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.