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.
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.
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?
“Who Was We?”: Doubts and Redoubts in Savannah
More mounds heaped at the edge of central Savannah, hosting more tales of battle, Southern defiance and ultimate surrender. A grassy hillock was upraised, earthen, and obviously handmade, like the Great Temple Mound we’d just climbed in Ocmulgee. Puzzled, George and I studied the Spring Hill Redoubt, a reconstruction of the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Savannah. The 234-year old battlefield seemed strangely spiffy, and no wonder: archeologists did not unearth evidence of the original until 2005, and the city created this park a year later.
I groaned inwardly. Too many layers of history had upended themselves, as if from quaking tectonic plates, in too few days–a brute, European-style pile-up of wars ancient and medieval and modern, blood gushing again and again into the same contested soil.
Here in Savannah, I absorbed the tale of this 1779 Revolutionary War battle, another layer of mounding Southern history I hadn’t much considered. Our just-born nation, fighting to cut its cord to Britain, suffered its second-bloodiest battle here. French, Haitian, Swedish, Irish, and Polish fighters joined the local colonists against the Brits. Hundreds of slaves worked twenty-hour days building trenches and redoubts to hold off the British, but by the second wave of attacks, those trenches were crammed with 800 coalition corpses. “So, the British forces held on to their colony,” I summarized from a laminated historical marker at the site, “and we retreated.”
“We?” George asked, his eyebrows raised. “Who was we?”
Okay, okay. The pronoun confusion wasn’t just about the 1779 mash-up of those foreign allies, or the still-undefined status of separate American colonies into a unified nation-state, but of course the “we” of that corps of slaves. The Coastal Heritage Society presented Battlefield Park as a memorial to those “who died for freedom” from “the clutches of the crown.” The Society clearly did not have any doubts about who “we” were.
As we left Battlefield Park, I kept company with my own doubts and re-doubts, even about my country’s sacrosanct origin story. The American colonies’ secession from Britain seemed remarkably like the Confederate succession from “us,” and just as ill-considered. Premature, hot-headed and blithe at once. I was royally sick of hearing that our soldiers always “die for freedom” without ever questioning what this freedom really is, who gets it, and why killing is the only way to obtain it.
Savannah’s extensive historic neighborhoods stretch back the centuries intact, though the port city was the very object of Sherman’s March to the Sea, which scorched the earth across most of Georgia to capture it. To a city already weakened in years of Union blockade, its forts already bombed and seized, its fields flooded, Sherman issued a threat to burn and ravage the whole gorgeous caboodle. Savannah remains the Savannah we treasure today only because it escaped direct fire eighty-two years after the Spring Hill battle, during the last autumn of the Civil War.
George and I crossed Martin Luther King Boulevard into the center of town, looking forward to learning more about a paradigm-shifting episode in Savannah’s history, one that wasn’t about violence and threats of destruction. This little-celebrated event brought lasting change through the hard work of unity and non-violent resistance. The Savannah Boycott had ended in success in October 1961.
I had targeted the city’s Civil Rights Museum as a key Savannah destination, so I was a little disconcerted that the staff member at the city visitor’s center didn’t seem quite sure where the museum was.
George and I easily found it, though, in a neighborhood on the edge of Savannah’s historic district. Occupying a former bank that served African-Americans during segregation, the small museum was big and bold in its approach to hands-on history. With displays of Savannah’s African-American past going back to slavery days, it concentrated most of its space to the Savannah Boycott of the early 1960’s. A lunch counter was faithfully reproduced in its entirety, with an audio feed that scolded the visitor for even trying to get service. A first-rate film unreeled personal narratives of many living legends of the city’s civil rights struggles, some of whom rose to prominence in the national movement. Together, their narrative history weaved together the whole tale, how Savannah’s black community mobilized early in the South’s commercial boycott movement and soon became among the most successful. The boycott successfully drove segregated businesses into bankruptcy and quickly “enlightened” white Savannah about black political and economic prowess.
Soon after, Martin Luther King, Jr. anointed Savannah “the most desegregated city south of the Mason-Dixon line,” but despite that early and lasting success, Savannah’s pioneering civil rights victories are seldom recognized and often forgotten in the roll-call of the struggle. Even the King Institute’s own website, touting Greensboro and Nashville in its wrap-up of the early sit-in and boycotts, failed to mention Savannah.
