Sunday, 8 December 2013

Myths of Thanksgiving

Did the Pilgrims wear black? Eat Turkey? Land at Plymouth rock at all?

Some great facts here:

Monday, 2 December 2013

A Good Sunday

About once a month I volunteer at the Museum of London, one of my favourite museums in the city. If I arrive early enough I can get a free pass into the current exhibition, and at the moment they have a collection on the 'Cheapside Hoard.' This collection of beautiful jewellery was found in Cheapside in the early twentieth century: necklaces, bracelets, earrings and pocket watches, all made from gold, silver, emerald and sapphire, to name a few. Exquisite skill was essential in the construction of these beautiful jewels. No one knows why it was buried, perhaps four hundred years ago…was it buried by a supporter of the King during the English Civil War, and the location forgotten when the supporter died? Was it buried out of greed? Or malice? We will never know.

I volunteered for two hours with an MoL employee, where we taught visitors about shards of pottery from the Roman and Medieval times. I don't know a lot about this subject, but my new friend Arna told me so many interesting facts. One of them stuck with me. The museum found a little pot from the medieval period, and Arna explained it was a money box, an old piggy bank if you will. A slot would have been left in the side for people to put money in, and then the pot was smashed to get the money out. Several have been found near the ruins of theatres, particularly the Rose in South London. One theory is that people would bring their money boxes to the theatre, and after the first act, if they liked the play, they were expected to pay. Someone would come and collect the boxes and store them in a room in the theatre, and smash them to get the money out. Hence the term 'box office.' INCREDIBLE.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Deep South Pt 7: The Ghosts of the Past, or the Legacy of Slavery

[I spent the last three days of my tour visiting plantations, where I learned a great deal about how historic sites interpret slavery. On my last day, there was a ‘showdown’ between Evergreen Plantation and Houmas House, the former of which explained slavery in more detail than I had ever heard before on a historic site, while the latter presented such ignorance I was insulted. The legacy of slavery is a fractured one.]

“Thursday 29th August – For three nights, my parents and I stayed in a small cottage at Oak Alley (left), perhaps the most famous plantation in the South. Type in ‘plantation’ into Google and this is the main one that appears. It was beautiful, with a long alley of oak trees leading to the ‘big house’, and it was worth rising early to see the morning light hit the trees. This morning we had a tour by a lady (dressed as a Southern belle of course) who told us some stories of the family who lived there. It was a very ‘polished’ tour and yet again her remarks about slavery were few and confined to the end of the tour. “We recognise that without the sacrifice of the slaves this wealth would have never have been possible. Please visit the reconstructed slave cabins behind the house.” The way she said this was as though their ‘sacrifice’ was heroic, as though it was worth it? And why does the history of slavery need to be separated from the house? People should learn about slavery in the house because enslaved Africans were an integral part of its history. Simply, the house was run by slaves and it would have collapsed without them. This history should not and cannot be separated. All this requires us to do is think about slavery for a minute or two, then move on. Recognizing their sacrifice is an empty turn of phrase to get out of telling the whole story." 

“Friday 30th August – After an early start we arrived at Evergreen Plantation (right), where most of Django Unchained was filmed. (The ‘big house’ served as Big Daddy’s home where the Brittle brothers worked). I was a little hesitant about going to this one at first but luckily my Dad made an executive decision and it turned out to be one of the best places to visit. In Charleston, the slave cabins at Boone Hall survived mainly because they were made out of brick, but at Evergreen the slave cabins are wooden and still survive today. The ‘big house’ was beautiful and quite small, since the front of the house is quite deceiving. The tour was an hour and a half long, and we spent about half that time exploring the 22 ORIGINAL slave cabins. Because of the Louisiana heat, the slaves at Evergreen worked from sunrise to 10.30am, then 4.30pm to dusk. During the hottest part of the day, they could hunt or tend to their own gardens. Each cabin housed 2 or 3 families, which is actually quite a small number compared to many other plantations. Large bells adorned the property to summon the field slaves at any time.

