternal, yet improvisational feel, as if the fields had been here for centuries, unchanged, while the crooked wood-slat shacks might disappear tomorrow without a trace.
Nearby, after several twists, turns, and U turns, we discovered what the land would look like if the settlements disappeared. Congaree National Park was so obscure it didn’t even appear on Google’s map of South Carolina. Completely unlike the National Parks in the West, usually set off from human encroachment, Congaree existed amid private holdings, just another turn-off on a rural lane lined by mailboxes and churches. We pulled into an empty parking lot and, alone, found an abandoned visitor’s center—all the opposite of Western parks, where finding parking could be a crisis, where crowds thronged displays and besieged rangers for information.
With an entire National Park to ourselves on a mellow, warm afternoon, we grabbed a paper guide and toured a boardwalk loop. At last, a hike! A very easy, flat one, organized as a raised-boardwalk nature trail, it became our education in southeastern trees: beech, loblolly, canebrake, tupelo, pawpaw, and dog hobble. At the very verge of the swampy Low Country and the rolling Piedmont uplands, Congaree specialized in mucky bogs and drying seepages. Everywhere, mossy, elegant branches spoke of patience and slow time, the secret work of heat, sluggish water, and abundant natural compost. Congaree’s “champion trees,” the tupelos reached higher than any other species east of the Mississippi River. Besides its prolific aquatic and avian species–a globally important bird area–Congaree also preserved North America’s largest remaining old-growth bottomland forest, whichwas almost lost in the 1960’s to logging. This International Biosphere Reserve was such a beautiful, serene place, such an important transition between two major biospheres, and a major preserve in its own right. So where the hell was everybody?
Given that the Federal wildlands of the South were so small and hemmed-in by settlements, I wondered why they weren’t thronged by nature lovers. When I’d asked Southerners about adjacent wildlands, some answered, “But why would you want to go there? It’s just a swamp/a thicket/a tangle. Full of bugs and nasty critters. I’ve never been out there, myself.”
Rambling the last stretch of our loop, a ranger approached us, having just pulled off her official jacket. Surprised to encounter two Yankee strangers, she immediately made sure we had all the information we needed, and in an intimate, chatty tone, shared her love of the place with us. Off duty and ending her day with a ramble around her workplace just out of sheer adoration, she was making me fall in love with the South, and Congaree, and tree-hugging rangers.
The ranger raised her bare arms to the soft breeze and the sun sinking behind the high canopy spooky with Spanish moss. She smiled big and wished us a good visit. At last, in the closest thing to a wild place we could find in the Low Country, here was another Southerner I could understand.
TWO HUNDRED YEARS A SLAVE TRADER: Charleston, South Carolina
A Graceful Little City Built on a Soul-killing System
Packing Charleston’s expansive visitor center, tourists signed up for pirate tours, ghost haunts, dungeon walks, and plantation garden tickets. But George and me? We picked up a freebie map and strolled toward the Old Slave Mart. About our speed.
Charleston proved to be unsettling—an unhinged, continual ying-yang. Its well-preserved historic beauty and progressive present melded with a past of stark evil. The majority of stolen Africans shipped to America arrived via Charleston harbor. Longtime mayor Joe Riley speculated that 80 percent of African-Americans could connect an ancestor to Charleston.
The Old Slave Mart museum, small and dramatic, was housed in the last existing building actually used as slave auction “gallery” after public slave sales were banned in 1856. The ground floor seemed no larger than a pet shop. Its first section was the showroom. The word gave me gooseflesh, dehumanizing the merchandise sold here 150 years before, as if human beings were mere machines, Jeeps or Toyotas. (The structure actually served as an auto dealership in the 1920’s.)
The recreated voice of a slave narrative from the WPA project boomed around that first squeezed showroom. Blunt and vivid, the former slave’s memories detailed the auction’s degradations. Around a corner, sound effects intruded—traders’ voices, horse hooves clomping—as we read panel after panel supplying uncompromising facts about the slave business, the efforts of slaves to display themselves as more healthy or more worthless, to avoid cruel owners, gain bearable positions, and keep their families intact. We were spared a visit to the barracoon, where slaves were shackled before auctions, and the “dead room,” both long razed for a rear parking lot. Absorbed and appalled, George and I explored the slave mart realizing that we’d actually joined a ghost tour after all. Slavery seemed a haint that couldn’t be ignored in pretty, preening Charleston, rattling its chains across the centuries.
The relentless procession of facts overwhelmed us, such as the small number of Carolinians actually involved in owning and trading most slaves—3 percent owned 95 percent. Three lousy percent. It royally pissed me off to the consider horrific global and national consequences from this tiny number of slave masters. Four years of fratricidal war to preserve such a rare prerogative?
