DOWN THE ROAD A PIECE
By Jane D. Brown
My husband and I have been traveling in the Deep South – Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida. Having lived in North Carolina for most of my life, I thought I knew the South, but this trip has deepened my understanding. Maybe I should say it has woken me up.
We left Chapel Hill in February, African-American History month. I wanted to look for some of that history on our trip.
As we traveled through the South, it was obvious that the ideology behind the Civil War still lies very close to the surface. Confederate flags fly over rural homesteads. Stately plantation homes sit amidst vast pine tracts once filled with cotton fields and enslaved people. Tiny broken-down sharecropper’s plots are carved from the sides of the forests.
Every small town, most with empty storefronts, a few churches, and a Dollar General, are segregated into black and white neighborhoods. Often, a large Christian private school sits outside the town limits.
The antebellum South is preserved in Natchez, MS. Perched on the bluffs above the wide Mississippi River, many of the magnificent homes of plantation owners have been restored. For almost a century, since the premiere of Gone with the Wind, the women of the city have hosted annual pilgrimages so tourists can imagine a romanticized version of pre-Civil War life. Our friend who grew up nearby said she used to put on the hoop skirt and wide-brimmed hats as a docent in one of the homes. “My Daddy said I could do it only as long as I didn’t believe it.”
We were glad to see Natchez beginning to acknowledge the contributions and struggles of its Black citizens with a history trail through the black neighborhoods, an African American Museum, and a memorial to the courageous African Americans who successfully boycotted white businesses over school segregation in 1965.
Those protesters also demanded the opening of public parks and swimming pools to Blacks, fair distribution of city services, and official denunciation of the KKK. Still, the relative wealth of the white vs. black neighborhoods is apparent as the old town homes are brought back to mint condition while working class homes are allowed to crumble.
The stunning Legacy Museum in Montgomery, AL, put what we were observing into perspective. Its exhibits trace the 400-year history of the subjugation of Black people in this country through four phases: Enslavement, Racial terror and lynching, Segregation, and Mass incarceration. Each phase featured interactive exhibits, movies, and even holograms of enslaved men, women and children. In one display, recent prisoners spoke of the petty crimes for which they were serving long sentences.
I was struck by the wall of “Whites Only” signs that were collected from across the South during the long era of segregation. The cruelty is hard to fathom: “NO dogs, Negroes or Mexicans.”
We stood for a long while in front of the wall of 800 jars of soil representing some of the places where African Americans were lynched by Whites from the late 1800s to mid 1900s.
We took the Museum’s shuttle bus to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a six-acre park overlooking downtown Montgomery. Here more than 4,000 documented lynchings are commemorated with a somber display of 800 metal coffin-like sculptures that name the victims from each county where such a murder occurred. Twenty counties in North Carolina with a total of more than 100 names are included.
One name was etched on the coffin for Orange County, NC: Manly McCauley, 1898. Since our visit I learned that the Orange County Community Remembrance Coalition has identified at least four other African Americans who were lynched in Orange County. A broad coalition of groups is dedicated to documenting our local history of racial terror and to educating our community. They hope to erect at least two historical markers near where the lynchings occurred to make sure this history is not forgotten or repeated.
I love living in the South. And I am embarrassed that I didn’t know more about the history of Orange County. Growing up in Maryland, I learned little about the Civil War except that we were a “border state” and the Union had won. I was a teenager during the struggle for Civil Rights, but didn’t really understand the issues.
The Legacy Museum explores what I wish I had known. If this is the “wokeness” that some are so afraid of right now, I say we need more, not less. Let’s face who we have been, so we can become who we want to be in the future.
Jane D. Brown taught in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media for 35 years and has lived in Chapel Hill since 1977.
Thanks for sharing your travels with us, Jane. I was raised around stars-and-bars flags in SW Virginia and East Tennessee but I never saw a Klan march until I moved to Chapel Hill in the late 1980s. Saw 2 coming up Henderson Street back then. We still have a ways to go.
I’m afraid our history is recent and still very present. Witness Tennessee last week! We must all be vigilant.