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BACK TO THE PALACE WALL: A Tale of Two Towns in New Bern, North Carolina

After seeing so many depleted, struggling towns across the South, New Bern struck me as having achieved a small-city nirvana. At first.

Deeper south into North Carolina, after thirty-five miles of Inner Banks rail tracks and rusting single-wide trailers on shapeless lots, New Bern gave a brilliant first impression. With a beautiful causeway over the Neuse River—really a wide tidal strait—glistening water and marinas enfolded the town to its confluence with the Trent River. Now a retirement magnet for Northerners, New Bern seemed bigger than its 30,000 population.

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George and I started out at the North Carolina History Center, adjacent to and including the former Colonial capitol, Tryon Palace, forming a formidable historic complex. Opened in 2010, the History Center wowed us, full of hands-on technological experiences for visitors and students. But it was more than electronic dazzle; the museum presented multicultural and unvarnished arrays of the state’s history. The roles of women, Indian tribes, slaves and their later progeny were presented front and center. Not The Pageant at all, but a surprisingly thorough and critical overview with an emphasis on putting visitors into historical time and inside different skins.

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Sharon Bryant, the history center’s director for African-American outreach, took obvious pride in her role in shaping a diverse experience for visitors, especially for a steady stream of public school students. For George and me, she summarized New Bern’s unique racial history. The region had few plantations, and its harbor at the end of the Neuse River’s tidal sound meant free blacks could gain knowledge of and from the outside world. Though New Bern’s port was once a slaver’s hypotenuse in the Atlantic Triangle Trade of sugar, rum, and stolen laborers, by the mid-1800s an apprentice system promoted high skills, encouraging a cohesive community with entrepreneurs and educational opportunities. During the Civil War the Union occupied the port town for almost all of the war, housing thousands of black freedmen—“contraband”—who sought refuge. Many eventually fought in the Union army.

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Sharon told us that before and just after the Civil War, New Bern was home to one of the most prosperous and socially advanced African American communities anywhere. But it shared the same fate as other black populations in the virulent white backlash after Reconstruction. In nearby James City, a black village settled by “contraband” freemen who had the temerity to strike for better wages in the 1880s, ethnic cleansing emptied the community when white landowners evicted most tenants. 7 North Carolina enacted disenfranchisement laws, denying the black vote and erasing the gains made by many blacks who had already held local and state offices. Violence and intimidation silenced black voices and eventually led to the usual Jim Crow society. It was not until the 1960s that civil rights leaders successfully integrated New Bern’s downtown.

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Our conversation became more personal; when I asked about her own Southern identity, Sharon immediately blurted, “I’m a Southern Belle!” I didn’t expect that from an African American, but as Sharon opened up about her impressions of New Bern’s current status, I realized she was anything but complacent about conditions in the New Bern African American community. Her laments echoed those we’d just heard in tiny Swan Quarter, North Carolina: so many young people without jobs and so little black ownership of property and businesses. Incarceration cut deep where it still possible to get ten to fifteen years for marijuana possession. Despite empowerment programs to provide immediate vocational skills such as plumbing and electrical work, there was an exodus of young people.

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North Carolina’s arch-conservative state leadership did not hold out promise of funding for social programs to buoy up the community. The state legislature had locked in safe seats through gerrymandering, she told us, “even in school districts,” resulting in an extreme right-wing government in Raleigh that hardly reflected the state’s diversity. Sharon was a great believer in the power of focused social action and involved herself in the ongoing Moral Monday movement, where progressive North Carolinians regularly protested cuts to public services and rollbacks of voting rights. It was clear that the History Center’s funding had been in the conservatives’ gunsights, too, especially during the Great Recession. “We barely survived, everyone working overtime to cover deep cuts in staffing.”

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After our conversation with Sharon Bryant, George and I strolled around the History Center’s grounds, a marine park looping the shining, ultra-contemporary complex. It was disorienting to absorb the hard-hitting history inside with the sublime harbor side beauty of its surroundings. North Carolina had created a state museum branch dedicated to real, often critical history in a small city far from the state’s metropolitan centers. Like the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond and Historic Williamsburg, but public in its funding and origin, the North Carolina History Center cherished our shared heritage enough to tell the truth in all its tragedy, injustice, and magnificence.

The Center occupied a point only inches above the tidal waterline, which made me think of those Carolinians who weren’t interested in pursuing the truth. As in Tidewater Virginia and everywhere in North Carolina’s low-lying Inner and Outer Banks, existing settlements and new development were threatened by sea-level rise, but after the North Carolina Coastal Commission’s panel of experts predicted as much as five feet of rise by 2100, the legislature voted to reject the experts’ findings and prohibit state and local government entities from even pondering that accelerated sea level rise.8 (Shut my mouth, and here I thought true conservatives opposed government-imposed thought control.) Coastal developers even formed a group, NC-20, to forbid measurement of sea level rise and make climate change go away by silencing science.

