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What happens when we forget?

Black history 

What happens when we forget?

The very first invitation I received after I arrived in Chapel Hill last October was to attend a walking tour of the old cemetery on the edge of the UNC campus. I'd come south from Vermont to teach 20th Century history at the Emerson Waldorf School, and was delighted to begin to become acquainted with this new place. As I reached the rear of the cemetery along South Road, I saw a black man in a UNC uniform carefully fitting back into place tumbled-down stones from an old rock wall. I stepped over the rubble and headed for the gazebo, where a large group had gathered to join Professor Bland Simpson, director of UNC's Creative Writing Program, for his 7th annual Halloween walking tour of Chapel Hill's oldest and most storied burial ground.

After welcoming everyone, Simpson gestured in the direction from which I had just come and noted that it was the "black section." He pointed to a tall, red sandstone obelisk, saying that the monument had originally marked the grave of Joseph Caldwell, the first university president, and that after a new marble monument was placed on the center of the campus quad, a group of UNC graduates had moved the old obelisk to the grave of Wilson Swain Caldwell, the son of Caldwell's slave "manservant."

"There is some irony that the tallest monument in this cemetery is over a black man," said Simpson as he stepped down from the gazebo and led the group in the opposite direction.

Our first stop was the iron-fence-enclosed plot of the Philanthropic Society, whose carved stone memorials proclaimed the deceased members' dedication to the "Brotherly Love of Man." A few yards away we came upon the grave of Cornelia Philips Spencer, "The Woman Who Rang the Bell," and Simpson described how Spencer had worked to reopen the university after it closed in 1871 in the tumult that followed the Civil War. At Edward Kidder Graham's grave (UNC President 1915-1918), Simpson quoted Graham's remark that "the boundaries of the university are equal to the boundaries of the state," adding that today, "our knowledge knows no boundaries."

The parade of saints continued--William Meade Prince, "Prof" Koch, Charles Kuralt, Elisha Mitchell, Horace Williams, Paul Green, Albert Coates, Frank Porter Graham, Howard Odum. As a boy, Bland Simpson used to cut through the cemetery on his walk to school, and his genuine love and admiration for these august figures of local history brought their spirits to life on that All Saint's Day. He reminisced about his sixth grade teacher Adeline McCall teaching them the song, "Grandfather's Clock." Moved by this memory, he concluded the tour: "This is what immortality is all about--the stories going on and on."

But which stories? After his death in 1898, the Class of 1891 placed a plaque on Caldwell's hand-me-down headstone:

Here was laid the body of Wilson Caldwell
The Student's friend and servant,
An exemplar of modest merit,
The best type of black man,
Who he sought to elevate by labor;
The solution of the race problem.
Mindful Mainly of his duties,
His rights were cheerfully conceded.
Himself ever respectful, he was always
respected
Diligence dignified his service,
Three generations of white men testify of
his faithfulness.
Let him rest here till he's ready for work
again
.

With white men to speak for him, Caldwell is remembered for his faithful service, which meant waiting on the rooms of some 50 or so students every morning before eight o'clock, then on to other chores. No plaque tells us that in 1869--after quitting his job when UNC cut his wages--he opened a free school for black children in Chapel Hill, or that he was elected to the Chapel Hill Board of Commissioners in 1886. At the grave of Thomas Booth (1887-1955), no plaque tells us that Booth, along with his brother Lewis built the stone walls on campus. The many unmarked graves are the final resting place of men (including the Booth brothers' father) who, under slavery, dug the foundation holes, quarried the stone and erected the walls of the university's earliest buildings. No plaque notes that until the late 1950s, a black child who wished to borrow a book from the university library could not do so, even if his father had laid the brick and stone for the building.

Over the last 20 or 30 years, academic historical study--realizing at last the broad boundary-erasing vision that President Graham celebrated--has brought to light an incredible array of hidden histories, telling the stories of peoples and events long neglected by our self-congratulatory national narrative. These stories help America to find its way toward a more realistic self-image, towards manifesting a destiny that is truly democratic. But there remains an enormous gap between these new academic social histories and our public storytelling, and our collective amnesia allows us to repeat old patterns of violence, discrimination and neglect. Inadequate wages and benefits for vast numbers of our citizens at home; invasive, imperialist wars abroad; creeping repression of civil liberties and the growth of paramilitary police forces--all start with having heard, and told, the wrong stories.

A few weeks after the tour, as I read through a volume of Cornelia Phillips Spencer's letters, I learned that the "Woman Who Rang the Bell" to announce the opening of the university had, along with the Ku Klux Klan and former confederate leaders, effectively closed the university in order to force out the Union-appointed president and his associates. Spencer's genteel letter-writing voice had turned nasty when she considered the prospect of voting rights for Chapel Hill's former slaves, or worse, black students in university classrooms.

