FRESH CONFLICT ON THE FREEDOM RIDERS TRAIL IN ANNISTON
Fresh from following my great-grandfather’s Civil War battles of the 1860s in Tennessee, I entered Alabama for the first time, determined to follow the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. I dropped George off at the Atlanta airport and picked up our project co-author, journalist Kristen Hannum. We were bound for Anniston, just beyond the Georgia state line.
The small city intrigued us as the site of KKK terrorism against the1961 Freedom Riders, mostly students who attempted to integrate bus lines and stations throughout the deep South by traveling from station to station as mixed racial groups. We wanted to know what the town was like today and how it commemorated its notorious, violent chapter in American history more than fifty years later.
We had no idea we would arrive in Anniston just when vandals would try to burn that history away.
Nearing the border, Kristen and I left the mind-numbing Interstate—which makes all American landscapes the same coast-to-coast, one bulldozed corridor—and escaped onto the old highway. This was the Freedom Riders’ route on the pre-Interstate two-lane blacktop. At first, aiming the rental car along the old highway felt creepy, considering the Freedom Riders’ horrible fate ahead. The landscape changed from flat cropland to dark, dense forest as soon as we entered Alabama.
But the countryside’s beauty transformed us from creeped-out to awestruck. Rolling countryside wove through tiny railroad towns, the main streets lined with century-old store fronts with elaborate facades. Mostly, though, the route traced gentle forest and meadow throughout the Talladega National Forest, cut through here and there by handsome rural holdings. We even got happily lost, taking far-flung side roads because the scenery was so pleasurable, the brisk sky so fine and clear.
Enfolded by the national forest, a wildlife refuge, and the undulating hills of northeast Alabama, Anniston beckoned ahead, looking much more promising than we expected.
Would its physical setting inspire a unique community—similar to scenic Western towns where surrounding nature nestled harmoniously, as in Ashland, Oregon; Sedona, Arizona; or Boulder, Colorado? Driving down Anniston’s main drag, Noble Street, we quickly learned the answer: no.
Anniston’s business district starred only a long-abandoned movie house, so dilapidated its last feature really might have been The Last Picture Show. Quick-loan shops and the inevitable beauty suppliers held out between empty storefronts, all pocked by parking lots. Grand facades and stone construction belied bygone glory. A few mid-rise buildings amid the emptiness suggested a depopulated place trying to audition as a much larger town. Planter boxes suggested languishing efforts at beautification and renewal. Little-town sprawl snaked into hillside strip malls.
Kristen’s writing on Anniston captures our move from first impressions to quick escape, all featuring her unreliable and unpleasant fellow traveler, “Lee” (you know, me), who…
….also seemed just slightly road ragged, still moving even when we’d stopped, still fascinated but a touch overwhelmed. “I keep thinking I forgot my passport,” he confessed. “It really does feel like another country.”
Lee sat at our motel room’s miniature table, reading an article about the 1961 Freedom Rider bus firebombing in Anniston that had run in the Anniston Star on the fiftieth anniversary of that violence.
“Oh my God,” he kept muttering.
The Supreme Court had found segregation to be unconstitutional in its 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision, but it was still the law of the land in Alabama. In May 1961, the Freedom Riders, blacks and whites together, boarded Greyhound and Trailways buses to challenge the South’s enforced segregation—specifically illegal by 1961 because it violated federal laws governing interstate travel. The Freedom Riders were traveling from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. They would sit next to one another, amidst other travelers, and at least one of the black riders would sit up front, in the part of the bus reserved—illegally—for whites. At stations and rest stops they would eat at the same counters and use the same restrooms.
In 1961 you could get killed for doing those things.
America’s Christian terrorists, the KKK, with logistical assistance from state troopers and local police forces, planned to first attack the Freedom Riders in Anniston and then, should a bus make it that far, in Birmingham. The KKK would teach the Freedom Riders a bloody lesson and send them home, dead, injured, or just scared.
Lee leaned back from his computer. “The mob had come from church,” he said. “It was Mother’s Day. Some of them were still dressed for church.”
The Anniston thugs, armed with bricks, chains, iron pipes, and knives, slashed the bus’s tires at the station in Anniston, and then, a few miles down the road, surrounded the limping bus. They broke its windows and threw a homemade bomb inside. Smoke choked the passengers and flames spread as those on the bus desperately tried to get out.
The mob held the door shut.
“They were trying to kill them all—the Freedom Riders and regular passengers alike,” Lee said.
Finally a state patrolman shot his pistol over the heads of the rioters. The passengers escaped from the burning bus moments before its fuel tank exploded. The pack then savagely beat the sickened, injured bus passengers, many already on their knees. They were preparing to lynch the riders when a state patrolman finally stopped the assault by firing his gun into the air.
The Freedom Riders—and presumably the regular travelers caught up in the violence—were refused care at the hospital in Anniston. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a civil rights leader in Birmingham, organized more than a dozen cars to rescue the riders, driving them to safety.
A gang of armed men also met the second Freedom Riders’ bus in Anniston, an hour after the first. This time the brutes boarded the bus to beat the Freedom Riders. That bus then went on to Birmingham, where an even worse Mother’s Day mob would meet them.
People around the world heard what had happened. Anniston’s goons hadn’t just beaten the brave Freedom Riders; they’d also delivered a blow to America’s reputation, giving fodder to Soviet Cold War propagandists.
We’d walked along Noble Street where the buses had pulled in at the old bus depot. Unexceptional buildings stood unchanged on the empty street as we read the mural in the glassy autumn sunlight. We could imagine being on the bus, looking out the window at pretty little downtown Anniston, thinking maybe Alabama won’t be so bad, our optimism cut short by the nightmarish sight and sounds of the gathering mob. Fifty-one years ago the storefront windows had reflected the KKK-led factory workers and shop clerks turned criminals as they slashed tires, shouted epithets, threw rocks, and beat people for sitting together on a bus, for riding towards a New South…
That night, in our motel room, Lee seemed as though he was witnessing that satanic mob, not just intellectually understanding injustice but feeling it. It seemed to hit him like a fist.