Old Savannah’s mass-tourist mob scene intensified down on the riverfront, full of bustle, buskers, and festive evening lights. Competing with working, industrial freighters, cruise ships emptied more visitors onto the quay, adding to the party-time mix. Under the Sheraton Hotel, sculptor Dorothy Radley Spradley’s memorial to the black family, depicted a father, mother, and two children and bore an inscription by Maya Angelou:
“We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African Continent. We got on the slave ship together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together. Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy…”
George and I wandered away from yelling tipplers and back to the river, where, as if on cue, an extended African-American family emerged from a dockside excursion boat in the throes of reunion festivities. The clash of Angelou’s agonized yet understated expression of black experience amid the riverside party addled my brain, and I found myself staring at the water. My earlier misgivings haunted me; I felt myself a disconnected Westerner with no hope of penetrating the real South. Other Savannah visitors seamlessly joined the good time atmosphere around the bars and craft markets. Why wasn’t I just as content to line up for the next Garden of Good and Evil cemetery tour or the Haunted House Scare or Paula Deen’s next serving of Authentic Southern Cookin’? Why was I so bugged that the Civil Rights Museum was empty during the crowded high season? We built National Monuments around any bloody battleground but didn’t commemorate nonviolent change. Even where human rights won unqualified victory, we forgot to remember. Across the river, a convention center business reception was underway, spotlights revealing people in evening clothes wandering with goblets on the opposite shore.
George said he wouldn’t mind leaving Savannah soon. “Even though the city has a black majority, I didn’t see many African Americans living in the older central parts of the area we walked through. I kept thinking that black people helped build the city and its plazas. But I didn’t see many blacks owning those properties.” Though the charming, spooky city made me ache to discover ever more of it, I didn’t protest.
Living Unthinking over Unmarked Graves
Before I found Jonesboro, I was sure Tara, Scarlett O’Hara’s plantation, didn’t exist. (And it doesn’t. Gone With the Wind was fiction, people!) Still, like most Northerners and lots of Southerners and other Earthlings, I “learned” most of what I “knew” about the South watching that movie. I think it was re-run on TV every year when I was a kid, as if it were our own national epic, like the Odyssey was to the Greeks. Weird, since the narrative is slanted to make us feel sorry for our former enemies. Weirder still, our epic’s enemies were, and still are, within “us.”
For our trips into the southeast, Atlanta would be the eternal crossroads, all flights and roads eventually leading there–even to Rome, Georgia. One trip South led me in and out of Atlanta at least four times. On this trip, I discovered “Tara” was close to the airport, so I squeezed in a visit.
Tara Boulevard is actually an exit off Interstate 75. Imagine if there were an exit for Oz outside Kansas City or one for Middle Earth outside Wellington, New Zealand—but wait, there probably are, complete with kiddie rides, witches, wizards, and/or hobbits. We’re inured to fakery. Tara Boulevard is real but doesn’t lead to hoopskirts, waltzes, and refinement. It is one of the most scaborously ugly suburban roads in the South, and that’s saying something. It’s lined by billboards for accident lawyers and struggling businesses in strip malls, rows of used tire shops, tattoo parlors, and, of course, those other heralds of American down-market capitalism, wig and pawn shops. The unrelieved ugliness sprawled for miles. Even the Southern cookin’ place along the oddly foodless strip served dried-out fried catfish with catatonic indifference.
Yet, just off the boulevard, the town of Jonesboro was a marvel, shilling its claim to be the inspiration for Tara in Margaret Mitchell’s imagination. Jonesboro clung to antebellum history with a few gracious houses, like the privately owned 1840 Warren home, where a war hospital had been set up during the Civil War . I knew Jonesboro was a key historic battle, completing Sherman’s conquest of Atlanta. Even though I didn’t yet know Jonesboro buried a subchapter in my own family history, I was mainly curious about seeing the battlefield.
But there was nothing to see. I couldn’t believe the town had done nothing to commemorate the battle, so I stopped at the visitor center/ museum to find out more.
An old rail depot housed a Tara Tour in the county’s “history” center. The Official Clayton County Visitors Bureau claimed to be the True South, complete with a website (http://www.visitscarlett.com) with a crackling soundtrack of Atlanta burning arrayed around a cameo of Scarlett and Rhett smooching. Puzzled by hulking busses unloading Italian and Japanese tourists suckered into the gift shop, I ran smack into the garrulous Tiffany, a clerk and history student who gave me her version of Jonesboro’s realities. It was interesting to meet someone even more cynical than I about phony history and America’s gradual Disneyland-ization of everything. She talked, I listened amid the “history” museum as an endless spool of Gone with the Wind played on the video screen and foreign tourists studied movie gowns and other memorabilia in glass cases—you know, authentic American historic artifacts. The movie scene played Scarlett’s slaves’ confusion about the attack on Atlanta for comic relief.