But the rivers surrounding New Bern on this perfect spring day were behaving quite well, and our waterfront stroll around the complex led us past Tryon Palace, the colonial capital and renovated heart of the History Center. Heading past its walls towards downtown, who could not be in awe of this shimmering small city that hosted its own palace?

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The walking tour was designed by Sharon Bryant and took us through post Civil War blocks of large, elegant homes built by and for prosperous members of its flourishing African American community. Large, handsome multistory Victorians lined one block, the historical markers indicating a checkerboard of white and black neighbors almost shocking to re-segregated 21st Century expectations. After the 1890s, when our modern predicament of racial separation and white privilege strangled the gains of emancipation, blacks’ prosperity deteriorated by design along with legalized disenfranchisement. North Carolina’s last black congressman of the late 1800s was expelled and had to flee his offices in Washington. Sharon had told us that the 1940s and 50s brought some revival of the black community; strolling past the opulent Victorian blocks to more modest postwar ones, we saw a small hotel and other shuttered black businesses along a busy diagonal, Queen Street.

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Crossing north of Queen, our New Bernian state of awe began to deteriorate into distress. Guessing what was ahead, like a climate denier, I almost didn’t want to advance our steps here, to time-travel on foot back to the truth about our own century and unmask the illusions we maintain about our society. Like in most every other Southern town—just as in the North—poor and working class blacks had been ghettoized in New Bern, with all the current signs of inequality: abandoned houses, fast-collapsing shacks, more slowly collapsing family homes, empty lots where homes had been scraped away. On vacant lots and vacant streets, no kids played. Broken glass gave way to plywood as the favorite window treatment. Old strip malls spoke of once-thriving business corners, now emptied beside forlorn, weedy parking lots. Of course, there were signs of life around a busy liquor store in one strip, the only place open for business. Nearby, a series of human-warehousing brick housing projects lined our looping route back to the History Center. The projects crept up to the very ramparts of the Palace, as if they were the servants’ quarters for the shining complex on the other side. George noticed that the public housing right up against the Palace walls, saying they “mirrored the Civil War contraband camps.”

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His observation horrified me. I thought of the valiant North Carolinians we’d met, all of them African American leaders committed to social betterment—Thomas Midgette, Alice Mackey, and Sharon Bryant—and all united in their shared misgivings about our society’s real progress. I stared toward New Bern’s downtrodden other half and didn’t know how to respond, my back to the palace wall.

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In the Poorest Neighborhood in the Poorest City in the Poorest County in the Poorest State (or, Bless Your Heart, Mississippi)

Greenwood Pt. 2: Choking on History, Fake and True

The next morning, George confronted me about my (supposed) reluctance to exit possibly dangerous situations. I didn’t put up much of a fight, but felt bad that he thought I didn’t respect his position in strange Southern situations. It was true that I was easily distracted, like a cat with any shiny thing, and sometimes failed to consider where I was—where we were.

Already in the clueless-white-guy doghouse, still coffee-less, I was bummed and went to the motel’s breakfast room alone, ripe for one of the many mini-meltdowns inevitable on road trips. The coffee was nasty and weak, and no better with a heap of hydrologized “cream” and a “nutrition” bar drizzled with confection sugar. Eating healthy on the road wasn’t easy, any more than getting the truth from the overhead TV. A news review about the Supreme Court’s stripping of some voting rights protections was followed by an interview with TV contest dancers complaining “not enough people were voting”—for them. It was all brought to us by BP, a shiny happy commercial about saving the very Gulf they almost destroyed in 2010—along with miles of oil-slicked Mississippi shoreline.  I wolfed down the tasteless energy bar, choking the fakery of it all. Why did we live like this, as if real information and real food were somehow so difficult to ingest and swallowing phony bullshit was so easy?