It didn’t feel as immediate to me. I was wondering how those men could come from church and do such terrible things. Had they told their mothers where they were going? Did they say they’d be back by dinnertime? Were they drinking, drunk? Did any of them wake up one morning, days or years afterwards, and moan “Oh my God,” as Lee had done as he’d been reading about that afternoon? Had any of those men later come to terms with what evil had possessed them?
I remembered theories of mob psychology, one being that influential leaders contaminate mobs, inducing people together to act in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise. Another posits that people who choose to be part of a mob have pre-selected themselves and are primed for violence. They’re simmering with similar fears and hatreds, coming together as a band of bullies, igniting one another, and egging each other on towards evil acts that each would hesitate to commit individually.
The theory of de-individuation, as ancient as the Dionysian cults (outlawed wherever they took root), posits that a cult member—usually under the influence—could lose his or her individual consciousness and become one with the mob, an unthinking force of nature, as murderously powerful and amoral as a tsunami, tearing apart any random victim in its path. It’s the death of self-awareness, conscience, and self-awareness without dying.
Charles Manson knew about de-individuation.
“It’s like pack behavior in dogs,” I said, the motel room’s walls close around us, Lee looking thunderous. “Nice family dogs, once they start running in packs, kill people. Children, but really anything they see as prey. Humans can be pack animals. Look at Rwanda, neighbors killing neighbors, people who had been friends, just swept up in craziness.”
“No,” Lee said. “The people who did this terrible thing were each individually responsible for their actions. No excuses. No Dionysian bullshit. And there’s no comparison to Rwanda, where the Hutu leaders used the radio to bring in their followers and kill people.”
He was passionate enough that I shut up—it was hard me to argue since I was feeling perplexed rather than ardent. I wasn’t excusing the mob. I was just trying to figure it out. This was just the latest of many disconnects between us. Over little things that didn’t seem worth clarifying and over big things like excusing or not excusing mob violence.
Lee was so fervent that he included a defense of dogs. “The dogs in my neighborhood would never act that way,” he said. “They’re nice dogs.”
So was I excusing the human mob? Distressingly I felt guilty. Maybe, I thought, this is how white liberal Southerners feel, before they’ve worked it though. God help us, maybe it’s how they feel after they’ve worked it through.
* * * *
Despite its toxic reputation, its lack of restaurants, and its sprawl, tourists have begun coming to Anniston. That’s because that pitiless 1961 Mothers Day put the town on the Civil Rights Trail.
Local whites struggled to celebrate this part of Anniston’s history. It was like being known because your father was Lee Harvey Oswald. You’d rather forget it than help people remember. And yet the Civil Rights Trail brought Anniston good national press for a change.
When student groups followed the Freedom Riders’ route on its fiftieth anniversary in 2011, Francisco Diaz, one of the anniversary riders, kept a journal. He wrote that Richard Couch, the Annistonian seated next to him at dinner was stereotypically white Southern: blue-eyed, burly, and with a thick drawl. Couch’s father had been part of the mob that attacked the bus.
Diaz wrote that Couch was also funny and sincere, and that he gave an emotional welcome to Hank Thomas, one of the original Freedom Riders. “When they embraced,” Diaz wrote, “I viewed the full power of nonviolence. The son of a Klansman hugging a man who his father hated and wanted dead was a greater victory than any violent counter-attack that could have been done at the time to the mob had surrounded that bus. If the Freedom Riders had not been nonviolent, and they fought back and perhaps killed Richard Couch’s father, this true moment would not have occurred.”
Betsy Bean with the Anniston Development Association was eyeing this new Civil Rights Trail tourist market as she got Anniston’s murals up that commemorated the Freedom Riders. Lee was determined to meet her, to ask her about her dream of creating a park and memorial at the actual site of the bus burning, a long empty verge of land between the old and new highway. The site was hard for us to find; people in Anniston gave us a variety of opinions on where it might be. When we found it, we discovered a makeshift car lot there, sedans and trucks parked with signs in their windows advertising their mileage and the number for buyers to call.
The park did have a sturdy sign announcing that the land was the site of a future park. Kids from Cobb Elementary had unveiled the sign just a week earlier during a groundbreaking ceremony.
We tromped through the high grass, past the trucks for sale. Lee took photos: “The site of the future Freedom Riders Park!” the sign read, with some history, photos, and plans. His photos may have been the last ever taken of the sign.
The next day vandals burned it down. Police never found the culprits.
The arson followed on the heels of the Anniston development organization firing Betsy Bean. The city council had already cut the organization’s funding in half in 2010. Bean told the Star that the city council had notified her board of directors that the organization wouldn’t be funded at all if she remained at the helm. As she understood it, they didn’t like her focus on the Civil Rights Trail and saving historic buildings.
Lee was transfixed by the realization that history was still happening as we were walking through its pages. “It’s sparking right now!” he said. “It’s not past!”
Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” The great Southern writer gave those words to Gavin Stevens, a character in Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. How brilliant of Lee to have been feeling those emotions so purely here in the South, especially since Faulkner was writing about exactly what we were experiencing: how the past haunts Southerners, and how elusive a New South truly is.
—Kristen Hannum, excerpted from her chapter in The South Within Us, “Ghost Moon over Alabama”
Kristen had another reason to visit Anniston; it was the home of the Anniston Star’s star editor and publisher, Brandt Ayers, whom she wanted to interview for an article. Kristen also planned to review Ayers’ just-completed memoir, In Love with Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal. His newspaper had a national reputation for excellence, gaining fame for its coverage of civil rights events.
I joined in on the extensive conversation, charmed by Ayers’ patrician manners mixed with a newspaperman’s bluntness and BS detection. Yet he was often conflicted about the South and surprisingly sympathetic, from his beautiful modernist home tucked into the hills of east Anniston, to the plight of those he called the Redneck, “meant to be a contemptous term” which “needs more sympathy and understanding. Bearing defeat with dignity—even respect—his Redneck liturgy is forbidden in the Church of the United States…” This was one small sample of Ayers’ unique perspective and phrasing that knocked me out. When I told him that we had plenty of rednecks out west, Ayers corrected me. “No, redneck is a regional term, it belongs to the South.”
