Where the Hell Was Everybody?
Heading out of Charleston, detemined to find South Carolina’s “wild” landscapes, George and I passed through north end neighborhoods few tourists explore. An easy stroll from the groomed, cobblestoned historic district, narrow streets squeezed scruffy multi-family conversions and shacks into charmless blocks. Stray dogs wandered empty, weedy lots. Here and there, a human being actually emerged, wandering alone or waiting for a bus against the slap of traffic. The solitary faces were almost always black. Where had we seen this before? “Macon,” George said, “just southeast of the historic homes area. And the south side of Savannah, exactly the same. City neighborhoods that look like rural shantytowns.”
We would end up in truly rural shantytowns after we fought our way out of town, surrendering to the ease of Interstate 26. A diagonal straight to the capital city, the freeway cut across the Low Country’s dense woodland, heavy traffic zooming through what appeared to be a complete wilderness. Only the fast food signs and oil company logos poking above the greenery told us we’d returned to Anywhere America. This generic, corporate-logo landscape blurred on, flat and featureless, so we decided to abort the autobahn. We escaped on a rural route that would wind to Columbia via Congaree National Park.
Almost immediately, on the two-lane blacktop toward tiny St. Matthews, we re-entered the South. The forested “wilderness” skirting the Interstate was nothing but a green façade screening the Carolina reality of pastureland surrounding shabby, isolated farmhouses and rural holdings. Every inch of it looked claimed and settled, whether tended or neglected.
South Carolina as a whole ranked 42nd in median income and this region was even poorer than the state average. St. Matthews existed on barely two-thirds of that. Forlorn and discarded-looking, the town was blur of country highways emptying into long-gone businesses and abandoned gas stations. As far as real estate values, a MasterCard could mortgage a house or trailer, or both. Poor as it was, Calhoun County was not as desperate as its neighbors, ranked “critical” in poverty rates.
Outside St. Matthews, heading into open country, we found a surreal, white-tufted landscape cut into the dense pine and beech forests. Here the white fields would be intense and bright; there they’d fade, the tufts just emerging. “Cotton!” George called out. “It’s cotton. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it growing before.”
The fields, in several stages of growth, had a vivid, fantastic quality, especially against the dark, lurking borders of forest. Completely giving in to our gee-whiz touristic status, we stopped the car to take pictures of…well, cotton. Soon we passed small, nameless settlements lining the obscure road, just as shacky and run-down as those poor neighborhoods in Macon and Charleston, the faces just as African-American. But instead of those urban zones’ emptied disquiet, these crossroads villages hopped with agrarian busyness. Men hoisted bales onto awaiting trucks and warehouses teemed with movement. Women in storefront snack bars stirred steaming pots while kids criss-crossed dirt turnouts on bikes.
Even among Southern states, South Carolina ranks high in its percentage of rural residents, around 40 percent. George and I wandered deep within that world now, devoid of fast food, franchise services, and big-box retailers. There were no stressed-out, hunched humanoids staring at tiny screens; around us, people moved with exuberant steps and emphatic gestures. This cotton country had an eternal, yet improvisational feel, as if the fields had been here for centuries, unchanged, while the crooked wood-slat shacks might disappear tomorrow without a trace.
Nearby, after several twists, turns, and U turns, we discovered what the land would look like if the settlements disappeared. Congaree National Park was so obscure it didn’t even appear on Google’s map of South Carolina. Completely unlike the National Parks in the West, usually set off from human encroachment, Congaree existed amid private holdings, just another turn-off on a rural lane lined by mailboxes and churches. We pulled into an empty parking lot and, alone, found an abandoned visitor’s center—all the opposite of Western parks, where finding parking could be a crisis, where crowds thronged displays and besieged rangers for information.