I ended up swallowing even more in the motel directory’s “history” pages—detailed accounts of the town and surroundings. Lauding the “high level of citizenship” among those who settled this swampy wilderness, the history pages told lie after lie, mostly lies by omission. The mythical Cavaliers, those refined English gents who supposedly settled the Southeast, got credit for spawning the area’s pioneers and making Greenwood safe from bears and panthers. The very name of the town, not a romantic evocation of woodlands, was glossed over; Leflore Greenwood was the last of the Choctaw chiefs, cheated out of agreements (surprise!) by white settlers eager to seize the native lands and exile Greenwood and his people to the Trail of Tears. Instead, the motel “history” informed me only that the Chief was unhappy because his cotton was exposed to the weather. The so-called War Between the States somehow “came to town,” unconnected to the previous mention of slave labor building lavish plantations or the later reference to Carpetbaggers who “molested or killed” families. Paragraphs upon paragraphs told Greenwood’s distant connection to the Battle of Vicksburg, but said not a word about Greenwood’s most famous event, the civil-rights Greenwood Movement and its role in enfranchising 40% of Mississippi’s citizens.

I needed a copy of the “Area History” pages for reference and asked the two young clerks at the motel desk for a Xerox. They giggled and told me I could keep the whole directory, that “nobody was interested in that stuff.”

“So what do your guests ask about Greenwood?” I asked.

“Not much.” The sprightly African-American clerk, still in her teens, shrugged. “Most people are just passing through. Some ask where the old time blues guy Robert Johnson is buried around here, and whether he really sold his soul to the Devil. Like I would know! But some people want to know about The Help and where scenes were shot.”

The other clerk was slightly older, sullen, and probably of South Asian descent. I’d been thinking about another Greenwood movie, 1991’s Mississippi Masala, Mira Nair’s interracial love story. I asked the sullen clerk if she’d ever seen it, since it portrayed an Indian-American family taking refuge in Greenwood, running (this very?) motel.

She showed a flicker of interest when I mentioned that it starred Denzel Washington, but then she collapsed back into closed-up sullenness. “I don’t know anything about old movies.”

So the motel girls let the curious aging nerd keep the Guest Services Directory. Now I could actually possess Fake History as George and I visited Greenwood by the light of day.

Despite a few larger homes and tidy blocks, the east side neighborhood near our motel was mostly a sad place pocked with emptied lots but busy with unoccupied men milling around shotgun shacks, many boarded-over. Not far was a school completely enclosed in barbed-wire fencing. We found the small neighborhood park where Stokely Carmichael gave a brief speech in 1966 that changed the tenor, and the course, of the racial equality movement. Carmichael became convicted that although admirable, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolent struggle might not be enough to bring real change. After being jailed prior to a Greenwood rally, Carmichael gave a talk in Broad Street Park, saying, “The only way we gonna stop them white men from whuppin’ us is to take over. We been saying freedom for six years and we ain’t got nuthin’. What we gonna start saying now is Black Power!” According to his autobiography, the crowd agreed, chanting “Black Power!” Unusual for Greenwood’s civil rights locations, the Black Power site is commemorated with a Mississippi Freedom Trail marker, unveiled in Feburary, 2013. Shacks, abandoned lots, and the husks of once-intact homes ringed the park.

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The contrast between east Greenwood and the slightly more prosperous black neighborhoods just west, not to mention the massively affluent white northern district, made me think of South African townships. Like them, the geographical separation between blacks in poverty and whites in prosperity was stark—demarcated by the fixed boundaries of railroad tracks and the river. But in another way, the situation was quintessentially American and easily seen in capitalist terms. There was simply no surplus wealth in east Greenwood except for the undervalued, undernourished human capital. Now we were in the poorest neighborhood in the poorest city in the poorest county in the poorest state—double the poverty rate of Mississippi as a whole. A public elementary school in north Greenwood had a state rating of 10 out of 10; the public schools south of the river were rated 1 or 3 out of 10. Pillow Academy, a “segregation school” founded by the White Citizens Council after court ordered integration in the 50s,
still flourished on the north side, siphoning off the white students when they leave that one good elementary school. All are welcome now, of course, provided they could afford the tuition, close to $6,000 a year–segregation 21st Century style, not measured so much by the color of skin as the thickness of bank accounts, which keeps Pillow’s black enrollment at 2% in a 70% black city.

We crossed the tracks back into downtown to explore Greenwood’s center in daylight, and, after passing through desolate blocks of once-grand, now abandoned stores, we did grow more encouraged about the town’s prospects. Near the courthouse, we found the only known coffeehouse in the Delta on a restoring corner of downtown, cater-corner from the old cotton exchange, and discussed the improving business climate with two blonde businesswomen. Businesses that had fled the south side of the river were moving back from the strip malls on Park Avenue. A jeweler with a newly relocated shop said that far from going downhill, Greenwood’s long decline was reversing thanks to reinvestment in the infrastructure.

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Shazam. She was right. George and I looked around the immediate area,where improvements were obvious. We chatted with a contractor helping to restore the town’s old social center. Wrought-iron balconies graced Howard Street, now dolled up for a few blocks, complete with old-brick sidewalks and street pavings, before it declined to more empty storefronts, a wig shop, and of course, more empty lots.

