“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.
We’ll drive from Denver to Tulsa starting Sunday, Oct. 20. in my ancient Honda Civic. (If the gov’mit is still closed, we’ll sneak onto Interstate 70 and act like the federal highways are open. Closed govt= no speed limit? Probably not, and my Civic can’t go very fast anyway.)
This leg of our long journey across the South starts with an end point. Even though we’ve been traveling across Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, and Texas,
and even though we have a lot more terrain to cover, the Tulsa trip will represent the “official” ending of the book—because we like the symmetry of beginning in Oklahoma (in April, 2010, our first road trip there) and ending in Oklahoma, full circle.
The Trail of Tears, forced Indian relocations in the early 1800’s, tragic expulsions from ancestral homes in the Southeast into Oklahoma, ended near Tulsa. We’ll be exploring another chapter in America’s history of ethnic cleansing, the race riots in Tulsa’s African-American Greenwood district in 1921. White mobs attacked the whole community, destroying a neighborhood so prosperous it was nicknamed the “Wall Street of the West.” There was even aerial bombardment of homes and businesses, perhaps the first (and only?) attack from the air of Americans by Americans in America.
We’ll be visiting with scholars and citizens to get a sense of Tulsa’s attempts to commemorate the event. We’ll also meet with Denver sculptor (and astronaut) Ed Dwight, who designed the Greenwood memorial.