With an entire National Park to ourselves on a mellow, warm afternoon, we grabbed a paper guide and toured a boardwalk loop. At last, a hike! A very easy, flat one, organized as a raised-boardwalk nature trail, it became our education in southeastern trees: beech, loblolly, canebrake, tupelo, pawpaw, and dog hobble. At the very verge of the swampy Low Country and the rolling Piedmont uplands, Congaree specialized in mucky bogs and drying seepages. Everywhere, mossy, elegant branches spoke of patience and slow time, the secret work of heat, sluggish water, and abundant natural compost. Congaree’s “champion trees,” the tupelos reached higher than any other species east of the Mississippi River. Besides its prolific aquatic and avian species–a globally important bird area–Congaree also preserved North America’s largest remaining old-growth bottomland forest, whichwas almost lost in the 1960’s to logging. This International Biosphere Reserve was such a beautiful, serene place, such an important transition between two major biospheres, and a major preserve in its own right. So where the hell was everybody?
Given that the Federal wildlands of the South were so small and hemmed-in by settlements, I wondered why they weren’t thronged by nature lovers. When I’d asked Southerners about adjacent wildlands, some answered, “But why would you want to go there? It’s just a swamp/a thicket/a tangle. Full of bugs and nasty critters. I’ve never been out there, myself.”
Rambling the last stretch of our loop, a ranger approached us, having just pulled off her official jacket. Surprised to encounter two Yankee strangers, she immediately made sure we had all the information we needed, and in an intimate, chatty tone, shared her love of the place with us. Off duty and ending her day with a ramble around her workplace just out of sheer adoration, she was making me fall in love with the South, and Congaree, and tree-hugging rangers.
The ranger raised her bare arms to the soft breeze and the sun sinking behind the high canopy spooky with Spanish moss. She smiled big and wished us a good visit. At last, in the closest thing to a wild place we could find in the Low Country, here was another Southerner I could understand.
A Graceful Little City Built on a Soul-killing System
Packing Charleston’s expansive visitor center, tourists signed up for pirate tours, ghost haunts, dungeon walks, and plantation garden tickets. But George and me? We picked up a freebie map and strolled toward the Old Slave Mart. About our speed.
Charleston proved to be unsettling—an unhinged, continual ying-yang. Its well-preserved historic beauty and progressive present melded with a past of stark evil. The majority of stolen Africans shipped to America arrived via Charleston harbor. Longtime mayor Joe Riley speculated that 80 percent of African-Americans could connect an ancestor to Charleston.
The Old Slave Mart museum, small and dramatic, was housed in the last existing building actually used as slave auction “gallery” after public slave sales were banned in 1856. The ground floor seemed no larger than a pet shop. Its first section was the showroom. The word gave me gooseflesh, dehumanizing the merchandise sold here 150 years before, as if human beings were mere machines, Jeeps or Toyotas. (The structure actually served as an auto dealership in the 1920’s.)
The recreated voice of a slave narrative from the WPA project boomed around that first squeezed showroom. Blunt and vivid, the former slave’s memories detailed the auction’s degradations. Around a corner, sound effects intruded—traders’ voices, horse hooves clomping—as we read panel after panel supplying uncompromising facts about the slave business, the efforts of slaves to display themselves as more healthy or more worthless, to avoid cruel owners, gain bearable positions, and keep their families intact. We were spared a visit to the barracoon, where slaves were shackled before auctions, and the “dead room,” both long razed for a rear parking lot. Absorbed and appalled, George and I explored the slave mart realizing that we’d actually joined a ghost tour after all. Slavery seemed a haint that couldn’t be ignored in pretty, preening Charleston, rattling its chains across the centuries.
The relentless procession of facts overwhelmed us, such as the small number of Carolinians actually involved in owning and trading most slaves—3 percent owned 95 percent. Three lousy percent. It royally pissed me off to the consider horrific global and national consequences from this tiny number of slave masters. Four years of fratricidal war to preserve such a rare prerogative?
After our tour, we circled back to the gift/book shop. George stepped out for fresh air (and reprieve, I think) while I perused a Gullah dictionary. A young African-American woman behind the counter wanted to know if she could help me, and I said I’d love to know how to get closer to the Gullah dialect. She took umbrage. “Start with that children’s book, then,” she said, pointing, “because you will be like a child when it comes to learning Gullah.”