You'll hear about Spencer's heroic bell-ringing if you take the one-hour audiotape tour of the UNC campus. Wallace Kuralt's honeyed voice leads you out the door of the visitor center, past Silent Sam, the Caldwell Monument, the Davie Poplar, the Old Well, Old East and South, the building that in 1875 held the famous bell. Crossing Polk Place toward the Wilson Library, the tape doesn't mention that the building on your left, built in the 1920s to house the history department, honors William Laurence Saunders, who, along with being a member of the UNC Board of Trustees (1874-1891), was, during those same years, the leader of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina. The tape doesn't mention the fact that Silent Sam--the monument to alumni who died fighting for the Confederacy--was erected in 1913, the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, when black Americans renewed their call for an end to Jim Crow segregation.

Silent Sam looks out onto a battlefield as critical to the realization of the Emancipation Proclamation's ideals as were Gettysburg or Bull Run. Directly across the street lies the Presbyterian Church, the majority of whose members in 1944 resisted the attendance of black worshippers, and who in 1953 dismissed their minister, Rev. Charles Jones, for his allegiance to civil rights. A block away, the commercial district of Franklin Street saw two decades of struggle for equality, a protracted "civil war" whose characters and events go completely unremembered by any public historical monuments. Though this conflict claimed no fatalities, nonviolent civil rights activists in Chapel Hill were beaten, abused and their lives threatened. On the eve of Easter Sunday in 1963, after a week of enduring missiles of raw eggs, rotten tomatoes and firecrackers, a discarded Navy cyanide bomb was found near the encampment of a small group of integrationist advocates who were holding a Holy Week fast in front of the post office. The same night, the Klan held a rally just a few miles away.

When I took my ninth grade class to Franklin Street to visit the sites connected to this local history of civil rights activism, I was relying on a biography of Charles Jones and on John Ehle's The Free Men, which focuses on John Dunne and Pat Cusick--the UNC freshmen whom Ehle portrays as having led the 1963 sit-ins and street demonstrations on Franklin Street. The night before our field trip, I met Yonni Chapman, a doctoral student in history at UNC, whose friendship with local black families developed out of years spent as a hospital employee and labor activist, and gave him a view of this history from a black perspective. The roots of the 1963 protests clearly stretched back to the 1930s, relying on a whole constellation of local black men and women. The events were spearheaded by Harold Foster and James Brittian, two ninth graders from the all-black Lincoln High School. As Mrs. W. P. Dolliver wrote to the Chapel Hill Weekly in 1964: "We Chapel Hill Negro citizens are not pawns in the hands of the professional civil rights movement. This is OUR fight; this is OUR hurt; and this is OUR town."

And OUR history. Yet, instead of a statue that catches in mid-stride the unarmed freedom walkers of Franklin Street, we have a bronze of a boy carrying a rifle, marching off to fight the Union invaders. Between Silent Sam and Franklin Street runs one of the stone walls built by the Booth brothers.

In the late 1920s, UNC professors Paul Green and Howard Odum sat on that wall and watched a chain gang digging up the old dirt road to prepare it for paving. Both men, who were students of black folklore and music, recall, in Paul Green's Word Book: An Alphabet of Reminiscence, that as they listened to the call-and-response melody half-sung and half-shouted as the picks lifted and fell, they realized that the men had just made a verse about them:

White men setting on the big rock wall,
Dig on down!
White men setting on the big rock wall,
Going away!
White men setting on the big rock wall,
Easy and cool, don't work a-tall,
Dig on--going away!
Eigh Lord!

Embedded in that stone wall is a plaque that commemorates the fact that the Class of 1929 planted two cherry trees nearby. No doubt Thomas Booth chiseled the stone and mortared that plaque into place.

On my way to work each day on Airport Road, just beyond I-40, I pass a roadside historical marker dedicated to Harriet Morehead Berry, the "Mother of Good Roads in North Carolina." In 1901, just as the first Fords were rolling out of the new assembly plant in Detroit, she had been hired as a stenographer for Dr. Joseph Hyde Pratt, mineralogist on the North Carolina Geological and Economic Survey. After Pratt had gone off to serve in World War I, this "delicate woman of refined tastes," had traveled to 89 of North Carolina's 100 counties evangelizing for paved roads, and badgering and bullying every state senator from Wilmington to Asheville for an effective highway construction law.

Since 1936, when North Carolina erected the first of these silver and black signs, they have become a very visible (there are now over 1400) carrier and creator of public memory. As with all acts of remembering, each historical marker is accompanied by a process of very selective forgetting. The sign says nothing of the hidden price of the "Good Roads" initiative--the forgotten fact that a great deal of that roadbuilding happened with convict labor. Road gang prisoners--who were predominantly black--were routinely beaten, and were housed in portable wooden or steel cages fashioned from railroad boxcars, with only a tarp draped over them in cold or rainy weather. The cages were identical to those used for the circuses that traveled the new roads to audiences throughout the state. State Prison Superintendent Julian Mann estimated that the average lifespan of a road convict was less than five years.