But Ayers was by no means blindly loyal to any single narrative about Anniston. He was contemptuous of local politicos, “Keystone Kops with no oversupply of leadership and enlighenment,” and their inability to transform Anniston for the better. He had even harsher words for as the outside, corporate forces that had stripped the city of its potential. He saw Wells Fargo “as a destroyer, buying out locals, running things from a distance. In our second Gilded age, there’s too much money sloshing around. Anniston lost its wealth when manufacturing stopped, and the city didn’t adapt.”
Brandt Ayers extolled Anniston’s past as a utopian Model City full of community spirit, and contrasted nearby Birmingham as a “money town.” Both Kristen and I had apprehension and plenty of advance disdain for “Bombingham,” our next destination.
Of course, we were completely unprepared for the shock that awaited us.
No Deal In Pulaski, Tennessee: “The Black Story’s Been a Back Story”
As we drove out of Tennessee, I talked George into following the Columbia Pike south, which linked my great-grandfather’s Civil War battles. The back road felt risky as the shortened afternoon fell into darkness, but I was glad we took it. I meant to talk George into stopping in Pulaski, near the Alabama border, to find the birthplace of America’s premier terror group.
We passed the notorious “sleep-escape” field near Spring Hill. Like a classical episode out of Homer’s mythological Greek tales, Union forces hemmed by Confederate battalions just snuck away northward on the pike, their way lighted by sparks of doused fires while their enemies slipped into sleep. Typical of Tennessee battles, the escape incident resulted from poor communication and rumors of officers drinking too much. I couldn’t help but speculate on my great-grandfather’s state of mind that fateful night. The field looked little changed from 1864. If Austin Patton, at 19, were a typical family member on my Irish side, he would have been slightly soused and fighting a strong urge to sleep, even on his feet.
After Spring Hill and Columbia, the thirty-mile drive south on U.S. 31 to Pulaski was an unheralded rural gem. I’m a sucker for neat pastures and soft valleys, roadsides with no commercialism, no metal outbuildings, just mile after mile of verdant countryside, a church here, a school there. While there’s no shortage of sublime scenery in Colorado, we lack these expanses of rolling, gentle broadleaf forest. In the entire Mountain West, except for small stands of aspen and cottonwood, there are no deciduous forests at all. No maples, elms, ashes, locusts, or oaks unless somebody planted them one by one and took care to water them. With some of the ugliest stretches of highway strip development in creation, we Westerners have treated our wide-open spaces as if they were waste lands, tossing thoughtless development far and wide. But here nature was a soothing cloak, achingly pure, knitted here and there by field and farm.
Though Pulaski was famous as the site where Confederate “boy hero” Sam Davis chose to be hanged rather than reveal rebel movements to the Union forces, the place was notorious in my mind as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. When not only the countryside but the town proved to be so pretty and appealing, I was flummoxed. I realized I had a
naïve, unexamined idea that beauty and community ought to deter humans from atrocity. Apparently, terrorists did not breathe in the fresh air, admire the vistas, enjoy the vitality of the town square, and sigh, “Ah, perhaps I shan’t ravage any blacks, Catholics, or Jews today.” I was hellbent on finding the marker that noted the Klan’s founding here on Christmas Eve, 1865, now a gathering place for white supremacists, a sacred rallying ground for racists. Pulaski seemed the opposite of Columbia. Though also historic, founded in1809, with a similarly magnificent courthouse, Pulaski’s commercial hub bustled with pedestrians conducting actual commerce. I wanted to stop, wander around courthouse square, and see if I couldn’t find that Klan marker.
“No deal,” George told me. Evening was coming on, and he wasn’t going to set foot in any KKK town. So, it was serious. His nephew in Denver had been taunting him with texts. What the hell was he doing, wandering the Old Confederacy? Any burning crosses yet? George’s apprehension and disgust for the town’s history made my tourist curiosity feel superficial. “I felt the same way at the Chickamauga and Franklin battlefields,” he said, “and for sure at that riot site, the Mink Slide in Columbia. This place gives me the willies. I’ve reached the end of this road, Lee. Let’s go on.”
Okay, that penetrated my thick white skull. George didn’t mind if we drove around the courthouse one more time, if I was so intent on that marker. But it wasn’t really that compelling to me any more. I began to feel morbid. What was wrong with me anyway? What the hell was I doing, wandering the Old Confederacy? It felt ghoulish, searching out these localities cursed with atrocity and sorrow. While normal visitors toured historic plantations and got laughingly lost in corn mazes, I was tramping through battlefields and trying to spot a racist worshipping at a marker dedicated to a terror group. We stopped near the courthouse but didn’t get out of the car. Though I craned my neck to spot the KKK birthplace marker on one of the storefronts, I didn’t want to ignore George’s feelings. I wondered aloud if we might stop at the site of a Civil War skirmish near Pulaski since Austin Patton had also fought near here. “We could just glance, passing by. At this point, after all these battlefields, it would be enough just to see it.”
“You were lucky,” George said, looking out on the busy town square. “You found out so much from the historian in Franklin about your great-grandfather’s whereabouts.” “Yeah, at this point, I feel like I’m crossing Tennessee in Austin’s company,” I agreed. “He’s become becoming more real to me all the time. More than just a name on a death certificate.” As soon as I said it, I realized why George had stressed my luck. All paths to his great-grandmother had ended back in South Carolina, tangled and ungiving, despite so much researching and just plain searching, but I’d found so much about my great-grandfather so easily, just by asking. “It’s weird, though, isn’t it?” I said. “So many specifics available about Austin, who was so much older than your great-grandmother. And an immigrant, to boot.” George nodded. “Austin was part of the Pageant. You had his whole name. And he was white, to boot.”