In the afternoon, we drove to Houmas House Plantation (below), a completely different experience altogether. While Evergreen had been respectful and balanced about the experiences of the enslaved population, Houmas House ignored them entirely. I had expected this, as the leaflet advertising the house did not mention slavery at all. The largest plantation house in Louisiana, it was known as the “sugar palace” in the nineteenth century. It is difficult to grasp how much wealth it acquired, but this should help somewhat: in 1811, the house was sold for $300,000, and in the late 1840s it was sold again for $1 million. I can’t even comprehend that amount of money. We had a tour of the house by again, a woman dressed as a Southern Belle; I have never paid so much attention to the language she used to describe things. She would lead us into the bedroom and say “this is an c18th mahogany bed, and whoever made it in the morning would have a real hard job because it was so high.” Similarly, she would say “this is the dining room. Someone would have set the table and prepare the numerous courses before the family were called.” The word slave, or even servant was not mentioned once. This is frankly, astounding and quite an achievement. I know it can depend on the tour guide, but you can get a certain feel to a place where you know nostalgia for the antebellum period is more important than historical fact. At the end of the tour, I asked her about slavery. The guide looked at me carefully before answering, and said “maybe around 1000.” When I pressed her further about it, she replied there wasn’t much information that had survived about slavery, but she clearly did not know much about it and did not want to know. To make matters worse, she then had the audacity to say that “slaves were better off than Northern factory workers” because they were fed, clothed and provided with medical care. Now, I'm just starting out as a historian of slavery, I don’t know everything and I don’t pretend to. But this was just plain wrong. I tried to speak to her with an open mind, but I couldn’t help remembering the museum director in Natchez who told me quite clearly of the nostalgic attitude he knew I would find here. Unfortunately, he was proved right. In the nineteenth century, slaves were meant to be seen and not heard. Today, we cannot let them fade into the background, we have to hear their stories regardless of whether a plantation has the ruins of slave quarters or not. The House did not even recognise the fact that slaves lived, worked and died there: recognizing something is the first step, but even then recognition is the not the same as acknowledgement, respect, or understanding why or what happened. The legacy of slavery is divisive, proving that the racial and social cracks after the Civil War have not healed. I present no solution, only to offer the idea that we have to talk through our difficult periods of history in order to seal those cracks. A fractured society does not present much hope.

[When I returned home, I posted a review on TripAdvisor about the House. I created an account mainly because I wanted to write about the amazing museums I went to, but I thought I would write something about this particular plantation. I mentioned my disappointment at the lack of information about slavery, and less than 12 hours later I received a private reply. “Did the house advertise it was a place to learn about slavery or did you assume you would learn about it because you were in the South?” This reply, more than anything, proves how some people are so touchy and defensive about this issue. How unwilling they are to accept the truth. I replied calmly that I had kept an open mind about all the places I visited – I travelled to sites where African Americans held slaves, where white people were held as indentured servants in similar conditions to slavery, places where black slaves were treated remarkably fairly for the time, etc. I expected to learn about slavery at Houmas because slavery existed there. I have received no reply since.] 

Friday, 25 October 2013

Deep South Pt 6: New Orleans: Voodoo to Vampires, Jambalaya to Jazz, Or "The City That Care Forgot"

“Thursday 22nd August – New Orleans is a hybrid of cultures, religions and traditions. I arrived at my hotel, just minutes from Jackson Square. Apparently this spot is the second most photographed spot in the country (the first is the castle at Disney). I have no idea how they work these things out but it’s beautiful nonetheless. Opposite the park stands St Louis Cathedral, the largest Catholic cathedral in the United States. I set out to explore the French Quarter in the early evening, and it wasn’t long until I found myself on Bourbon Street, the liveliest and craziest stretch of the city. So many sights, sounds and smells I had no idea where to look first. There were street dancers, drunken men dressed as devils, strippers trying to entice you into their clubs, Jazz musicians drawing large crowds, playing their sax and trumpet...alongside all of this were tacky shops selling t shirts, Mardi Gras beads and plastic Hurricane cocktail containers, a famous drink that was created in New Orleans. I found a restaurant in the mix of all the action and tried seafood gumbo, red rice and beans and crawfish etoufee on a platter, then a chocolate-style bread and butter pudding dessert (a Southern delicacy). Wherever you are on Bourbon Street, you can hear the sound of Jazz, and it’s such beautiful and uplifting music particularly when you are in a place with so much life.

