After seeing so many depleted, struggling towns across the South, New Bern struck me as having achieved a small-city nirvana. At first.
Deeper south into North Carolina, after thirty-five miles of Inner Banks rail tracks and rusting single-wide trailers on shapeless lots, New Bern gave a brilliant first impression. With a beautiful causeway over the Neuse River—really a wide tidal strait—glistening water and marinas enfolded the town to its confluence with the Trent River. Now a retirement magnet for Northerners, New Bern seemed bigger than its 30,000 population.
George and I started out at the North Carolina History Center, adjacent to and including the former Colonial capitol, Tryon Palace, forming a formidable historic complex. Opened in 2010, the History Center wowed us, full of hands-on technological experiences for visitors and students. But it was more than electronic dazzle; the museum presented multicultural and unvarnished arrays of the state’s history. The roles of women, Indian tribes, slaves and their later progeny were presented front and center. Not The Pageant at all, but a surprisingly thorough and critical overview with an emphasis on putting visitors into historical time and inside different skins.
Sharon Bryant, the history center’s director for African-American outreach, took obvious pride in her role in shaping a diverse experience for visitors, especially for a steady stream of public school students. For George and me, she summarized New Bern’s unique racial history. The region had few plantations, and its harbor at the end of the Neuse River’s tidal sound meant free blacks could gain knowledge of and from the outside world. Though New Bern’s port was once a slaver’s hypotenuse in the Atlantic Triangle Trade of sugar, rum, and stolen laborers, by the mid-1800s an apprentice system promoted high skills, encouraging a cohesive community with entrepreneurs and educational opportunities. During the Civil War the Union occupied the port town for almost all of the war, housing thousands of black freedmen—“contraband”—who sought refuge. Many eventually fought in the Union army.
Sharon told us that before and just after the Civil War, New Bern was home to one of the most prosperous and socially advanced African American communities anywhere. But it shared the same fate as other black populations in the virulent white backlash after Reconstruction. In nearby James City, a black village settled by “contraband” freemen who had the temerity to strike for better wages in the 1880s, ethnic cleansing emptied the community when white landowners evicted most tenants. 7 North Carolina enacted disenfranchisement laws, denying the black vote and erasing the gains made by many blacks who had already held local and state offices. Violence and intimidation silenced black voices and eventually led to the usual Jim Crow society. It was not until the 1960s that civil rights leaders successfully integrated New Bern’s downtown.
Our conversation became more personal; when I asked about her own Southern identity, Sharon immediately blurted, “I’m a Southern Belle!” I didn’t expect that from an African American, but as Sharon opened up about her impressions of New Bern’s current status, I realized she was anything but complacent about conditions in the New Bern African American community. Her laments echoed those we’d just heard in tiny Swan Quarter, North Carolina: so many young people without jobs and so little black ownership of property and businesses. Incarceration cut deep where it still possible to get ten to fifteen years for marijuana possession. Despite empowerment programs to provide immediate vocational skills such as plumbing and electrical work, there was an exodus of young people.
North Carolina’s arch-conservative state leadership did not hold out promise of funding for social programs to buoy up the community. The state legislature had locked in safe seats through gerrymandering, she told us, “even in school districts,” resulting in an extreme right-wing government in Raleigh that hardly reflected the state’s diversity. Sharon was a great believer in the power of focused social action and involved herself in the ongoing Moral Monday movement, where progressive North Carolinians regularly protested cuts to public services and rollbacks of voting rights. It was clear that the History Center’s funding had been in the conservatives’ gunsights, too, especially during the Great Recession. “We barely survived, everyone working overtime to cover deep cuts in staffing.”
After our conversation with Sharon Bryant, George and I strolled around the History Center’s grounds, a marine park looping the shining, ultra-contemporary complex. It was disorienting to absorb the hard-hitting history inside with the sublime harbor side beauty of its surroundings. North Carolina had created a state museum branch dedicated to real, often critical history in a small city far from the state’s metropolitan centers. Like the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond and Historic Williamsburg, but public in its funding and origin, the North Carolina History Center cherished our shared heritage enough to tell the truth in all its tragedy, injustice, and magnificence.
The Center occupied a point only inches above the tidal waterline, which made me think of those Carolinians who weren’t interested in pursuing the truth. As in Tidewater Virginia and everywhere in North Carolina’s low-lying Inner and Outer Banks, existing settlements and new development were threatened by sea-level rise, but after the North Carolina Coastal Commission’s panel of experts predicted as much as five feet of rise by 2100, the legislature voted to reject the experts’ findings and prohibit state and local government entities from even pondering that accelerated sea level rise.8 (Shut my mouth, and here I thought true conservatives opposed government-imposed thought control.) Coastal developers even formed a group, NC-20, to forbid measurement of sea level rise and make climate change go away by silencing science.
But the rivers surrounding New Bern on this perfect spring day were behaving quite well, and our waterfront stroll around the complex led us past Tryon Palace, the colonial capital and renovated heart of the History Center. Heading past its walls towards downtown, who could not be in awe of this shimmering small city that hosted its own palace?
The walking tour was designed by Sharon Bryant and took us through post Civil War blocks of large, elegant homes built by and for prosperous members of its flourishing African American community. Large, handsome multistory Victorians lined one block, the historical markers indicating a checkerboard of white and black neighbors almost shocking to re-segregated 21st Century expectations. After the 1890s, when our modern predicament of racial separation and white privilege strangled the gains of emancipation, blacks’ prosperity deteriorated by design along with legalized disenfranchisement. North Carolina’s last black congressman of the late 1800s was expelled and had to flee his offices in Washington. Sharon had told us that the 1940s and 50s brought some revival of the black community; strolling past the opulent Victorian blocks to more modest postwar ones, we saw a small hotel and other shuttered black businesses along a busy diagonal, Queen Street.
Crossing north of Queen, our New Bernian state of awe began to deteriorate into distress. Guessing what was ahead, like a climate denier, I almost didn’t want to advance our steps here, to time-travel on foot back to the truth about our own century and unmask the illusions we maintain about our society. Like in most every other Southern town—just as in the North—poor and working class blacks had been ghettoized in New Bern, with all the current signs of inequality: abandoned houses, fast-collapsing shacks, more slowly collapsing family homes, empty lots where homes had been scraped away. On vacant lots and vacant streets, no kids played. Broken glass gave way to plywood as the favorite window treatment. Old strip malls spoke of once-thriving business corners, now emptied beside forlorn, weedy parking lots. Of course, there were signs of life around a busy liquor store in one strip, the only place open for business. Nearby, a series of human-warehousing brick housing projects lined our looping route back to the History Center. The projects crept up to the very ramparts of the Palace, as if they were the servants’ quarters for the shining complex on the other side. George noticed that the public housing right up against the Palace walls, saying they “mirrored the Civil War contraband camps.”
His observation horrified me. I thought of the valiant North Carolinians we’d met, all of them African American leaders committed to social betterment—Thomas Midgette, Alice Mackey, and Sharon Bryant—and all united in their shared misgivings about our society’s real progress. I stared toward New Bern’s downtrodden other half and didn’t know how to respond, my back to the palace wall.
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.
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.