How much of the grand national narrative of the Civil War era was ever a pageant for African-Americans? “It’s like our history is still covered over,” George went on, “and we need to find it and tell it ourselves. Even when I learned about emancipation, as a kid, I felt like black people were pawns in the story. The outcome of the Civil War was so critical to my life, but in all these battlefields and museums, the black story’s been a back story, a side show. A few panels on the wall.” Brimming libraries and entire museums were devoted to the Official Story, the federal story we heard over and over in the national battlefields. “It’s got to be hard for the historians,” George went on, musing as the sun disappeared behind the courthouse. “They’ve got to serve Americans from all over, all races and ethnicities. So they push this triumphant tale. ‘An undivided United States, returned to unity. With equality for all!’ But isn’t that just as one-sided as the South reducing the conflict to states’ rights? We whitewashed reality then, and we whitewash it now.”
So we left Pulaski without finding that damn marker. Later I learned about the modern town’s predicament. The Klan and their sympathizers would hold birthday party rallies for Klan founder and Confederate leader Nathan Bedford Forrest every July, with most locals in adamant but helpless opposition. Though he didn’t play a role in founding the local Klan, Forrest soon led the fledgling group in wide-ranging atrocities against black freemen and their carpetbagging Yankee allies: “Forrest led the Klan through its most violent period,” wrote Larry Keller in the anti-racist blog Hatewatch, “when thousands of acts of terrorism essentially forced black Southerners back into a form of servitude.”
So this town, named after a Polish hero in the American Revolutionary War, had to live with the Klan’s notoriety. But Pulaski also had claim to a gentler history. At its very birth, the town’s first established law was to punish anyone who discharged a firearm against “any bird on wing.”
Finally, I learned that my reason for visiting town had long been impossible to see. In 1990, the new owner of the law office where the Klan marker was placed turned it around so its smooth, empty backside faced out. It remained that way, not denying the birth of the KKK, but not inviting acknowledgment, either. Commemoration without celebration.
Further south, we were about to find modern Klan types still busy trying to destroy commemoration of civil rights struggle. George would soon return to Colorado, while my other writing partner, Kristen, would arrive to join me down in Alabama. In Anniston, the little city famous for the fiery 1961 attack against Freedom Riders, Kristen and I would arrive the day before a new fire was set ablaze.
Looking for My Ancestor’s War Battles and Finding a Modern Riot
After exploring the site of my great-grandfather’s brutal battle in Franklin, Tennessee, we would soon learn about our nation’s first major racial disturbance after World War II, along with meeting a spirited defender of the Old South. By the way, George and I would also learn about the World’s Mule Capital and the filming location for Hannah Montana.
Our planned route south, out of Tennessee, already traced my great-grandfather’s Civil War marching orders. To set foot on another of Austin Patton’s battle sites, we crossed the Duck River, site of war skirmishes tand into the small city of Columbia. From my homework, I knew that Columbia was famous as the World’s Mule Capital and host of Mule Days. Besides being the filming location for Hannah Montana, Columbia headquartered the Sons of the Confederacy, and was the hometown of President James K. Polk, who led the country into the Mexican War to expand slavery’s reach. Columbia was also the site of the first major disturbance of the modern civil rights movement, the “race riot” of 1946.
George and I went to the visitor center to learn of any commemorative sites for both the battles of the Civil War and civil rights. We found the place unoccupied except for an older woman reading, or maybe sleeping, when George and I walked in. For a moment, I feared she had passed out, face down in an open book, and was about to check on her when her head popped up. Appraising the two tall men who’d disrupted her rest, she immediately became animated. Spry and wiry, apparently a volunteer manning the center for the afternoon, Deane Hendricks engaged us with fervor. When I timidly mentioned seeking Civil War sites and my great-grandfather’s possible battle here, Deane startled me by praising Klan founder and Confederate hero Nathan Bedford Forrest, and handed me a pamphlet about him, “Arch-Angel of Confederacy.” Deane asked what role my great-grandfather served in the Confederate Army.
Oh no. There was nothing to do but reveal that Austin was a Yankee, fighting for the Ohio Infantry.
Deane looked at me evenly and absorbed the news quietly, but not for long. She suggested we sit down, so I took a place at a small table while George kept his distance on the far edge of an adjacent bench. Deane sat across from me, folding her hands, and launched into a free-ranging tutorial about Civil War history. She went into moving detail about postwar starvation across Tennessee, along with many other personal hardships borne by ordinary Southerners. And did I realize George Washington was really a rebel? Confederates were merely continuing his work against another faraway, tyrannical power…The North!
A torrent of corrective information followed at random, including how the “redneck” was a result of deprivation, too. Returning Confederate soldiers didn’t have detachable collars to cover their necks, so they got sunburnt when working the farm. “Blacks and Yankee soldiers would laugh at them, call them red necks.” By the way, Deane went on, “Your General Sherman was a war criminal, period. Even though black people saw him as a God, he hated them. He let his men rape not just white women but black women, too. So many black people drowned.” Deane glanced over to George. “Sherman neglected them, wouldn’t even feed them.”
Daylight was burning, and I realized I had to squeeze in a question about modern Columbia. We needed information about the 1946 racial disturbance, so we could get oriented to the location, and seek local sources of memory and commemoration. But Deane ignored my question as a white couple entered. She sprang up and began to gush over Mule Day and the other wonders of Columbia, dismissing George and me without warning.
We decided to visit the county library, right around the corner. The reading room was busy but hushed, so when I asked a reference librarian if there were some commemorative marker or historical display where I could find out more about the town’s 1946 racial disturbance, I felt self-conscious. I lowered my voice but it carried; heads turned. My northern accent must have been obvious. Chairs swiveled. Books and newspapers were set aside. A librarian, Adam Southern, though, responded immediately and offered details. Adam was actually working on an oral history capturing the 1946 riot’s surviving voices.
One of his colleagues stepped forward and gently chided him. “Working on it, Adam? When are you going to take it out of the drawer and finish it?” Two other staff members gathered around like a settling flock, engaged but quiet, watchful (George later said, “more wary than watchful”). Adam went on, undeterred by the attention. Like any good historian he stuck to the facts.