Tiffany confirmed the town’s lack of real Civil War commemoration. “The town, especially the north end, IS the battlefield,” she told me, “and hundreds of residents live unthinking over unmarked graves of combatants.” The last remnant of the battlefield was about to disappear, a developer having won an easement to build a parking lot over it.
Tiffany showed me the museum’s tiny corner devoted to the Jonesboro battle story, saying that locals really weren’t interested in either the battle or Gone With the Wind, only tourists, especially foreign ones. She was also forthright and irreverent about her version of Civil War and Southern history in general, asserting that the Confederacy’s General Hood was a fool, (living out his last years as a “drunk on a front porch”), that the Union’s General Sherman was indeed a rough prick (with slaves of his own via wife’s family in Missouri) and a war criminal; that Lincoln was also merciless—“a dictator, suspending habeas corpus.” Tiffany claimed that many Northerners were relieved when Lincoln was assassinated.
I returned to Tara Boulevard bit shocked at the town’s lack of concern for the battlefield. All museums engage in marketing one way or another, but I’d never seen such overt pandering, such shameless dumbing-down of history. Clayton County ignores our true shared past, speaking to our Hollywood hearts, not our brains. Heading back to Atlanta, I endured Tara’s ugly roadside again, wondering why we don’t give a damn, Scarlett, about living in sprawling commercial squalor while we idolize gracious country estates that never existed; why we cover our past—our sacred ground–under pawn shops, wig outlets, and funeral parlor parking lots.
I would soon find out that my own blood had a claim on that real estate.
Hardly an hour’s drive away from the village of Money, nestled in hilly woodlands and backed by a national forest, Oxford looked like a magnolia-scented citadel holding itself apart from the Delta’s social quagmires. Home of the University of Mississippi, the town mixed tranquility with student energy. I felt we’d stepped back in time from the raggedy world of campuses in the West. The kids we met were unfailingly polite, and so retro in the male students’ fashions of short-shorts or shirts tucked (!) into khakis. Old time Southern manners disarmed—I was “sir”ed more in one evening than in a whole year back home in Denver—all so sincere and natural that a Northerner used to brusqueness might just want to linger in the graciousness.
But the incident the campus is most famous for is not so gracious—just one more iconic case of Southern anti-hospitality. When African-American airman James Meredith won a Supreme Court appeal to attend the all-white university in the fall of 1962, he was met with local cruelty and state obstruction. The threat of mass hostility was so great that President Kennedy reluctantly sent in U.S. Army and Military Police battalions along with National Guard support for “battleground” conditions. On-campus riots against Meredith’s admission grew so violent that U.S. officers were shot in a burning car while armed locals killed a journalist and a young onlooker.
Visiting Ole Miss on a warm fall evening, George and I were told to “turn right at Meredith statue” as if it had been integrated, no pun intended, into mental models of the campus map, commemorating Meredith’s solitary steps into the administration building. Strolling, George and I did spot African-American athletes and cheerleaders around the stadium and random black faces in the central campus. Current black enrollment was nearly 17 % of the student body, but the overall impression was of a white fantasia, a bleached Mississippi spit-shined until it reflected back exactly what white Mississippi would like to be.
The 50th anniversary of Meredith’s admission was fully commemorated with educational programs, but the 79 year-old alumnus himself did not attend, finding nothing to celebrate and likening it to Germans celebrating the destruction of Berlin. In fact, Meredith called for the destruction of the 2006 statue erected in his honor, calling it “hideous.”
A month after the 2012 commemoration, on the night President Obama won re-election, a group of Ole Miss students rampaged on campus, breaking today’s apparent racial harmony when about 40 attendees at a pro-GOP rally felt blindsided by Romney’s loss. Animated by Twitter-fed fictions about counter-riots, fires, and gunshots, the group burned Obama signs, chanting “The South Will Rise Again” while the crowd grew to four hundred, including campus parents.
Though the rally remained a minor campus incident gone South, it made national news and stirred controversy in Oxford. Given the university’s tarnished image, Dr. Don Cole, assistant chancellor for multi-cultural affairs, told George and me that any racial incident on campus would be magnified. “We dug ourselves into a hole with our past and now we’ve got to dig out, above and beyond mere obligation.”