Before the state got into the road construction business in earnest, it had hired out chain gangs to private corporations, particularly the railroads. The railroad spur line built in 1882 to West End (later Carrboro) passes right by Emerson Waldorf School, where I teach. I had walked along it looking for the old Robeson Station depot building and also Colored Schoolhouse #23 that I had seen on an 1890 map of Orange County. I had interviewed a number of older residents in the neighborhood, and they said that they often would walk the railroad line, since it wasn't muddy like the roads. They recalled hobos walking the line and stopping for food in the 1930s.

None of the people that I interviewed told the story that Yonni Chapman heard from black friends who had ancestral ties to the area out by Robeson and University Stations: One hundred men working in chain gangs had built this spur line and one day an overseer whipped a black man to death. Local black families protested, but their concerns were ignored. In order to prevent more murders, a vigil was established and people took turns bearing silent witness.

Places are witnesses to all human action, good or ill. The place holds the memory even when our individual and collective memories may momentarily fail us.

Ehle's The Free Men concludes by telling the story of the trials of UNC student activists Cusick and Dunne, so I was keen to go to Hillsborough to visit the courthouse-site of these trials, and to find out what place the civil rights struggle held in local memory. It was clear from the moment I crossed over the Eno River onto Churton Street--which was lined with about a dozen historical highway markers--that Hillsborough was a town where memory was in full view; every building seemed to bear a plaque. But as I spoke to white people on the streets and in the shops, inquiring about their memories of the civil rights events of the 1960s, the bright, shiny, genteel Hillsborough hospitality dimmed a bit. One local merchant sputtered that I should look into the story of how a group of blacks from Birmingham who came to Hillsborough were given land and housing by local philanthropists; when I asked him the source of the story, he said a black neighbor had told him this. "I'd love to speak with him; what is the man's name? "

"Oh, I don't want to get him involved," came the reply.

After meeting Aries Cox, a black parole officer for the county, and telling him of my frosty reception, he said, "Well, now you're getting to the 'ouch!' issues, and folks just don't want to go into that." Assistant District Attorney Beverly Scarlett, whose family has been in Hillsborough since the early 1800s, told me that the absence of the African-American community's story from Hillsborough's intensely stewarded public history upset her, but that there was good reason for it. Speaking of her parents' generation, she says that "they know much more than they will ever tell."

Scarlett, however, speaks directly of the discrimination, disrespect and violence that she experienced from many of her white neighbors while she was growing up in Hillsborough during the 1960s. In the third grade when the local schools were integrated, she recalls that her father had to come pick her up after she arrived the first day, there was so much hatred directed at the black students. "My big thing was that school bus," she says. "I grew up between Durham and Hillsborough, and often I was the only African-American on the bus. I was called 'nigger,' and the white kids would run their hands through my hair and make fun of me. Not a week went by without some incident. My daughter loves to ride the school bus, but to this day, I have a hard time getting near one."

Walking out of the courthouse, one comes immediately to the historical marker commemorating the hanging of the Regulators in 1771, "1/4 mile east of here." At the actual site, a little knoll behind the Board of Education building, the Colonial Dames of America in 1963 placed a brass plaque bearing the names of the victims of English colonial justice. Of all the historical markers in North Carolina, this one seems the most brutally inhumane. When Scarlett's mother was young, driving into Hillsborough from St. Mary's, her parents and other adults would point out the same place where, during their lifetime, black men had been lynched. No historical marker with the names of the dead is likely to ever be erected there. But the deeds are etched into the place forever.

On Martin Luther King Day, I walk with a few hundred local activists down Franklin Street, for a rally at the Post Office. With each step, I think of the unsung heroes from Pottersfield and other local black neighborhoods who walked this way 40 years ago, while many of the good citizens of Chapel Hill stood jeering at them from sidewalks.

As in 1963, there are many more black faces than white among the walkers, but every single speaker at the rally reminds us that "we have to walk together." Barbara Prear, head of the newly created UNC Workers Solidarity Coalition, points her finger straight across to Silent Sam and the heart of the UNC campus, saying "We've paid our dues, building those walls. Now it's time to get out and cross those walls, get into other communities."

When we walk, we cross boundaries; we encounter others in the flesh, in their full humanity. At the heart of every great wave of social change there have been people walking together across old walls of prejudice, injustice and ignorance. Walking is the most radical of democratic activities, aerobic exercise for the soul as well as the heart and lungs.

Walking, we meet the past in place, and hear the stories held there. Four years into this new millennium, we are still telling the old stories, stories that may have served previous generations of privileged patrons of the Past, but which no longer serve our Present. Each of us must aspire to become, as Henry David Thoreau proclaimed, "extra-vagant"--to literally walk out of bounds. We must also talk out of bounds, and ensure that our historical markers, plaques, walking tour guides and all our commemorative activity speak out of the old bounds as well. EndBlock

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