There was no commemoration, he told me, and nothing marked. His colleague nodded, stating that most people in town either knew little about the riot or wanted to forget about it. In 1946, though, the violence brought national media attention to Columbia, largely because it was among the first racial disturbances after World War II and its protagonist was an African-American Navy veteran who’d just served in the Pacific. The vet grew concerned when a white clerk in a radio shop became aggressive with his mother. The small incident exploded: the vet and clerk got into an altercation, the shop window was smashed, the clerk crashed through it, and the vet was charged with felony intent to kill the shopkeeper—who was quite alive. A white mob gathered at the county courthouse.
It got worse and worse. Black veterans and citizens also gathered, just a block downhill from the courthouse around an African-American commercial district, the Mink Slide. Some were armed, and when four police officers entered the Mink Slide, gunfire wounded all four. As white citizens encircled the district, state police arrived and went on a rampage. The officers rioted, shooting and stealing at random, conducting warrantless home searches to confiscate private weapons, and arresting over a hundred black citizens, all deprived of any legal recourse. Police killed two African-Americans held in custody. The overt violence sparked a six-month grand jury case over law enforcement’s unlawfulness.
Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer with the NAACP, came to the prisoners’ defense. Eventually, white juries dropped all charges against the white officers. Only one of the hundred blacks was ever convicted.
In the aftermath of the legal case, more state police villainy involved Thurgood Marshall in an incident confounding to those of us who grew up learning of him only as the hero of Brown vs. the Board of Education and as our first black Supreme Court Justice. In the fall of 1946, when Marshall left Columbia after the last trial, state patrolmen trailed his car. The officers stopped him on fake driving violations, essentially chasing Marshall and his associates through the woods and eventually taking him—Thurgood Marshall!—into custody for driving while drunk. The charge was so obviously bogus that a country judge dismissed it.
To this scene, out of a Jim Crow nightmare, Adam, along with his colleague Elizabeth, added a final chilling detail I had not read in any summaries of the riots and the legal cases. With Marshall alone in their patrol car, the officers intended to isolate Marshall at a river sandbar. “This was the historical ‘legal’ lynching spot,” Adam added. Luckily, after the fake drunk charge was dropped, Marshall’s allies escorted the legal team back to the highway.
Clearly, the 1946 Columbia riots marked a made-for-Hollywood instance of state terror in the U.S.A. Its perfect casting included a war veteran demanding respect and a valiant lawyer on the verge of becoming an American icon. The story was one of ultimate vindication for human dignity.
We followed Adam’s directions a few blocks west to scout our own impressions of the Mink Slide today. George and I weren’t surprised that Columbia did nothing to identify the site or remember it publicly. The watchful/wary reception my question inspired at the library still embarrassed me, making me feel every inch the intruding Yankee blundering, uninvited, through Dixie. Still, the short stretch between the library and Mink Slide was its own monument, a sad one erected not by hands but by hands off, decades of neglect. Blocks of soaped-over shops, weedy lots, abandoned gas stations and warehouses, shut-down businesses in an old brick storefronts led past a faded sign, “Dump’s Café,” and to the corner of West 8th and Main. Here was
the site of the 1946 riot, the once-segregated but thriving black business district. Now segregated from commerce and life itself, three impressive old two-story brick facades faced Main with sagging, rusting arcades and ply-boarded windows. A vacant lot faced an abandoned warehouse and an empty parking lot. Mink Slide looked like it had been abandoned for all the sixty-five years since the police rampaged there.
George and I strolled one block north, up a sloping, more promising block that connected the forlorn corner to the classic, light marble courthouse atop the hill. From this angle, downtown Columbia was a beauty, a collection of elegant brick commercial buildings ringing the courthouse’s tall, pillared white clock tower overlooking mostly abandoned businesses.
This pretty City on a Hill looked like a dead zone.
We tried out a theory: maybe the riot was so traumatic to Columbia it never recovered? It remained physically divided between white and black. East of the courthouse a shabby warehouse district occupied a holler-like bottomland. Across that holler and lining a hilltop opposite, a low-density mix of isolated smaller houses scattered on rural-like lanes, a few black folks walking here and there, a few places beautifully maintained and renovated, but most forlorn, and a few collapsing. The west side, on an opposing hill, was identical except it had white faces, more money for renovations, and an air of satisfied prosperity.
Had something altered, shifted, in the town’s orientation? Why was the county seat of a proudly historic region in the very middle of Middle Tennessee all so lifeless? George speculated it was truly that lawless riot of law enforcement, that travesty of justice in the 1940s, become an original sin that had cursed the town ever since.
Just down the road, we’d soon find an even more cursed Tennessee town, its sin so original that George didn’t want me to set foot in the place.
Finding my great-grandfather’s battle ground in Franklin, Tennessee
Even if Franklin, Tennessee had been a toxic hellhole, I would’ve visited the town, site of one of the Civil War’s most sadistic and deadly battles. But just south of Nashville, Franklin was one of the richest communities in the entire country and fastidiously preserved, its village squares and quaint shops giving off an aroma of self-satisfied affluence.
I had to pay homage to my great-grandfather by walking in his footsteps. Years before, a historian at the National Soldier’s Home and Cemetery in Dayton, Ohio informed me that my great-grandfather had fought for the Ohio Infantry in Franklin. Austin Hill Patton was a teenage arrival from Ireland who fought for the Union. Since Austin enlisted so young, and since his son did not father my father until late in life, and since my father had me later in life, too, I ended up weirdly close in generational time to this Civil War ghost. I knew nothing more about him than what I learned in Dayton —that Austin entered what was then the Old Soldiers Home still in his forties, dying from a long list of physical ailments. The Dayton historian had told me it was no wonder he was in such terrible shape; my great-grandfather had fought in the “worst of the worst.”
Franklin, Tennessee. Three patchwork Civil War sites were stitched into the town’s development. Pizza joints, boutiques and golf courses covered the graves of generals and cannon fodder with equal disregard. George and I visited Carter House, a central point in the battle that once overwhelmed the entire town. I had a sentimental idea that I would stand in my unknown great-grandfather’s place, draw him closer and somehow dust off a century and a half of oblivion. I had a proprietary feel for this small farm, this set-aside of open land within the town, my own blood claim on Southern real estate. What I ended up learning was bloody, all right, and that I was tied to a much wider swathe of the South.