New Orleans is also a fantastic place to learn about Voodoo, a religion that has become misrepresented – even twisted into something completely different by society. Voodoo has its origins in Africa. Our idea of Voodoo, as in sticking needles in dolls and causing pain, is quite different to reality. Voodoo dolls do exist, but the pins are used to concentrate positive energy to a particular point of the body. It can be used to send negative energy, but the religion is really based around peace, love and sex. Voodoo has been described as a ‘three-tiered system’ of God, spirits and ancestors. A single God is part of the religion, but spirits are consulted and worshipped on a more regular basis. Ancestors become spirits and protect each individual throughout their life. To summon or communicate with a spirit, a gris-gris can be used. Gris-gris are objects used in Voodoo as a source of magic. An African word, there are several different types of gris-gris but they are usually split into four – love and romance (used to attract or keep a lover, or even to break up other relationships), power (to gain a foothold over someone or in the world generally), luck and financial gain, and healing or uncrossing (resolving an act or spell that someone has done against you). In the c19th, Voodoo horrified much of the elite, but wealthy businessmen did consult a famous Voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau. Laveau was the daughter of an African American woman and a white plantation owner, and she was so well respected that the Catholic church allowed her to practice feet away from St Louis Cathedral. Unfortunately, the Voodoo Cultural Center regularly has visitors asking how to direct pain to an enemy and some of the tacky shops on Bourbon Street tend to perpetuate that myth rather than prevent it. I suppose that’s unsurprising.

“Sunday 25th August – First thing this morning I had a tour around St Louis Cemetery, the oldest and most famous burial ground in New Orleans. If you open any tourist guidebook, or speak to any local, a cemetery tour is one of the best things to do in the city. It might sound odd, but these burial places are famous throughout the world because of the elaborate tombs and crypts. St Louis was founded in 1789 and holds the graves of, among others, Marie Laveau and Homer Plessy, an African American activist who challenged segregation laws in the Plessy vs Fergusson case in 1896. Most people think the tombs were built because the city is below sea level, but our eccentric tour guide informed us it was purely to emulate tombs in Europe. We learned about the 1853 Yellow Fever epidemic, the worst epidemic to hit an American city, where over 11,000 people died. In fact, the death rate was so high that people could not build coffins fast enough, so people were buried in mass graves, or simply just left. Yellow fever was a nasty disease, and was very often fatal: victims would suffer for a few days and then appear to get better, only to vomit black bile and expire pretty much on the spot. After this particular epidemic, New Orleans earned the nickname, “the city that care forgot.” It was a very humid day, so it was actually quite difficult to take in everything that was said (even for a history nerd like me). It is the middle of August so it’s not surprising, but walking around there made me feel like I was being shut in my own tomb of overwhelming heat. I walked back to the French Quarter and stopped for a quick hot chocolate for me in Café du Monde, the most famous eatery in the city. It was founded in the 1860s, and it’s open 24 hours a day for coffee and beignets, a French doughnut-type thing that is sprinkled with a lot of icing sugar. While my parents took a rest from the humidity, I ventured to the Pharmacy museum, the only one of its kind in the country. It preserves some of the medicines used to treat c19th illnesses, childbirth, herbal remedies (often involving heroine and cocaine) and some Voodoo potions (mainly for luck and fortune), which proved popular even among elite members of the community. This made the museum unique and incredible interesting. There were also some surgical kits from the Civil War, some horrible looking tools for amputation and a short history of the origins of anesthetics. During the war, a skilled surgeon could amputate a limb in 15 seconds, but you would still hope that poor soldier fell unconscious during that time. In the pharmacies and apothecaries of New Orleans, if an epidemic broke out different vases, called Show Globes, were placed in the window with coloured liquid to illustrate what type of disease it was – so there were different colours for cholera and Yellow Fever. The really interesting thing though, is that this was the standard way New Orleanians learned of an epidemic, as it wasn’t published in the newspapers. New Orleans was a port city, and depended on trade for survival, and panic in the newspapers about an epidemic would potentially frighten away investors. The Show Globes (below) were a quiet way of communication. Fascinating stuff.

