“I wonder what those white people in the photos think now?”
An African American male youth asked this question out loud as he looked at some of the photos hanging in the Civil Rights Room of the Nashville Public Library. In a couple of the photos some white mothers with their young children defiantly stand in protest as African-American mothers lead their children to school. One mother is dressed like Mrs. Cleaver, but with a scowl on her face and her arms crossed. The other mothers are more casual in their dress with rolled up jeans, but have the same angry stare. In another photo, white male youths attack a sit-in demonstrator, who is seated at a lunch counter.
In return I wondered, did he ask that for me to hear? Had he noticed that a white female was standing less than two feet from him? Maybe he spontaneously asked the question. He looked like he was in his early twenties. He has probably experienced racism, but as one of the consequences of the Movement has likely been raised to believe in, and stand-up for his rights.
Despite the frequency of my visits to civil rights sites, I have generally sensed that I’m a trespasser. Once I joined a “Heritage Bus Tour” in Charleston, South Carolina. I was the last one on the bus, and I felt the eyes of the other tourists looking at me as I took my seat. I did not feel hostility, but I did feel as if these other participants were querying “Why is she here?” As is common, I was the only white person.
A part of me wanted to bellow out, “Yes, this is an African-American heritage tour, but ‘your’ history did not happen within a vacuum. This is our American history!” Instead, my imaginary conversation remains internal as the bus pulls out of the Charleston Visitor Center.
Our first site is reportedly a location of past lynchings. “This tree marks the spot where lynchings occurred in Charleston,” reports the guide. The guide’s voice fades as I became absorbed in my own thoughts. I’m just staring at this tree, which sits right in the middle of a residential street not far from the historic downtown area. My internal conversation begins again: “how such horrors could have happened? How could such ordinary citizens, mobs of them no less, just get worked up into such a frenzy brutally killing a man, for the color of his skin?”
The guide’s voice then jarred me back into the present as we approach the Citadel. “This base was built to train a militia of white men in the case of slave insurrections.” The legal foundation of the Citadel dates back to 1822 shortly after the almost successful slave revolt of Denmark Vesey. This, however, is not the only slave revolt to have occurred in Charleston. As we cross a bridge towards James Island, the guide tells us about the Stono River Slave Rebellion which happened almost 100 years earlier in 1739. We then pulled up to the entrance of McLeod Plantation, a quintessential Southern Plantation. For me the setting evokes “Gone with the Wind” and the portrayal of the benevolent slave owner, the faithful slave, and Confederates’ brave fight for States Rights. This image contrasts with those of slave insurrections, which clearly grew out of slaves’ desires for freedom, and the Citadel, which testifies to slave owners’ fear of such desires and their clear intention to squash these with force, brutal force, if necessary.
We gradually make our way back to the historic part of Charleston passing by a number of sites that point to African-Americans’ efforts to educate themselves, and their continued struggle for basic civil and political rights in the United States. What transpired at these sites underlined the work of scholars such as W.E.B. DuBois that white American historians ignored in the first part of the 20th Century. The neglect of these historian led to an understandable need to promote African-American studies, but does this still remain the case? Do we still need to refer to “African-American History”? Is “African-American History,” a misnomer?
DuBois’ works are now readily recognized in traditionally white academic circles. The National Park Service has incorporated the centrality of slavery in the U.S. Civil War into their exhibits alongside a host of museums, books, art, and films that document the injustices of slavery and segregation. I admit this took too long. Much more remains to be acknowledged, and absorbed into the American psyche, to fully dig up the racism that underpinned crimes, and continues to permit racial discrimination and defacto segregation. But doesn’t this require mutual recognition of this past?
While the other tourists have idly chatted with me, no one has asked why I’m here, or what I’m thinking after having traveled back in time with a focus on white Americans’ oppression of African-Americans. What if I had told them my ancestors have a degree of culpability for the crimes committed against their ancestors? What if we began such dialogues? I recently interviewed a white Southern man whose adolescence was seeped in segregation and who after much reflection, described his parents as “wrong, but not evil.” He also put forth that all whites associated with segregation should feel “twangs of guilt.” Like the majority of Southern whites, his parents were not Klan members, nor were mine. Isn’t it time to begin to explore all the complexities of our horrific past? We cannot fully understand, nor possibly reconcile, with this past until we closely examine all the contrasts of our torn, but interwoven history. When we integrate the pieces together our tapestry will more accurately reflect our history.
Maybe at all the other historic sites related to slavery and segregation the African-American tourists were simply too polite to ask me. So, when that young man asked “I wonder what those white people in the photos think now?” I seized the opportunity, turned around and responded, “Me too!”
Tammi Sharpe has recently returned to BCRI as the Human Rights Fellow. Prior to her return she had been on a four month emergency humanitarian mission to the Central African Republic with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and completed a Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability Fellowship at Columbia University. In partnership with BCRI and Columbia University she is conducting oral history interviews with Americans who opposed integration to enable more comprehensive historical research into the legacy of segregation and to create opportunities for dialogue about a sensitive past.
If you might be interested in participating in this project please contact Ms. Sharpe at firstname.lastname@example.org.