The battle of Franklin lasted only four or five hours on November 30, 1864. It was nearly suicidal and/or homicidal on both sides, pent-up vengeance seizing the forces for past humiliations and stand-offs. As the short November afternoon melted into darkness, the curtain was raised for “the last great drama of the war.” In a family’s cotton fields and private gardens, the armies unleashed lunatic violence and hatred. Many scholars describe the battle at Franklin as a psychodrama rather than a strategic maneuver. Some speculate it accomplished nothing and would have resulted in the same outcome—the next battle in Nashville—no matter what happened here at Franklin.
The excruciating Civil War ordeal of the Carter family was detailed with speed, passion, and poetry by our guide Robert Donald Cross, associate historian for the Battle of Franklin Trust. “Don’t call me Johnny Reb, I won’t call you Yank,” Rob said, then led us through the home and the family’s story with vivid detail, in the elevated diction of the era. We ended up in the basement, just as the family did as they waited out the siege, bullets flying ceaselessly above them. Scores of bullet holes still riddling the outbuildings and walls gave silent testimony to what must have been relentless pandemonium overhead.
Rob stressed the battle’s terrible losses. Over two thousand men were killed within hours, more killed in less time than on any other day in the entire war. Corpses were left standing, propped by other corpses. The Carters’ fields of wheat, corn and cotton, then worked by their twenty-eight slaves, were now cemetery-like green turf. Franklin was built over countless unmarked graves.
As we wandered the site, George said, “Rob’s so intense, but keeping a lid on himself, like a pressure cooker. History is like a creation he wants us to understand. He’s expressing his art, trying to convey the best interpretation, to take us there.” George stared at a greensward that sloped toward a highway. “I just wonder, how is all this important to me?” Walking on, he wistfully answered his own question: “I guess, because I’m an American. It’s part of our kinship, and so, it must be part of me.”
We came to a slave cabin, cater-corner from the Carter House. Unlike a brick, gabled pump house nearby, the slave residence was a rough-hewn, one-room wooden shack with a dirty mattress thrown on the floor. “Where were the slaves,” George asked, “while the Carter family gathered in the basement?”
Back at the museum, Rob was working historical magic. With no more than my great-grandfather’s name and town, Springfield, Ohio, he had uncovered in-depth information on Austin Hill Patton’s Civil War engagements throughout the South. The vague scraps I’d learned in Dayton became a feast of specific data. Rob had memorized footnote citations and sub-numbers and knew arcane guideways to identify ordinary soldiers. Austin Hill Patton, 19, enlisted on January 27,1864, and mustered into Company I, 101st Ohio, 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 4th Army Corps. At the Franklin battle, he was probably sent to reinforce the center of main area near Carter house. My sentimental goal more than attained, I got chills thinking of that Irish kid enduring that carnage. My own great-grandfather shot or dodged some of those bullets still lodged in the walls.
But Rob told me so much more. It turned out that Austin took part in the Atlanta campaign. He served in several battles heading south into Atlanta—Rocky Face, Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain, Atlanta, and Jonesboro; battle grounds I had already seen with no idea of Austin’s presence in them. After that, presumably while Sherman went on scorching earth through Georgia, Austin was assigned to the Western campaigns, taking him north again, into the heart of Middle Tennessee: Columbia, Spring Hill, Franklin, and finally Nashville.
Weird how blood bonds animate the imagination’s capacity for connection.
Our conversation with Rob turned to his thoughts on certain Southern attitudes. A lifelong Tennessean, Rob felt “Southern xenophobia regarding the Civil War was sickening and idiotic.” He rebelled against the very term “Union” (favoring “Federal”) and the assumption that any Northerner is “just a Yankee.” He studied military history and found his passion for recovering soldiers’ stories after his father told him of his own great-great grandfather’s history in the Franklin battle.
See what I mean about blood bonds?
After closing time, Rob’s conversation got more personal. Inspired to join the service at age twenty-one, after the 9/11/01 attacks, he hoped “to fight on behalf of a “specific victim, to carry their picture with me into battle.” So Rob was devastated, during training, to be dismissed for heart murmur. He struggled, agonized by a sidelined feeling. At rock-bottom emotionally, he sought his pastor’s counsel. “My pastor told me flat out that I was an idiot. It was obvious, given my education in history: my calling was to educate others on war.”
That’s exactly what Rob devoted his career to, right at home in Franklin. Along with many public presentations and outreach for the Battle of Franklin Trust, Rob also counseled Vietnam veterans, drawing out their funniest stories, then eliciting the worst. “They hunger for their stories to be told truthfully.” Because the vets tell themselves tales of self-delusion in order to cope with atrocity, Rob explained, they struggle to be “truthful even to themselves.”
Another associate joined us and our talk turned to current social topics.. The two young historians thought that our times were “the worst, the most divisive, ever since the Civil War.” As at so many other cultural-historical stopovers on this journey, the staff at Carter House seemed astute and super-informed. The whole place gave the vibe of reverence for the past’s horrible burden and respect for those who sought to learn more, commemoration at its best. This was honoring the past and our ancestors with digging for depth. This was accepting the outcome of the search, no matter how savage or contradictory to some shallow patriotic or nostalgic narrative of our national story—that self-serving slant on history which George and I had come to call “The Pageant.” This wasn’t pageantry at Carter House; it was public truth-telling. Maybe this was the real patriotism.
Taking leave of Rob, full of gratitude, feeling I’d finally discovered my great-grandfather, I also felt the sting of history’s slap here in Middle Tennessee. Starting with my great-grandfather’s role as a youthful infantryman here, and after Rob’s intense interpretation, I’d felt blindsided by raw injustice and wanton violence, old blood gushing under my feet. I felt revulsion at what ought to have been unnecessary struggles for basic equality. The past was a wretched place. Would it always be?