We had an amazing meal on a balcony overlooking the street performers on Bourbon Street - I had chicken and sausage jambalaya, a pasta dish that tasted incredible. Listening to live Jazz and watching the sun go down was perfect. In the early evening, Dad and I decided to brave a ghost tour, another ‘must-do’ in the city. It began in a seedy pub in the French Quarter, and initially we weren’t sure what we had got ourselves into, but our enthusiastic and wonderfully sarcastic guide brought the city to life (well, back from the dead). His introduction to the city included the fact that more people go missing in New Orleans than any other city in the States, and stories of vampires and ghosts are rife, and frankly, too many to count. It was really interesting to consider the origins of vampires, and how we see them today (not as sparkly handsome beings). The guide explained that the idea of a vampire has been around for centuries, and often emerges from mysterious cases of someone apparently dead from an illness suddenly waking up. Victims suffering from a severe form of tuberculosis would stay away from the light, experience mood changes and often wake up with covered in blood from coughing all night…you can see how the rumours of the modern day vampire can start. This led to story number 1:

In the 1930s, a little girl burst into the police station in the French quarter, covered head to toe in blood. She had come from a house not far away, and she told a horrible tale of torture: two men had kept her and four other victims strapped to beds, drinking their blood at the wrist. The police recognised the house as the Carter residence - two brothers had lived there for some years and were well respected in the community. They went to the house and found four victims still alive, and twenty bodies stacked together in a room, all completely drained of blood. The coroner estimated they had been there for roughly three weeks. The next morning, the police waited for the brothers to arrive home, and promptly seized them to take them away for questioning. After a long hard day working at the docks, you would think the brothers would be easy to arrest, but it took 8 policemen beating them with clubs to finally subdue them. Strong individuals you might say. The brothers were tried and executed, and their bodies were placed in tombs in St Louis Cemetery. A year later, to make room for other bodies, their tomb was opened but of course, there were no remains. No body or ashes to speak of. Since the 1930s, there have been several break ins recorded at the Carter House, and sketches were taken from witnesses to try and catch the intruders. In most cases, the sketches looked exactly like the Carter brothers…

A street away from the Carter house, stands the Lalaurie Mansion. This was probably the most gruesome story I have ever heard, and it’s not for the faint hearted:

Madame Lalaurie was born in 1775. She was married three times, after the first two died in mysterious circumstances (read: she killed them). In 1834, Madame Lalaurie and her husband hosted a large party at their house. Within a few hours, a fire broke out at the mansion and as the guests evacuated the house, the wealthy socialite and her husband were nowhere to be found. Police entered her house to try and find the source of the blaze, but instead, they stumbled upon a hellish scene. They found a 70-year-old slave in the kitchen, who confessed to starting the fire, and urged the police to go upstairs since “anyone who had been taken there, never came back.” Behind a thick, oak door was a torture chamber: bodies of mutilated slaves were stacked against the walls, and as the police entered the room, they found slaves still alive who had suffered horrific injuries. Hands and feet had been amputated and sewn onto other body parts, men were suspended by the neck by iron pikes; lips were branded or sewn shut, and one poor woman had all her bones broken so she could be placed inside a small travelling suitcase. The tortured slaves were rescued from the house (only to be put on display in the local jail for a while) and were then taken to the hospital. Madame Lalaurie was never found. Some say she died in Paris, but evidence remains elusive.

The last story our guide told once again concerned vampires. Two or three years ago the guide and a friend cycled past the old convent house in the French Quarter. They noticed a shutter on the window hanging loose, as though someone had escaped from the inside. It remained in that state for several days, something the guide thought was odd since the New Orleans Historical Society usually worked fast to restore old buildings. The guide decided to look into the history of the convent further, and discovered that the particular room with the broken shutter was used to lock up certain individuals – vampires. The bolts and nails of the shutter were made from silver and blessed by the Pope himself. It took the convent nine days to repair that broken shutter. Apparently, the same length of time it takes for the Pope to bless silver nails, and send a missionary over to the convent to put the nails in place…

A cracking good story.

Deep South Pt 5: From Slave Auctions to Black Slaveowners - Natchez, Mississippi

"Sunday 18th August – I arrived at Vicksburg National Park, Mississippi on a beautiful, quiet Sunday morning. I pretty much had the place to myself, save a few dog walkers and keen joggers. After a short video on the siege of Vicksburg in the Visitors Centre, I grabbed a map and drove the 16-mile auto tour around site. Both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln saw Vicksburg as the place that would decide the fate of the war, and it was a huge victory for the North after Grant’s constant assault. Initially, Grant had failed to take the city by force, so he decided to lay the town to siege. Eventually, the Confederates surrendered, and this marked a turning point in the course of the war. The auto tour covered the Union and Confederate lines, the trenches, and memorials to the regiments that fought there. It was very eerie standing that on the hilltop; it was so peaceful and quiet, the exact opposite to what it would have been like in 1864. The sound of guns, men bellowing orders, the groans and screams of the wounded. You can almost feel what happened here. As could be expected, there was a lot of information on military tactics and maneuvers, and I prefer to read about the stories of individual soldiers rather than the direction in which they were marching. For example: there was a small house on the auto tour that was commandeered by Union troops as a field hospital for smallpox victims. An incredible photograph showed makeshift tents and doctors tending patients, frozen in time. I was standing on the exact spot, and I instantly wanted to know about the soldiers who were in that hospital, the doctors tending to the wounded, and the homeowner who however unwillingly, allowed their house to be taken over by the Union forces. Sadly, this was not the case.