I caught her tone and attitude, familiar to me from my halting forays among black radicals when I was a student. Ah, I was again the Blundering White Dude, trespassing where he wasn’t welcome, another whitey bound to misunderstand. With no idea that I was interested linguistically, the clerk pivoted toward bad faith. Maybe she thought I was going to break out in ridicule, pronouncing deese’s and dat’s.
But after we chatted about the cultural biases we all so easily slip into, country folk versus city slickers, South versus North, she pivoted back and warmly shared with me a detailed picture of Gullah in her own background—she grew up just outside the city—and her family’s relationships, her girlhood adventures with her country relatives on the Sea Islands and those who lived in and around Charleston itself. Her relatives, she recounted with pride, had once hosted a white linguist while he studied the Sea Islands Creole. “If I figure you out in time,” she was told me, “I might just invite you for dinner at my granny’s.”
It wasn’t exactly a firm invitation, but I appreciated it. When George came back into the museum foyer and stood at my side, the clerk shared a few common Gullah sayings with him. She seemed amused and bemused by George, this tall, self-possessed Northern black man, and recounted some of our conversation about Gullah culture for his benefit. She implored George to understand that Gullah was virtually the lodestone of all Black English. She teased out a few phrases from him, innocuous and commonplace phrases, and assured him that wherever he went and whatever he said, Sea Islands Creole was the wellspring of his vocabulary and outlook. He carried the South with him everywhere, whether he knew it or not.
“That’s why we’re here,” I told George after we left the museum, “to discover your South Carolina roots. Right, Gullah Guy?” As we hustled across the cobblestones, dark clouds massed over the afternoon’s bright blue. Despite the oncoming storm, we were determined to walk the southern tip of Charleston, the storied Battery neighborhood.
George was taken aback that by the clerk’s aggressive expectation that he embrace his hidden-but-ever-present Southern cultural identity. Still, he reminded me there were doors upon doors unopened behind the clerk’s attitudes, pain and struggle that made her so ready to expect injury from a white guy looking at a Gullah dictionary in a gift shop. George explained what was on his mind as he’d strolled, alone, the block around the Old Slave Mart. “Since Savannah, maybe I’m hyper-vigilant about the ways that African Americans do and don’t get included in the city’s history. So thank goodness for that young woman at the museum, for her Sea Island stories and Gullah vocabulary. She’s providing some color around here, and fiercely protective of her people.”
Following a sidewalk across from the wide harbor, we crossed the threshold of Charleston’s yin and yang, from the slave market towards its opposite as we walked south. The luxurious results of forced labor, antebellum homes became palatial, fenced behind wrought iron, facing the harbor’s marine horizons. The dark clouds finally unloaded and a massive squall hit the city’s Battery, Atlantic winds whipping the palmettos.
Defenseless, without rain jackets or umbrellas, we took refuge on the porch of the Edmondston-Alston House Museum. Waiting out the storm, we joined the day’s last house tour. Our guide was a maternal blonde who remained enchanted and excited by the house’s material comforts and original décor. But for all her love of the finer details, I was nonplussed by her failure to scratch the posh surface. It felt disconcerting, immediately after the slave market, to wander lavish rooms, exhorted to note every silver pattern and gilded frame. Our guide’s brief mention of a slave stairwell and slave quarters in a back wing only highlighted how whiplashed labor made this self-celebratory antebellum household function and flourish. We learned so little about the family’s contributions and careers, our guide’s narrative concentrating on the things they left behind. I studied portraits in the dining room only to feel the dullness and stupidity of the aristrocracy’s blithe lives of ease. A graceful, beautiful little society built on a soul-killing system, to which a tiny minority–The Three Percent–clung more vociferously than anywhere in the South.