Our Velveeta War Summit in Chattanooga, Tennessee
After our dead-end search for traces of George’s great-grandmother in South Carolina, we set off across the Appalachians in search of my great-grandfather’s Civil War battle site in Franklin, Tennessee. We took a few days to get there, first detouring into Chickamauga National Military Park. The Civil War battlefield had accidently saved a chunk of natural beauty in Chattanooga’s staggeringly ugly suburbs, a greensward built on war corpses. We learned that Civil War veterans had come together here in 1889, giving birth to the very idea of preserving the major battlefields: There will be no place here for…the show of wealth; no place for lovers to bide tryst; no place for pleasure-seekers or loungers.
In fact many visitors used the battlefield for lounging and pleasure seeking —bikers, joggers, and picnickers. I don’t know about trysting, but who knew what was shaking in those blushing thickets?
The battlefield parkland was stately, faithful to its “hallowed ground” sentiment and full of white marble monuments to military units from many states. Weirdly, combat started by accident and ended with a random, surprising breech of Union lines, the Confederates’ last victory on the South’s road to defeat. Often drunk, commanders on both sides could not communicate strategies, leaving troops in uproarious confusion. The Civil War’s second-bloodiest battle after Gettysburg ended with Chickamauga Creek running red.
Sunny and absorbing as this pleasure ground/killing field excursion was, our Chickamauga stopover also felt existential and stomach-churning, revelatory of things we didn’t really want revealed. George wondered about the “utility” of visiting battlefields at all, and I felt a chill, realizing he had named my own doubts about these touristic outings. Utility. The word mocked our very presence here, the very possibility of authenticity in travel and travel writing.
We soldiered on, even so, through the park’s heaps of historical fact. In the museum, we learned of the Union’s overall acceptance of Southern slavery. The North’s real fight and passion was over its extension into the Western territories, not the inhuman institution itself. Even Lincoln’s emancipation move may have been merely strategic. Not exactly our high school lessons of unmitigated Northern virtue.
Earlier, at a Waffle House breakfast, George and I had tried to define our ever-shifting Civil War attitudes over omelets gooey with processed cheese—a Velveeta War Summit. In the down-home chain diner’s cheery, multiracial atmosphere, we discussed our ways of relating to the Civil War, individually as Northern African-American or Average White Guy, or together as Westerners, or as Yankees, in the eyes of locals; and as ordinary modern Americans appalled by secession and slavery. Now at a popular pull-off-spot in the battlefield park, George and I roved different paths. He got itchy as the lone black guy while exploring a watchtower, feeling singled out or unwelcome, sensing the uneasiness of other visitors with his presence. When we rendezvoused at the car, I felt his estrangement. He wondered aloud if he was just being peevish, the unappeasable Race Man.
It stabbed me, how George had to suffer slights, then wonder if he really did. The battlefield was definitely White-landia, not only in the complexions of the visitors, but in the marginal mention of black roles and black stakes in this great battle. Here, of all places, the contest over who really possesses this history, who really belongs, went on and on. “The uneasiness is on both our parts,” George said. “Like neither me nor those white folks can know what the other is thinking. It’s like an awkward dance. The little courtesies just don’t flow. It seems to happen more down South, especially in places where ‘history’ happened. I felt it at Fort Sumter. I felt it in Charleston. Like I’m not supposed to breathe the rarified atmosphere.”
“Maybe we should stick to the Waffle House,” I tried to joke, thinking of the way adoring white waitresses fussed over him. The way a trio of girls at a fast food joint had gasped in joy, mistaking George for President Obama. Then he got to Chickamauga, and damn! That white stare that asks, what the fuck are you doing here?
At our last battlefield stop, a hilly overlook, vintage muscle cars lined the lane. Each one featured pairs of young women with fluorescent hair. We were told it was a photo shoot for a Chattanooga salon, Zombie Candi. The stylists posed, all
laughter and playful hauteur, while alone on the hood of one of the cars was the single black girl. George glanced at her, smiling sardonically. “I know just how she feels.”
* * * *
After Chickamauga’s battlefields, in old Rossville, we sought Cherokee chief John Ross’s house, a now-dilapidated wood structure surrounded by smelly ponds and helter-skelter commercial buildings.
I wondered what John Ross, the founder of Chattanooga, would think of the suburban town named in his honor. Rossville’s ugliness, notable even by metro Chattanooga standards, sprawled with no value but expediency. Here was a town which looked as if nothing was ever planned or improved over a couple hundred years. The site of one of America’s most tragic ethnic cleansings, Rossville today was nearly all-white, a centerless heap of strip businesses from the twentieth century’s cheap-gas car craze.
How beautiful the forests and hills must have been—like those shrouding the nearby Chickamauga battlefield—when Chief Ross lived here. Leaving aside Ross’s conflicting reputations as either the Moses of the Cherokee or an exploitative fraud, a blunt plaque underscored Andrew Jackson’s hostility to the Cherokee plight. After Ross failed in complicated legal challenges to stop the Indian Removal Act, in 1838 the Cherokee were ejected from Georgia and Tennessee on that deadly and torturous forced march to present-day Oklahoma , the Trail of Tears. Reduced to leading the removal himself, Ross lost his wife, who died en route.
A chain-link fence barred us from the historic home. It was a sad but apt commemoration: visitors fenced-out of the story, clinging instead to the metal bars and wondering which side encircled the real prison.
Starting the Search for Our Lost Ancestors in Greenville, South Carolina
As George and I sped toward Greenville, the horizon looked hazy, even haunted.
But in the South, it seemed too tempting to apply “haunted” to nearly everything in its ghostly, undead history. Sometimes the physical beauty of Southern landscapes tantalized me so that I couldn’t resist what waited to ambush us from those thickets and rocky outcrops.
Without knowing it yet, I was already traveling in the path of my great-grandfather’s ghost, northward to where he’d fought in Tennessee. As a teenage Irish immigrant, he’d joined Ohio Infantry in the horrific Civil War battles of Franklin and Nashville. I imagined that bloody terrain, beyond the horizon, daring me to follow his footsteps.
But first, we had another errand here in South Carolina, tracing the steps of another ancestor lost to recorded history, George’s great-grandmother. We couldn’t prepare ourselves for what was next, what we’d find and what had vanished.