From Vicksburg, I travelled down to Natchez in Mississippi. On the way, I headed to Rosswood Plantation, a large home off the beaten track. I drove up the gravel pathway to the house and wondered whether it was open – there were no cars and it looked rather run down. I knocked on the door and a sweet old lady named Jean answered, inviting me warmly into her house. Her house! Jean and her husband Walter had lived in this house for 38 years, and conduct tours on the off chance someone visits. The house was beautiful in itself but the real joy was talking to this lovely couple. Walter talked to me for over an hour about the history of the house, and showed me some fascinating artefacts such as part of a Union cannonball that was fired into the kitchen. The Wade family owned the plantation, and Walter explained how in the 1850s, their slaves were freed and were given the choice of travelling to Liberia at the family’s expense. 154 slaves decided to make the trip, but 105 chose to remain behind. This is an incredible story, since it was illegal to free slaves in Mississippi at that time. Walter also showed me an invoice from 1866 that shipped cotton from the plantation, to New Orleans and finally to Liverpool, England. Britain depended on the cotton trade throughout the nineteenth century, and just before the Civil War, 90% of the cotton imported through Liverpool came from the American South. Despite her claims of moral superiority over American slaveholders, the cotton from their plantations directly financed the British Industrial Revolution.

Monday 19th August – MASSIVE history day! I’m staying in a beautiful bed and breakfast right in the very heart of Natchez. It’s a small town, with lots of antique shops, cafés and a gorgeous view over the Mississippi river. Since this is the middle of August, it is HOT, though. This morning I visited Melrose Plantation, under the National Park Service. The ranger tour was great, and talked fairly about the owners and the slaves. This plantation home was owned by the McMurrin family, but it was not a working plantation: slaves tended fruit and vegetables to feed the family. This was different to the other commercial plantations the family owned along the Mississippi river. The slave cabins had been restored, and there was a lot of information on the life of a slave, as well as a strong focus on the African American community in Natchez. The exhibition in the cabin was good at providing context, and it briefly touched on refugee camps during the Civil War. In the winter of 1863-4, over four thousand African Americans died of yellow fever, a horrific disease spread by cramped and unhygienic conditions.

Over the next few hours, I visited two more plantation homes. In the mid c19th, Natchez had the largest concentration of millionaires per square mile, and looking around at some of these plantations, it’s not hard to see why. Longwood (left) was an unusually shaped house – in fact it’s the largest octagonal home in America – and the tour was unfortunately nothing special. There were no personal stories or anecdotes rather it was a tour about the paintings and the furniture. Similarly, Rosedale Plantation is owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution and as can be expected, the tour guide did not mention slavery once, and said little else about it after I prompted her.  Both of these homes refused to confront the legacy of slavery; neither could have operated or even existed without slaves, and to ignore their history is insulting and frustrating. We will never have a ‘complete’ picture of the past, but it is wrong to solely focus on the ‘family in the big house.’ The tour at Rosedale in particular was romanticized so much it can only be described as a retelling of ‘Gone With the Wind’, that era of nostalgia for the Southern way of life that depicted the beautiful Southern belle surrounded by happy slaves. Urgh.

Sticking with the theme of slavery, I drove to the Forks of the Road National site. There isn’t much there apart from a few interpretative boards, but it is an important place to visit. In the c19th, this was the second largest slave market in the United States. It was incredibly moving to stand at a site in which thousands of slaves were sold along the Mississippi river. Between 1800 and 1860, over 750,000 slaves were traded from the Upper South to Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. The Forks consisted of several markets, including an auction block and an inspection room where slaves were made to stand and traders bartered over their strength and worth. Because of this arrangement, a slave could be purchased on the same day if necessary, or bought later on in the week. The fear of being ‘sold downriver’ led to hundreds of enslaved Africans planning an escape route North, or sometimes practicing self-mutilation or suicide. During the Civil War in 1863, the 58th Regiment of the U.S. Black Infantry occupied the Forks site. It is likely that many of the soldiers had been sold as slaves at that same spot, many years before.