When I noted dynastic bullshit like the Alston family “Coat of Arms” and learned that the upstairs piazza hosted General Beauregard’s view of the 1861 bombardment of Fort Sumter, I recalled that Charleston’s Sons of Confederate Veterans had thrown a Secession Ball on December 20, 2010 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of South Carolina’s withdrawal from the Union. Described in invitations as a “joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink,” 300 white Charlestonians reveled in period dress while a multiracial crowd of more than 100 protested outside, including Mayor Riley. NAACP officials compared it to Japanese-Americans celebrating Pearl Harbor or German-Americans celebrating the Holocaust. When Mayor Riley declared, “the cause of this disastrous secession was…to protect the inhumane and immoral institution of slavery,” Secession Ball revelers shouted down their mayor as a liar. Each celebrant had paid a hundred bucks, after all, to celebrate the courage of their ancestors in defending their Southern heritage.
My head again spun from yin to yang as our guide led us through the master’s study. She pointed out an island, Shutes’ Folly, in Charleston harbor, exulting in how the tiny islet was visible from the study’s window. She speculated that the architect deliberately framed the “charming view.” The guide did not mention how a fort on that island, Pinckney’s Castle, imprisoned 304 African children in 1858, and no wonder. The incident is little recorded or acknowledged, and I had resort to a contemporary report in the Dec. 1, 1858 Anti-Slavery Reporter to confirm the story. U.S. federal forces seized an illegal slave trader, the Echo, a half-century after the Atlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807, packed with stolen African children. “Dying at the rate of ten a day,” the children were held there as authorities in Charleston decided whether to sell them on local slave markets or return them to West Africa, where they’d been purchased for “fifty cents to one dollar” per child. The Anti-Slavery Reporter left the matter unresolved, “there to remain till it should be determined how to dispose of them.” The journalist noted that the nearly worthless individual children would bring profits of $178,000 as a cargo, concluding “such gains are too tempting to be resisted by those who make haste to be rich.”
* * * *
We had Shute’s Folly, now a castle-less sand spit, in our sights again as we cruised to Fort Sumter the next morning. The fort occupied a man-made reef where the Atlantic met the harbor. Whitecaps whipped low rocks, flags whipping straight north. The reconstructed, walled fortress occupied every inch of its Atlantic reef. Fort Sumter felt unreal, just as sail-away ephemeral as Charleston itself, barely tethered to land. It seemed vulnerable to the open Atlantic and attack from any direction on multiple shores. I hustled onto the gangplank, half-believing the island fortress might roil away on a current before I reached the dock.
A young ranger, Jim, a native Charlestonian, herded the boatload of us near the original wall remnants and, as the opening shot of his narrative, asked, “Who fired the Civil War’s first shot?”
Out of a crowd of visitors from all around the U.S. North and South, a middle-aged man yelled, “We did!”
Jim stressed the length of the siege and the ruination of the original fort, which was not yet finished when the Confederates fired on the site on April 12, 1861. Despite everlasting Southern claims that the Civil War was about preserving states’ rights and not about preserving slavery, the war began exactly where the mass of captured Africans were shipped to our shores, here on the lip of Charleston harbor’s open mouth.
Schoolbook versions seemed to begin and end with that first shot, but the long drama of Sumter enacted the entire Civil War in microcosm. The longest siege in the global history of warfare since ancient times, the Confederates took the federal fort shortly after that famous first shot and held on to it. But in1863, the Union focused on recapturing Sumter, forcing the Confederates to endure two years of siege. Accounts focus on the soldiers’ deprivations, the supply lines tenuous or cut altogether, the constant bombardment and rebuilding.
We learned that 500 slaves were the real heroes of Confederate-occupied Sumter, risking their necks and breaking their backs to sandbag and rebuild those improvised walls. Unpaid forced laborers toiled, hopeless as Sisyphus, in the service of their own further enslavement. That’s Historic Charleston for ya.
The young ranger and I stood high on the replica ramparts, overlooking the neighborhood just across the water where he went to high school. I asked Jim how the War was presented in his schooling. “As a battle for state’s rights,” he said, without hesitation. “And only that.”