An African American and Mississippi native, Don has a startling story of his own, having dug himself out of a hole he most emphatically did not dig. He entered Ole Miss as a freshman only six years after Meredith’s admission crisis, experiencing the same raw racism. White students waved rebel flags in his presence, threw garbage at him, and shoved him off sidewalks. Eventually earning his PhD in mathematics, Don joined the faculty and later was tasked with raising racial awareness as part of student orientation. He added the Romney Rally Incident to the orientation program, insisting that students face misguided attitudes directly. He saw much of the misconduct growing out of the students’ range of backgrounds in social growth. Don saw racial awareness as a seamless part of the university’s educational mission, lamenting so much rigorous training in math and sciences but so little in social education.
George asked if there was any negative pushback from faculty.
“No, I have support from higher up,” Don said, adding a curiously measured phrase: “I’m not overly disappointed with the faculty on racial issues. Good guys in the North correct themselves quicker. It’s slower for folks to step up here, so bad guys get away with more.”
Though he saw the South’s social flaws so clearly, Don saw himself as “a black Southerner first,” before any other identity, whether American or Mississipian. “I still love the South,” he said, easing back in his chair with a wistful smile. “I still have hope for it. I want it to be the region that will liberate itself from the bondage of race.”
As I learned of Don’s work raising awareness and encouraging critical thinking about Mississippi’s past struggles and present progress, I felt satisfied that we’d ended our Mississippi journey in Oxford. We had travelled through what gets celebrated in the region’s history, what’s ignored, and what’s deliberately left out. We’d explored Vicksburg’s myths about its past, from getting stuck in that VFW pageant at the restored Civil War warship, through the military park historians’ still coping with warring views of history, and along the creaky planks of the Old Courthouse Museum. Greenwood seemed to be just waking from a prolonged nightmare, still stuck in racial divides, slowly revitalizing as it emerges from its long era of enforced inequality. Here in Oxford, our endless Southern conversation returned to how history is or is not commemorated, and how the collective memory grows dim unless we all keep on talking.
George and I cracked stupid, nervous jokes about the likelihood we’d get in bad trouble on our way across the Ozarks in Arkansas. “You won’t be lynched,” George told me. “You have special white-skin immunity.”
“I think it wears off when I’m seen around a black guy,” I said. “Anyway, I might get lynched just for having Yankee license plates.”
We hid our uneasiness by playing up these ignorant Northern stereotypes about Ozark country. Never mind that local folks were cordial. Never mind that the autumn hills were drop-dead gorgeous, rolling through an outdoor-recreation mecca. Ever since I heard that Harrison, our small, isolated destination, had a notorious racial history I wanted to visit and see for myself.
George would later challenge how I dragged him into dubious or even dangerous situations. He was right about my impetuousness. I could always wear my white skin like a calling card while he wore a black one like a target.
That was no joke. Because nearly all of Harrison’s black community was chased out of town during racial turmoil in 1905 and 1909, the town had a terrible reputation in the region. On Halloween, Harrison kids in ghost costumes were accused of wearing Klan sheets. Even for racial reconciliation events, out of town students of color had to be coaxed to visit. Despite assurances and warm welcomes, minority visitors thought they’d need protection to survive their stay.
Inflicting one more gash in the town’s tarnished reputation, a Ku Klux Klan activist rented a Harrison Post Office box. Even though the Klansman lived in another town, he wanted that special Harrison address for his mailings. On our way to meet with town’s racial relations task force, George and I spotted a huge new billboard near our meeting place: Anti-Racism is A Code Word for Anti-White.
Huh? Maybe the weak motel coffee couldn’t wake our brains, but after a glance George and I didn’t really get the message. Then it dawned on us the billboard was accusing racial harmony advocates of attacking white people. Weird in a virtually all-white town.
In fact, the billboard had just recently attracted more unwanted attention to Harrison. Wikipedia had already posted that with the town’s “negative image…racial attitudes remain in question, as attested by a recent billboard sign on the eastern edge of town.” News media from as far away as Europe poised to pounce on Harrison’s need for “attitude” adjustment. The UK’s Guardian was already devoting ink to the town’s agony.
In town for only a day, I didn’t know what the hell to think. We arrived at our morning meeting with the task force unable to guess what would greet us behind the door—defensiveness, bitterness, suspiciousness of our motives for visiting? George looked grim. I figured he was loaded for bear.
But he would soon be disarmed, and so would I.