The last historic house I visited that day was the William Johnson house. Johnson was a prominent businessman in Natchez, and as a result owned several slaves. You might think this is not unusual, but Johnson had been born into slavery. What made a black man, a former slave, own another black man? Born in 1809 to a slave woman and a white slave owner, Johnson was freed at the age of 11; the only reason why we know so much about him was that he kept an extensive diary throughout his life. After working as an apprentice in a barber shop, Johnson saved his wages and purchased his own barber shop in 1830. Over the next two decades, Johnson bought another two barbershops and a bath house in Natchez. At the time, it was not illegal by state law to prevent a free black man owning slaves, even if that person had been a slave himself. Johnson’s diary doesn’t tell us why he owned slaves, and the National Park Service presented interesting questions as to the social and political implications of this situation. As an African American man, there was only so far he could progress in society, but slave ownership was a sign of economic and social status. Hence, he was a respected man in the community. It is believed Johnson was a fair master, but if a slave displeased him, he punished them severely. For example, Johnson severely whipped his slave Stephen for frequent bouts of drunkenness. In 1851, a land prospector named Baylor Winn murdered Johnson, and despite the fact Johnson's teenaged son witnessed the attack, Winn was acquitted because a black man, slave or free, could not testify in court against a white man. Attempts were made to prove Winn was a mulatto, but little became of it. This was one of the best historic sites I visited, for it presented an unusual and unique case in a respectful and interesting light.

Tuesday 20th august – Before I left sunny Natchez I visited Stanton Hall, perhaps the most beautiful house I visited on my trip. In 1857, this ‘town house’ was purchased and refurbished by Edward Stanton, who owned 7 plantation homes on the Mississippi. This set Stanton back $83,000, an extraordinary sum; in today’s money this cost around $10 million! Stanton died 9 months after the house was completed, but his wife lived there for a further 30 years. Echoing the standard Natchez theme on slavery, not much was said about the ‘servants’ but perhaps that was unsurprising since there were pictures of people dressed as Southern belles and Confederate officers covering the walls.

For a completely different experience, I visited the African American Museum in the centre of Natchez. I talked to the director, a lovely engaging man named Darryl, for nearly two hours and learned some fascinating things about the racial status quo in Mississippi. We had a great discussion about the legacy of slavery in the South, focusing on the tendency for plantation homes to ignore slavery or refer to the enslaved as ‘servants.' He believed this ignorance was the hardest thing to fight against, mainly because it is so widespread. I told him about my experience with the tour guide in Selma, and he wasn’t surprised – this idea of African Americans as happy servants feeds into the nostalgia for the antebellum South, a romantic portrayal that is so far from the truth."

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Deep South Pt 4: "The March To Freedom" - Alabama and the Civil Rights Trail

[I spent three lovely relaxing days on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, a wonderful mix of sand, sea and sun. The food was incredible – I tried oysters, crab and seafood gumbo – and in between stuffing my face with food I read some books on the beach. I never do ‘beach holidays’ so to sit and do nothing for three days was perfect. I left the coast early one morning, and after a quick stop over at a Marine centre to feed and cuddle a dolphin, I drove North to Mobile. This is quite possibly the most random holiday I have been on. The following recounts my experience on the African American Civil Rights Trail.]