* * * *
The Greenville Cultural Exchange Center was a homey museum of the city’s African-American history, where founder and curator Ruth Ann Butler devoted her afternoon to George’s search for his great-grandmother. Though George had followed every lead we obtained at the South Carolina State Archives in Columbia, the results were pathways to dead ends. He still had only those rumors of her pioneering preaching. We did not have so much as a name, only George’s sister’s belief that their great-grandmother’s name started with an “L.” We had L.’s husband’s name, and her daughter’s—George’s grandmother’s—record of birth in Greenville, dated 1905. We knew that L. died young, because within a few years, her daughter was an orphan.
I felt as if we were on the edge of some crucial discovery. Ruth Ann continued with her roll call of Carolinian names if she were resurrecting a lost soul each time she found someone. “I have never not found a person,” she assured George.
As Ruth Ann and George continued checking, exhausting computerized lists, I became distracted but enthralled. The Cultural Exchange Center seemed exactly the right place to be, occupying a vintage house on a tranquil tree-lined street at the edge of Sterling, Greenville’s historically African-American neighborhood. Ruth Ann Butler had created the museum in 1987, inspired to preserve the city’s black history.
When George took a moment to enter notes on his tablet, he mentioned our book project to Ruth Ann and left me a moment to chat with her. It was a distinct possibility that George’s great-grandmother had attended an early, vanished version of the neighborhood’s first black high school. A later, larger incarnation of Sterling High School was legendary; Rev. Jesse Jackson was an alumnus. Ruth Ann, a one-time history teacher who’d written a history of the school, had herself attended Sterling High alongside Rev. Jackson. Ruth Ann told me that when school integration was on the horizon, Sterling High burned in 1967. Officially the cause was faulty wiring, but many considered it to have been racially motivated arson. At this point, Georgepulled me aside. “I think we’ve got all the information we’re going to get here,” he said.
Over that evening’s dinner at a Mexican joint, George got on my case about why I hadn’t jumped in sooner to interview Ruth Ann Butler about her own identity as a Southerner. “I gave you an opening, and you ignored it. You need to talk to more African Americans,” he said, as if I didn’t talk to one big skinny African American every day of this journey, the one across from me, climbing again atop his high race horse. He had a point, though; most of our conversations in Georgia and South Carolina had been with whites. But his reprimand sideswiped me because I had deliberately kept out of the discussion at the Cultural Exchange, thinking our mission there was to focus on the search for his great-grandmother and not my inquisitions of Southerners.
George scoffed. “You have to reach out more. You can’t dismiss the importance of black people.”
“Have a heart,” I told him, steaming behind my glass of Dos Equis. His stern, Mr. African-American-Know-It-All demeanor heightened my insecurities about our whole Southern identity project. I felt like the Clueless White Westerner again, tongue-tied, slow-witted and feckless. Whether planned or random, our encounters with Southern folks were unpredictable. Later I reflected that we were just irritable, waking to an uncomfortable truth. Though Ruth Ann Butler had never not found anyone, maybe George’s great-grandmother would be her first hopelessly lost soul. The center’s database only chased us into more false leads and dead ends. And it made me wonder what had compelled us to chase her ghost on our journey in the first place. What were we really looking for? Why had I become so invested in searching for a young woman whose footprints had long vanished? The Lady Reverend Starts-with-“L” was completely unconnected to me, and a stranger to her grand-grandson George as well.
What was I really doing down here in Dixie, anyway? Who the hell did I think I was, interpreting the entire freaking Southern U.S.A. in tinker-toy rental cars and budget motels? Ours, the Quality Inn, was hosting Gun, Knife & Militaria Show attendees from all over the region. That night, somebody punched through a wall a few doors down. In the morning, the manager repaired a kicked-in door next to ours. In the disrupted breakfast room, the trays of powdered eggs and instant grits were empty, every scrap, as if invading Gun and Knife Militarians had devoured all of Greenville at dawn.
* * * *
Next morning, in the Carolina Room of the Greenville County Public Library, no matter how much we might be shooting guns and knives in the dark, our search continued. When George asked about local orphanages, the librarian produced zip-locked packets of articles and clippings, a treasure trove of news about Upstate South Carolina orphan care from late 1800s through the 1950s. The daunting pile was instantly simplified when we realized that —of course —all orphanages had been segregated. Possibilities narrowed to the Colored Orphanage in Pickens, twenty miles northwest of Greenville. Only one tiny clipping, lonely in its zip-lock, referenced the Colored Orphanage in passing. Leafing through the white files for any accidental scrap of further reference to the black ones, I found a typical quote from one white orphans’ home, which stressed in cheerful prose the children’s great fortune to be housed with such caring folk: “Children from any section of our country are welcome provided they are fatherless, of tender years, and in need of aid.”
And provided they were white.
Encouraged even by the microscopic clipping about the Colored Orphanage, we left Greenville through a tangle of exurban sprawl to Pickens. I was psyched by the first humps of the Appalachian foothills, cloaked in color. Maple leaves sighed down, orange and scarlet.
Pickens was a small, quiet county seat, dating back to the 1820s, with handsome, historic brick storefronts lining its main street. Housed in the former jail, the county museum had an obliging curator who verified that a colored orphanage once existed here. But he did not have any specific knowledge of, or location for, the long-vanished institution.
So that’s how it was going to be. George could contact further leads from home in Colorado, but our face-to-face prospects here had gone cold. Aiming for our next destinations and appointments over the Blue Ridge into Tennessee, we took a detour up to Mount Sassafras, the very top of South Carolina.
On our Sassafras perch we peered southeast, so high and so distant from Greenville’s sprawl we saw no signs of human settlement. Maybe this was the way the Cherokee saw it, an endless forest, the far blue mountains merging into a flawless sky.
“Another absence instead of a presence,” George proclaimed, cryptic.
But I got it. Maybe. Black Americans’ search for their past was a reach into an absence–lost records, vanished orphanages and burned schools. The cruel paradox made me admire Ruth Ann Butler’s efforts even more, her forthright energy and joy a kind of poetry connecting the unconnected, calling home the names of the nameless.
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.