His forthright answer sounded tinged with regret and wonder. I confessed that my Northern education stressed the ending-slavery narrative and mostly overlooked the excesses of Union destructiveness and occupation. Every day, Jim dealt with that inevitable answer to his opening question–“We did”–and none of us really know who we are, a hundred-fifty years after that War Between the States, that War Against Northern Aggression, that Civil War. We can’t yet even agree on a name for it; we have to come to national parks to get a balanced view of the war’s origins and motives. In our nationwide curriculum, Civil War history seems spun with bias instead of threaded by facts and counter-facts.
Jim hurried with me to the afternoon’s return voyage, breathless with explanations. I was breathless, too, trying out counter-explanations as if I were rehearsing for a debate that would never end, wishing like I could float, Chagall-like, above the whole scene, ethereal, released from this strange, eternal controversy. Fort Sumter felt immaterial, woven of a gauzy, unanswered question. Why does this old, settled conflict feel so raw, so vital, still contested at its very origin?
“Who Was We?”: Doubts and Redoubts in Savannah
More mounds heaped at the edge of central Savannah, hosting more tales of battle, Southern defiance and ultimate surrender. A grassy hillock was upraised, earthen, and obviously handmade, like the Great Temple Mound we’d just climbed in Ocmulgee. Puzzled, George and I studied the Spring Hill Redoubt, a reconstruction of the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Savannah. The 234-year old battlefield seemed strangely spiffy, and no wonder: archeologists did not unearth evidence of the original until 2005, and the city created this park a year later.
I groaned inwardly. Too many layers of history had upended themselves, as if from quaking tectonic plates, in too few days–a brute, European-style pile-up of wars ancient and medieval and modern, blood gushing again and again into the same contested soil.
Here in Savannah, I absorbed the tale of this 1779 Revolutionary War battle, another layer of mounding Southern history I hadn’t much considered. Our just-born nation, fighting to cut its cord to Britain, suffered its second-bloodiest battle here. French, Haitian, Swedish, Irish, and Polish fighters joined the local colonists against the Brits. Hundreds of slaves worked twenty-hour days building trenches and redoubts to hold off the British, but by the second wave of attacks, those trenches were crammed with 800 coalition corpses. “So, the British forces held on to their colony,” I summarized from a laminated historical marker at the site, “and we retreated.”
“We?” George asked, his eyebrows raised. “Who was we?”
Okay, okay. The pronoun confusion wasn’t just about the 1779 mash-up of those foreign allies, or the still-undefined status of separate American colonies into a unified nation-state, but of course the “we” of that corps of slaves. The Coastal Heritage Society presented Battlefield Park as a memorial to those “who died for freedom” from “the clutches of the crown.” The Society clearly did not have any doubts about who “we” were.
As we left Battlefield Park, I kept company with my own doubts and re-doubts, even about my country’s sacrosanct origin story. The American colonies’ secession from Britain seemed remarkably like the Confederate succession from “us,” and just as ill-considered. Premature, hot-headed and blithe at once. I was royally sick of hearing that our soldiers always “die for freedom” without ever questioning what this freedom really is, who gets it, and why killing is the only way to obtain it.
Savannah’s extensive historic neighborhoods stretch back the centuries intact, though the port city was the very object of Sherman’s March to the Sea, which scorched the earth across most of Georgia to capture it. To a city already weakened in years of Union blockade, its forts already bombed and seized, its fields flooded, Sherman issued a threat to burn and ravage the whole gorgeous caboodle. Savannah remains the Savannah we treasure today only because it escaped direct fire eighty-two years after the Spring Hill battle, during the last autumn of the Civil War.
George and I crossed Martin Luther King Boulevard into the center of town, looking forward to learning more about a paradigm-shifting episode in Savannah’s history, one that wasn’t about violence and threats of destruction. This little-celebrated event brought lasting change through the hard work of unity and non-violent resistance. The Savannah Boycott had ended in success in October 1961.
I had targeted the city’s Civil Rights Museum as a key Savannah destination, so I was a little disconcerted that the staff member at the city visitor’s center didn’t seem quite sure where the museum was.