It’s tempting to try out a metaphor of Greenwood as a microcosm of the South, but it’s probably more like America itself writ small, especially now, as we trick-out our Red and Blue versions of the same facts, contest the most basic truths of our history, and let the boundaries between haves and have-nots become as wide and inexorable as the Yazoo River. The jeweler’s perky optimism, though, rang in our ears as we left the town, passing the mini-and-mega mansions of Grand Boulevard. She told us the A-list Hollywood cast of The Help thought Greenwood was the “greatest place on earth, and now tourists are coming here from everywhere, imagine!” Crossing the Tallahatchie River, finally escaping town, I sighed a favorite Southernism, well, bless their hearts.

After the Tallahatchie Bridge, we entered a completely rural expanse of Delta farmland. Grand plantation houses dotted huge tracts of dark soil, bringing to mind that old Mississippi Delta play, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, set on a 50s plantation with the “richest soil this side of the river Nile.” Crossing the lands white interlopers stole from Choctaw, lands worked for untold decades by stolen people’s unpaid labor—through his harvest of America’s original sins, we were on our way to the town of Money. There we found the ruin of Bryant’s Grocery where Emett Till, a black schoolboy aged 14 in 1955, made his infamous “saucy” comment to the owner’s white wife and ended up mutilated and drowned in the Tallahatchie River .

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We could see daylight through the remaining planks of the storefront, held up  by vines. But a solid 2011 bronze Freedom Trail sign commemorating the event and its significance—it ignited Northern awareness of Southern white race violence—told the story true and forthright (bless your heart, Mississippi). Even after all this time and consideration of the event, standing there and reflecting on the last moments of that poor kid’s life was unspeakably sad.

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Free of Fake History in Tahlequah, and a Rogue Klansman Across the Border

Free of fake history, but decked out in early 19th Century native Indian costumes, Travis and Jennifer spoke with straight-ahead 21st Century bluntness.  In the hallway of Oklahoma’s only antebellum plantation, we had a hurried, intense conversation before a troop of giddy schoolkids arrived on a field trip.  I was glad the kids would have these two student interns as guides.

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When asked about Southern identity, Travis told us he was Cherokee first, Oklahoman second, and “not really much Southern at all.”  From the eastern border with Arkansas, he seemed surprised that anybody would assume otherwise.  His fellow docent at the Murrell Plantation, Jennifer, felt Choctaw first, but strongly Southern, too.  She’d grown up close to Texas in far south Oklahoma and felt the pull of the heritage.Image

George and I met them in the rural, 1840’s mansion set in the rolling green pasture and woodland south of Tahlequah. Rumored to be haunted, it sure felt Southern, oozing gracious living with spacious interiors, period furnishings, and rough shacks just outside. This excellent restoration of Oklahoma’s only remaining antebellum plantation told the tale of rich European-American fortunes wed to Indian tragedy, just after the Trail of Tears exiled Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws and other tribes from Carolina and Tennessee.  The plantation filled us with questions about the ownership of slaves and their role in the family’s success; Murrell himself had ties to the Confederacy.

Travis and Jennifer both felt their history educations steered them away from such Oklahoma atrocities as the 1921 Tulsa riots (not mentioned at all in their schooling).  In their texts, the Trail of Tears “got a paragraph” Travis said, squeezing his thumb and forefinger.  We talked about the pressure not to discuss painful episodes from history.  The two young Indians felt their elders did not want to disturb the current peace under those old storm clouds.

The wood shacks turned out be early settler cabins moved to the grounds.  When George and I walked a short distance into a natural area, a local man warned us about nearby “wild dogs.”

We learned about  European-American wild dogs at the nearby Cherokee Heritage Museum.  Exhibits told the Trail of Tears narrative, complete with 1830’s documents and re-created sound effects of the terrible conditions, the whiplash of cruelty.   Not only did the whites steal the lands of the Southeastern tribes, but a staggering number of Indians died on the long forced march into Oklahoma.

This history is tough to face, but the museum presents it with dramatic clarity and elegance.  A grace note is that upon leaving the Trail of Tears rooms, the exit takes the visitor through a gallery of native success stories in contemporary Oklahoma.

We had to hit the road, still freaked out by the cruelty of the Trail of Tears narrative.  We were bound for a place that wasn’t necessarily going to make us feel any better:  a town in Arkansas bedeviled by a rogue Klansman and notorious for having expelled its entire African-American population.

George, who is black, was not necessarily happy about my plan to stay there after sundown.