“Wednesday 14th August – I reached Mobile in the early afternoon, and plugged in the zip code address for Oakleigh House in my Sat Nav. The town looked very rough and run down, and the house was tucked away in a very small historic district behind the main road. I parked and was slightly disconcerted to see a security guard posted out front. It’s fairly rare to see that, and considering I had all my earthy possessions in the boot (or trunk) of my car I was nervous as I approached the front door. I had a private tour of the house by a girl dressed as a Southern belle – of course. It was home to the Irwin and Roper families, and during the Civil War Union soldiers marched to the threshold and threatened to burn the house down, but Margaret Irwin, who was born in England, unfurled a British flag and declared she was British, and not part of the war. The Union troops backed down and left, despite the fact that Margaret’s husband and brother were both high-ranking Confederate officials. The house was interesting, but my standard complaint with house tours – here and sometimes in the US – is the lack of context. We’re told about the furniture and the pretty paintings but what was happening outside the house and how did it affect the family and the slaves. Or, as this house liked to refer to them, servants. The terms ‘slave’ and ‘servant’ seem interchangeable, even though the meaning is very different. At the end of the tour, the guide showed me a photograph of a slave and declared “all Southerners weren’t bad, and people in Mobile treated their slaves well because they weren’t living on plantations.” This may have been true in isolated cases, but it was such a sweeping generalization with little evidence to support her argument. Apparently because the family had their photograph taken with a slave it meant they were part of the family. In Southern society, a paternalistic system existed where plantation owners would have seen their slaves as their extended family, but of course there was a racial and social divide between the two races. The guide did not or was reluctant to point this out.”

“Thursday 15th August – Montgomery, Alabama. Today I drove into downtown Montgomery to follow the Civil Rights Trail. My first stop was the Rose Parks Library and Museum, which was split into a children’s section and the main museum. In 1955, buses across the South were segregated, and African Americans were meant to sit in the back of the bus and if it was busy, they had to vacate their seat for a white person. One evening, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white woman, and although she was by no means the first to do this, her actions ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Thousands of African Americans avoided using buses, and car-pooled with friends and work colleagues for nearly a year. The photographs of near empty buses proved a powerful moment in the Civil Rights Movement. It was amazing to stand at the site where history was made! At the ticket desk of the museum I wavered over the decision to buy a ticket for the children’s section but it was worth it. The exhibition centered on a bus that acted as a time machine. It was driven by a robot (stick with me), and an actress playing Rosa Parks guided us through key moments in African American history. It covered the origins of Jim Crow, and how the name was taken from a minstrel show; the 1857 Dred Scott decision, a landmark case that basically declared white and black people did not have the same rights; the 1850s where Harriet Tubman and Henry ‘Box’ Brown escaped slavery and demanded abolition; the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation; and 1896 for the Plessy vs Ferguson case. Homer Plessy was a black man who decided to test the 14th amendment that said everyone was equal. He led a direct challenge against the laws of segregation by sitting in a white compartment on a train. Plessy could pass as a white man, but identified himself as black, only to be forced off the train. He took the case to court, but Federal judges ruled that conditions provided on a train (i.e., a white and a black compartment) were “separate but equal.” This infamous phrase confirmed the accepted practice, but it was a huge blow for African Americans. 

It was a really good visual display, with the bus moving side to side when you travelled ‘through time.’ Apparently the museum gets a lot of visitors from the state, as well as London and Paris! It was very enjoyable and so well presented. The main 'adult' section of the museum focused on a dramatization of Rosa Parks’ stand on the bus, and an exhibition contained documents of when she was arrested and how the Montgomery Bus Boycott evolved into an incredibly organised movement. Volunteers such as Joanne Robinson worked through the night to print 52,000 leaflets, distributing them across town to families and churches to warn them off the impending boycott. Money was raised for those who could not get to work, and just under 400 cars were purchased to transport people to and from work. The state tried to class them as taxis, as you would need a business licence to operate them but the activists cleverly painted churches on the side of the car – you could not class a church as a business. There were some excellent facts that I had never come across before.
After a brief visit to the Dexter Memorial Church where Martin Luther King preached and the Alabama State Capitol, I briefly walked around the Jefferson Davis Home (below). Davis was the President of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, and he resided in Montgomery for a few months until the capital of the Confederacy moved to Virginia. The house was free to go into, and it reminded me of a typical National Trust site. The Home had preserved the furniture and had some written info on where the chairs and paintings were from. Unfortunately there weren’t a lot of interesting anecdotes, or stories. This is the main failure of many National Trust sites, and I find places less interesting when you don’t feel connected to the person that lived there. Why does it matter where the carpet is from, when you can focus on the life of Davis instead?

Returning to the African American history trail, I booked a short tour around Martin Luther King’s house. This was such a memorable experience. Before the tour of the house, the manager, Shirley Cherry, gave a short introduction to the Civil Rights Movement. She told some horrific stories of the violence suffered by both black and white activists; a school friend of hers was shot in the head for refusing to use a ‘coloured bathroom.’ 