George and I easily found it, though, in a neighborhood on the edge of Savannah’s historic district. Occupying a former bank that served African-Americans during segregation, the small museum was big and bold in its approach to hands-on history. With displays of Savannah’s African-American past going back to slavery days, it concentrated most of its space to the Savannah Boycott of the early 1960’s. A lunch counter was faithfully reproduced in its entirety, with an audio feed that scolded the visitor for even trying to get service. A first-rate film unreeled personal narratives of many living legends of the city’s civil rights struggles, some of whom rose to prominence in the national movement. Together, their narrative history weaved together the whole tale, how Savannah’s black community mobilized early in the South’s commercial boycott movement and soon became among the most successful. The boycott successfully drove segregated businesses into bankruptcy and quickly “enlightened” white Savannah about black political and economic prowess.
Soon after, Martin Luther King, Jr. anointed Savannah “the most desegregated city south of the Mason-Dixon line,” but despite that early and lasting success, Savannah’s pioneering civil rights victories are seldom recognized and often forgotten in the roll-call of the struggle. Even the King Institute’s own website, touting Greensboro and Nashville in its wrap-up of the early sit-in and boycotts, failed to mention Savannah.
Old Savannah’s mass-tourist mob scene intensified down on the riverfront, full of bustle, buskers, and festive evening lights. Competing with working, industrial freighters, cruise ships emptied more visitors onto the quay, adding to the party-time mix. Under the Sheraton Hotel, sculptor Dorothy Radley Spradley’s memorial to the black family, depicted a father, mother, and two children and bore an inscription by Maya Angelou:
“We were stolen, sold and bought together from the African Continent. We got on the slave ship together. We lay back to belly in the holds of the slave ships in each others excrement and urine together, sometimes died together, and our lifeless bodies thrown overboard together. Today, we are standing up together, with faith and even some joy…”
George and I wandered away from yelling tipplers and back to the river, where, as if on cue, an extended African-American family emerged from a dockside excursion boat in the throes of reunion festivities. The clash of Angelou’s agonized yet understated expression of black experience amid the riverside party addled my brain, and I found myself staring at the water. My earlier misgivings haunted me; I felt myself a disconnected Westerner with no hope of penetrating the real South. Other Savannah visitors seamlessly joined the good time atmosphere around the bars and craft markets. Why wasn’t I just as content to line up for the next Garden of Good and Evil cemetery tour or the Haunted House Scare or Paula Deen’s next serving of Authentic Southern Cookin’? Why was I so bugged that the Civil Rights Museum was empty during the crowded high season? We built National Monuments around any bloody battleground but didn’t commemorate nonviolent change. Even where human rights won unqualified victory, we forgot to remember. Across the river, a convention center business reception was underway, spotlights revealing people in evening clothes wandering with goblets on the opposite shore.
George said he wouldn’t mind leaving Savannah soon. “Even though the city has a black majority, I didn’t see many African Americans living in the older central parts of the area we walked through. I kept thinking that black people helped build the city and its plazas. But I didn’t see many blacks owning those properties.” Though the charming, spooky city made me ache to discover ever more of it, I didn’t protest.
Pt 1. Through Butts County to Macon
The old guy in the booth told us the mountain was closed. “You can drive around all y’ all want, but we’re down for the season.” In hiking shorts, at the gates to Stone Mountain on another one of our journeys out from Atlanta, George and I surrendered our plan to trek up the summit. Studying the brochure as we fled the place, I realized Stone Mountain sold itself as a commercial, Confederate version of Mt. Rushmore. Its massive carving of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis was the “largest bas-relief in the world.” The brochure proclaimed the mountain “sacred ground.”
Sacred to whom? Was I supposed to pay twenty bucks to admire the carvings of three enemies of American unity and universal liberty? The details got worse and worse. In season, the park featured skyrides, scenic trains, golf-course resorts, “the world’s largest laser light show,” and something called the Yogi Bear 4-D adventure. Konfederate Kitsch. “I can’t stand pay-to-play motorized amusements.” I wagged the brochure at George in disgust. “Jesus.”