After our tour, we circled back to the gift/book shop. George stepped out for fresh air (and reprieve, I think) while I perused a Gullah dictionary. A young African-American woman behind the counter wanted to know if she could help me, and I said I’d love to know how to get closer to the Gullah dialect. She took umbrage. “Start with that children’s book, then,” she said, pointing, “because you will be like a child when it comes to learning Gullah.”
I caught her tone and attitude, familiar to me from my halting forays among black radicals when I was a student. Ah, I was again the Blundering White Dude, trespassing where he wasn’t welcome, another whitey bound to misunderstand. With no idea that I was interested linguistically, the clerk pivoted toward bad faith. Maybe she thought I was going to break out in ridicule, pronouncing deese’s and dat’s.
But after we chatted about the cultural biases we all so easily slip into, country folk versus city slickers, South versus North, she pivoted back and warmly shared with me a detailed picture of Gullah in her own background—she grew up just outside the city—and her family’s relationships, her girlhood adventures with her country relatives on the Sea Islands and those who lived in and around Charleston itself. Her relatives, she recounted with pride, had once hosted a white linguist while he studied the Sea Islands Creole. “If I figure you out in time,” she was told me, “I might just invite you for dinner at my granny’s.”
It wasn’t exactly a firm invitation, but I appreciated it. When George came back into the museum foyer and stood at my side, the clerk shared a few common Gullah sayings with him. She seemed amused and bemused by George, this tall, self-possessed Northern black man, and recounted some of our conversation about Gullah culture for his benefit. She implored George to understand that Gullah was virtually the lodestone of all Black English. She teased out a few phrases from him, innocuous and commonplace phrases, and assured him that wherever he went and whatever he said, Sea Islands Creole was the wellspring of his vocabulary and outlook. He carried the South with him everywhere, whether he knew it or not.
“That’s why we’re here,” I told George after we left the museum, “to discover your South Carolina roots. Right, Gullah Guy?” As we hustled across the cobblestones, dark clouds massed over the afternoon’s bright blue. Despite the oncoming storm, we were determined to walk the southern tip of Charleston, the storied Battery neighborhood.
George was taken aback that by the clerk’s aggressive expectation that he embrace his hidden-but-ever-present Southern cultural identity. Still, he reminded me there were doors upon doors unopened behind the clerk’s attitudes, pain and struggle that made her so ready to expect injury from a white guy looking at a Gullah dictionary in a gift shop. George explained what was on his mind as he’d strolled, alone, the block around the Old Slave Mart. “Since Savannah, maybe I’m hyper-vigilant about the ways that African Americans do and don’t get included in the city’s history. So thank goodness for that young woman at the museum, for her Sea Island stories and Gullah vocabulary. She’s providing some color around here, and fiercely protective of her people.”
Following a sidewalk across from the wide harbor, we crossed the threshold of Charleston’s yin and yang, from the slave market towards its opposite as we walked south. The luxurious results of forced labor, antebellum homes became palatial, fenced behind wrought iron, facing the harbor’s marine horizons. The dark clouds finally unloaded and a massive squall hit the city’s Battery, Atlantic winds whipping the palmettos.
Defenseless, without rain jackets or umbrellas, we took refuge on the porch of the Edmondston-Alston House Museum. Waiting out the storm, we joined the day’s last house tour. Our guide was a maternal blonde who remained enchanted and excited by the house’s material comforts and original décor. But for all her love of the finer details, I was nonplussed by her failure to scratch the posh surface. It felt disconcerting, immediately after the slave market, to wander lavish rooms, exhorted to note every silver pattern and gilded frame. Our guide’s brief mention of a slave stairwell and slave quarters in a back wing only highlighted how whiplashed labor made this self-celebratory antebellum household function and flourish. We learned so little about the family’s contributions and careers, our guide’s narrative concentrating on the things they left behind. I studied portraits in the dining room only to feel the dullness and stupidity of the aristrocracy’s blithe lives of ease. A graceful, beautiful little society built on a soul-killing system, to which a tiny minority–The Three Percent–clung more vociferously than anywhere in the South.
When I noted dynastic bullshit like the Alston family “Coat of Arms” and learned that the upstairs piazza hosted General Beauregard’s view of the 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumter, I recalled that Charleston’s Sons of Confederate Veterans had thrown a Secession Ball on December 20, 2010 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s withdrawal from the Union. Described in invitations as a “joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink,” 300 white Charlestonians reveled in period dress while a multiracial crowd of more than 100 protested outside, including Mayor Riley. NAACP officials compared it to Japanese-Americans celebrating Pearl Harbor or German-Americans celebrating the Holocaust. When Mayor Riley declared, “the cause of this disastrous secession was…to protect the inhumane and immoral institution of slavery,” Secession Ball revelers shouted down their mayor as a liar. Each celebrant had paid a hundred bucks, after all, to celebrate the courage of their ancestors in defending their Southern heritage.
