My road trips in search of historic sites related to the American Civil War and Civil Rights Movement have taken me in a number of directions. One of the most confounding was a visit to a “Faithful Slave” Monument built in 1895; its mere existence stunned me to the point that I had to sit down and call home to talk it through. I just could not imagine how even in 1895, someone could have not seen such a monument as anything but utterly demeaning. So, what does the fact that this monument still stands in pristine condition say about where we are today in “race relations” in the United States?
As the incidents in Ferguson, Missouri scream out, we are not in a post-racial America. We can look at all the remaining gaps that allow for discrimination within the cycle of our justice system from the police to the prisons despite passage of key civil rights legislation. These gaps merit attention, but I’m not sure that this will lead us to a colorblind justice system without a corresponding close examination of our American psyche.
In 1895 America was at a crossroads. Debates over Jim Crow were in their early phases. Freedmen in the 30 years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been regulated to subordinates in American society throughout the country. Lawful segregation had not yet become the norm, and African-Americans (except Mississippi) exercised their right to vote. However, within a decade Jim Crow was law in the South, and de-facto segregation took hold in the rest of the country. Rather than moving in a constructive direction towards freedom for former slaves, and equality and liberty for all Americans, many of our ancestors, including mine, chose to pursue a new form of racial oppression.
This separation of the races soon became accepted as natural. As I’m learning from oral history interviewees with those who once opposed integration, segregation structures and practices were a part of social conditioning. For my first interviewee, Mr. Andrews, in the Oral History Project Reconciling with the Past: The Legacy of Segregation, the structures of segregation were foremost in his memory. Drawing on a song in the South Pacific musical, he stated: “You’ve got to be Carefully Taught.” While Mr. Andrews’ experience is his own, he describes a rather typical Southern society that sent a very clear message to its children: “Blacks and whites, we were not supposed to socially mingle.” He elaborated: “They went to their own restaurants. We went to ours. You weren’t suppose to drink from the same water fountain as a black person. I remember going to the train station in Tuskegee to take the train to Washington. We had a black waiting room, [or as known then a] ‘colored’ waiting room, and a white waiting room. You couldn’t sit together in a train station. I remember going to the doctor’s office. The blacks waited to see the doctor in a different room than where I sat.”
The memories of Mrs. Evelyn Ray Dauphin, who sat for an interview last month, revealed how insidiously the system secured its existence. Like Mr. Andrews, as a child she saw the institution of segregation as a matter of fact: “Other than being glad that I was white instead of black, I don’t have too many memories of racial instance because it wasn’t something that we thought about. It was just, that was the way things were.” She makes this last point clear in her remembrance of a childhood playmate, Katy-Lou. Katy-Lou was the daughter of the black sharecropper family who worked on the Ray farm.
“The little girl, Katy-Lou would come and play. It was just she and I playing while our mothers worked. We played in a little shed…. We enjoyed each other’s company, I guess. I don’t really know if she enjoyed it or not. But I did. She was my only playmate… There was no conflict between us…because I was always in charge. We never argued like our other friends later because, [pause] it wasn’t like let’s play together: you do something like you want to do, and I’ll do something like I want to do. I got to do what I wanted to do and she just did it.”
Such memories suggest that segregation practices and white supremacy were like air: even young children—too young to go to school yet—adapted white supremacy into their play, just as we instinctively know to breathe.
In listening to these interviewees, I’ve thought back on a warning offered by Lillian Smith in the 1940s. She described segregation as “spiritual lynching,” and she focused on the harmful effects of segregation on both whites and blacks. In the interviews, I am finding specific examples of the harm Smith enumerated for whites: “No white child, under the segregation pattern, can be free of arrogance and hardness of heart, and blindness to human need."*
Mrs. Dauphin is an example of how profound this “hardness of heart” can be. Listening to her memories, I felt as if she was still in disbelief, and frustrated with herself for how long it took her to believe in race equality. As she exclaimed: “Finally, it took that long for me to get to that point. This was [in the] ‘80s.” In trying to understand why it took so long, I’ve taken note that she never recounted a traumatic event with a black person. In fact, her contact with African-Americans was extremely limited. The most contact she described was as a child with her playmate Katy-Lou, who epitomizes a benign contact. As she noted early in the interview, “It was just that was the way things were.” Near the end of the interview she commented, “I don’t believe that I ever hated.” Yet, it took her decades to overcome the messages of white supremacy that she absorbed in her childhood.
Mrs. Dauphin intentionally faced her conditioning and notions of white supremacy. But has a similar effort occurred at a community, state or national level for the American psyche? Racism was cultivated in the 1600’s to justify the enslavement of fellow humans. Political support for slavery entailed social conditioning, which taught that the black “race” was innately inferior and it was in their best interest to be enslaved. This fed notions of the benevolence of slavery. The inherent contradictions of the founding of the United States − freedom, liberty and equality for all men − with slavery and segregation signal how carefully taught Americans have been for centuries. With all the racial incidents that have preceded Ferguson, can we finally see ourselves at a crossroads? Are we courageous enough to face a longstanding history of racial oppression by carefully examining remaining remnants of racial social conditioning in American society, such as pristine “Faithful Slave” Monuments?
* Gladney, M. R. How Am I to be Heard? Letters of Lillian Smith. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.