“You’re swearing again.” He laughed. “Don’t you like fun?”
“I hate fun!” I cried. Later I learned historical facts about Stone Mountain that would curdle any amusement. When George Washington’s treaties with the mountain’s native, rightful owners failed, warfare began against the Creek Indians. The tribe lost the battle and their sacred mountain in 1821. A century later, the Ku Klux Klan got heavily involved, fundraising to build the Confederate monument. The racist terror group used Stone Mountain for annual rallies until 1981.
We explored back roads between Atlanta’s exurbs and our next destination just southward, Macon. Happily lost on twists and turns of side roads that followed the Ocmulgee River toward Macon, George and I stopped at the courthouse square of Jackson, county seat of Butts County. As soon as we parked the car and popped onto Main Street, contemptuous laugher howled past. A trio of young guys hooted from a pickup, pointing at us as we left our rental car. Yowls receding, they sped away from the town square. I checked for a gun rack on the old pickup, telling George we were going to be forced at gunpoint into some ditch and left for dead just because our rental car had Atlanta plates. “They think we’re city slickers, wearing shorts in the fall.”
“Or is it because I’m black and you’re white?”
As we waited to be dismembered, dragged to death hitched behind that pickup, it hit us. Compared to Stone Mountain, at least Jackson felt authentic, the winner in a thousand casting calls for Small Southern Town—the old courthouse, the Confederate monument, complete with heroic bronze soldier overlooking the shabby, struggling businesses ringing the square. Around the next corner, I expected to spot Cool Hand Luke lashed to a chain gang and a fat sheriff leashed to a bloodhound.
Wandering the square, we stopped to puzzle over a long list of rules. You couldn’t enter the courthouse with 1) electronic device,2) handbag 3) briefcase 3) hat 4) sunglasses 5) shorts 6) baggy pants or 7) untucked shirttails. It was like an archaic middle school dress code, including a ban on male earrings. George was amused at the petty prudery of it all. In full ACLU dudgeon, I was horrified at the breach of civil liberties. In our hike-less hiking clothes, we couldn’t explore the 19th Century Butts County courthouse and were reduced to circling the exterior, reading historical markers. As we studied them, the pickup shotgun trio made another pass, howling again.
One Civil War marker detailed Union troops invading Butts County during the 1864 March to the Sea, General Sherman’s arson scorching the earth between Atlanta and Savannah. Butts was only a few counties south of Atlanta and Jackson one of the first towns Sherman’s troops ravaged for supplies and “forage” while destroying mills, severing rail links, burning crops, and killing livestock.
When we asked about the strict courthouse rules at a Mexican place off the square, our chatty young Latino waiter became cautious. He wanted to know if we had local connections. After we made it clear that we were just strangers, and lost, he began to speak freely, mentioning the “backward” quality of towns around, including some we had just passed through: “Those little redneck burgs make Jackson look good, and Jackson isn’t so great.” He talked about Alabama’s recent immigration law and how it endangered natives as well as legal residents, casting every other fellow citizen as either spy or accomplice for even associating with undocumented people. He said Georgia had almost passed a similar law, and the close call made him feel alienated from his fellow Georgians. “It’s weird, how I’ve lived here all my life, and local whites still assume I don’t know about country music or where to get good grits. They’re astonished that I’m just a typical Southerner. It’s just not funny anymore. This town has a lot of darkness.”
The first entry in the 687 pages of Jackson’s official history described the town’s origin as “a place that was once howling grounds for two packs of wolves…frightful to early settlers due to the hideous howling.” Unlike Rome’s origin story, though, Jackson’s wolves never nurtured anything. “In 1826, Indians were scalping and skylarking wherever they liked.” Indian Springs staged another broken treaty with the Creek Indians, robbing the tribe of their ancestral claim to most of Georgia. Four decades later, “Butts County men answered the call to war, becoming the ‘Jeff Davis Rifles’ on July 9, 1861. Next came the Butts Invincibles.”