My head again spun from yin to yang as our guide led us through the master’s study. She pointed out an island, Shutes’ Folly, in Charleston harbor, exulting in how the tiny islet was visible from the study’s window. She speculated that the architect deliberately framed the “charming view.” The guide did not mention how a fort on that island, Pinckney’s Castle, imprisoned 304 African children in 1858, and no wonder. The incident is little recorded or acknowledged, and I had resort to a contemporary report in the Dec. 1, 1858 Anti-Slavery Reporter to confirm the story. U.S. federal forces seized an illegal slave trader, the Echo, a half-century after the Atlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807, packed with stolen African children. “Dying at the rate of ten a day,” the children were held there as authorities in Charleston decided whether to sell them on local slave markets or return them to West Africa, where they’d been purchased for “fifty cents to one dollar” per child. The Anti-Slavery Reporter left the matter unresolved, “there to remain till it should be determined how to dispose of them.” The journalist noted that the nearly worthless individual children would bring profits of $178,000 as a cargo, concluding “such gains are too tempting to be resisted by those who make haste to be rich.”
* * * *
We had Shute’s Folly, now a castle-less sand spit, in our sights again as we cruised to Fort Sumter the next morning. The fort occupied a man-made reef where the Atlantic met the harbor. Whitecaps whipped low rocks, flags whipping straight north. The reconstructed, walled fortress occupied every inch of its Atlantic reef. Fort Sumter felt unreal, just as sail-away ephemeral as Charleston itself, barely tethered to land. It seemed vulnerable to the open Atlantic and attack from any direction on multiple shores. I hustled onto the gangplank, half-believing the island fortress might roil away on a current before I reached the dock.
A young ranger, Jim, a native Charlestonian, herded the boatload of us near the original wall remnants and, as the opening shot of his narrative, asked, “Who fired the Civil War’s first shot?”
Out of a crowd of visitors from all around the U.S. North and South, a middle-aged man yelled, “We did!”
Jim stressed the length of the siege and the ruination of the original fort, which was not yet finished when the Confederates fired on the site on April 12, 1861. Despite everlasting Southern claims that the Civil War was about preserving states’ rights and not about preserving slavery, the war began exactly where the mass of captured Africans were shipped to our shores, here on the lip of Charleston harbor’s open mouth.
Schoolbook versions seemed to begin and end with that first shot, but the long drama of Sumter enacted the entire Civil War in microcosm. The longest siege in the global history of warfare since ancient times, the Confederates took the federal fort shortly after that famous first shot and held on to it. But in1863, the Union focused on recapturing Sumter, forcing the Confederates to endure two years of siege. Accounts focus on the soldiers’ deprivations, the supply lines tenuous or cut altogether, the constant bombardment and rebuilding.
We learned that 500 slaves were the real heroes of Confederate-occupied Sumter, risking their necks and breaking their backs to sandbag and rebuild those improvised walls. Unpaid forced laborers toiled, hopeless as Sisyphus, in the service of their own further enslavement. That’s Historic Charleston for ya.
The young ranger and I stood high on the replica ramparts, overlooking the neighborhood just across the water where he went to high school. I asked Jim how the War was presented in his schooling. “As a battle for state’s rights,” he said, without hesitation. “And only that.”
His forthright answer sounded tinged with regret and wonder. I confessed that my Northern education stressed the ending-slavery narrative and mostly overlooked the excesses of Union destructiveness and occupation. Every day, Jim dealt with that inevitable answer to his opening question–“We did”–and none of us really know who we are, a hundred-fifty years after that War Between the States, that War Against Northern Aggression, that Civil War. We can’t yet even agree on a name for it; we have to come to national parks to get a balanced view of the war’s origins and motives. In our nationwide curriculum, Civil War history seems spun with bias instead of threaded by facts and counter-facts.
Jim hurried with me to the afternoon’s return voyage, breathless with explanations. I was breathless, too, trying out counter-explanations as if I were rehearsing for a debate that would never end, wishing like I could float, Chagall-like, above the whole scene, ethereal, released from this strange, eternal controversy. Fort Sumter felt immaterial, woven of a gauzy, unanswered question. Why does this old, settled conflict feel so raw, so vital, still contested at its very origin?