The Butts men turned out to be far from invincible. The brass-plate histories in the courthouse square told of their disastrous loss. “Patriotism” and “Love of Country” were ascribed to the young soldiers who took up arms against their birth nation. I howled in protest. George, absorbing the information, defended the right of the soldiers to fight for the “new country” of the Confederate States and implored me to understand “their point of view.” Meanwhile, the pickup trio made a third pass, though this time their jeering toned down. George waved at them. As if exhausted by their exertions of free-lance contempt, they simply waved back. After, George insisted their truck didn’t even have a rifle rack.
When we hit the back road to Macon, I pretended to empathize with the Confederate point of view to appease George, then gave up and declared that the entire Confederacy stunk. “The Lost Cause was contaminated from the start,” I told George, “by the weakness and premature nature of its intentions.” Think of a family house, I told him, only a few generations old. “It’s still being built and expanded, but half the children think it’s okay to betray their parents and abandon it. Abandon it, then attack it!” Wasn’t the Confederate secession from the young nation just an ill-formed whim, a bad idea that unleashed self-destruction?
The heat of my response surprised me. What inspired my impassioned “American House” metaphor? Since when was I, who avoided patriotism as much as amusement parks, the big defender of the Union’s unity? And now George, who went all Black Panther at the smallest challenge to the glory of Negritude, was suddenly taking the slave-masters’ side in the Civil War!
Not even a full day had passed on our journey out of Atlanta, and we were already gripped in the Civil War’s reach across the centuries. The sky closed over us, dark and roiling. As autumn leaves shredded, horizonal across the windshield, I felt trapped in that spooky scene in To Kill A Mockingbird when Scout heads home from a Halloween party, blind in her ham-hock costume to her attacker’s snatching hands.
The storm chased us the short distance to Macon, but George and I were determined to explore the city despite the pouring rain and falling dark. Armed with a damp map of Macon’s Historic Buildings, we prowled the hilltop north of downtown, dutifully locating Italianate and Queen Anne addresses, some the best samples of antebellum houses left in the South. We ended the day standing in the rain before a hilltop mansion’s historical marker, which declared that Sherman’s earth-scorching had marched his forces and torches down the Ocmulgee River in November 1864, halting across the river from the town. Only flood-stage waters prevented Sherman from setting fire to Macon. Though the city was spared from Union’s arson, Macon suffered under long occupation. This mansion, the Woodruff House, had served as a Union headquarters during the last months of the Civil War.
I tried to wrap my wet head around it: occupation. Right here. American military men occupied private American property, their incendiary trail still ablaze from Atlanta to Macon to forecast their ruthlessness. They’d kicked fellow American families out of their houses and turned parlors into war strategy centers. Finally, sympathy for the Confederate predicament slid into me like cold rain at nightfall.
* * * *
Under the next morning’s bright sun, George and I peered across the Ocmulgee River into central Macon, trying to fix our sights on Cannonball House, where the only Union shot fired into Rebel Macon had landed “with a thud.” We stood atop the Great Temple Mound and regarded the flat, swampy horizon of the Macon Plateau. With a rocket launcher, we could’ve easily fired on sitting-duck Macon.
Great Temple Mound was the centerpiece of Ocmulgee National Monument. The green-velvet expanse of archeological sites on the east bank of the Ocmulgee dated back 17,000 years, a flabbergasting number for North American “Paleo-Indian” human settlement (especially for those whose hemispheric history starts in 1492). As late as 1540, Spanish explorer DeSoto found thriving palisades and villages, the last phase of the ancient Mississippian culture in Ocmulgee. A violent narrative scorched itself upon millennia of civilized occupation in 1864, when the site was the bivouac for Sherman’s forces. Exploring the paths around the Temple Mound, we never knew if an earthwork was a mound-builder remnant or Civil War redoubt. Soldiers used the mounds for war preparations, even cutting a trench through the Grand Temple, just another battleground in that nasty squabble over slavery that ripped apart the American house.
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.