This house (below) belonged to MLK for several years, and it was here that the KKK tried to assassinate him and his family. A bomb blew up the front of the house, shattering part of the floor and the front window. Luckily, his wife and daughter were at the back of the house and escaped unscathed. The house is also important historically because it was the place where MLK experienced his famous epiphany. One night, after several late night phone calls threatening the lives of himself and his children, MLK sat in his kitchen and contemplated giving up. He prayed, and thought he heard the voice of God urging him to “seek righteousness, seek justice, and seek truth.”  I stood in that kitchen, listening to an audio recording of MLK describing that moment, and chills ran down my spine. It was immensely powerful, especially because the tour guide knew MLK personally. At the end of the tour, I asked her what he was like. She paused, and said with a smile on her face, hearing him speak was “marvelous.” He had a great personality, and refused to talk down to anyone. Watching the pride and love in her face was a special moment for me; I had never dreamed of meeting anyone who could tell me what it was truly like to hear MLK speak.

Friday 16th August – Today I drove to Selma to learn about the famous Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery. In 1965, Civil Rights activists marched along the Edmund Pettus Bridge and were beaten back by the police. In outrage, another march was scheduled, and men and women, black and white, marched 54 miles to Montgomery to demand the right to vote. A short video made by students at the National Park Site focused on the events of that year, as well as the importance of voting for new generations. The video highlighted some individual stories, namely that of Viola Liuzzo. Viola was a white woman, a mother of five children, who drove down from Michigan to attend the march. As she was driving some of the marchers home, Viola was shot and killed by the KKK. 
I started chatting to Michael, the park ranger at the site and he told me some fascinating and disturbing things about Selma. The museum has had several threatening phone calls from the white community, demanding the National Park Service shut it down immediately. Michael explained that many people in Selma don’t understand the significance of the march or the Civil Rights Movement in general. This was proved by a visit to a town house in the afternoon. Sturdivant Hall is a short drive from the Selma museum, and is a beautiful example of a Greek Revival home. It was a stunning house, but the tour guide was the most interesting thing about it. I mentioned I had been to the Selma Museum and she made a comment I couldn’t ignore: “they don’t tell you everything.” Intrigued, I asked her to explain. She then launched an attack on the Civil Rights Movement, dismissing their objectives and questioning why it was necessary when Selma faired well in racial terms compared to other cities in the South. (I considered telling her about Jim Clarke, a notorious sheriff from Selma who from want of a better word, was a tyrant). The Selma museum was “propaganda rather than history” and the Movement used the killing of activist Jimmy Lee Jackson to their advantage, in her words, they wanted someone to get killed. (Jackson was actually shot whilst attempting to protect his mother and grandmother from a violent white mob.) Apparently, “things weren’t that bad in Selma.” The tour guide was young, possibly early 30s, so it’s interesting to consider her attitude. Had she grown up with these ideas or was this something she had developed on her own? She was very defensive throughout, although I didn’t push her – sometimes it’s best to let someone talk rather than interrogate someone. Regardless, it was clear she had no respect for the Civil Rights Movement and was not impressed with the memorials and museums. 

From Selma, I drove to a former Confederate Soldier’s Home in Marbury, about 40 minutes from Montgomery. The sites consists of two cemeteries and a museum, and is fairly unique in the US. At the turn of the twentieth century, former soldier and businessman Jefferson Manly Faulkner gave up some of his land to be used as a soldier’s home for Confederates. At its peak, 102 veterans called this place home. After the war, the Federal government only granted pensions to veterans of the Union cause, so Confederates depended on payments from the state. Homes nicknamed “Boys of ‘61” sprang up across Virginia, Louisiana and Arkansas, but the site in Marbury was thought to be more permanent. Veterans could bring their wives, and were provided with food and medical care on a daily basis. Veterans could tend to vegetable gardens, and every year in April the United Daughters of the Confederacy celebrated Confederate Memorial Day. In 1934, the last veteran died, and a few years later the state officially closed the home. Today, Marbury is the final resting place for 313 Confederate veterans and widows.

Saturday 17th August – I left Montgomery in the early morning to arrive at Birmingham for 10am. After a confusing altercation with a parking metre, I found the Civil Rights Museum and managed to bag myself a free tour of the state park opposite. (It pays to get up early). It was a fascinating tour of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, a city well known to activists as a hot bed of racism and segregation. The tour mainly focused on the events of 1963, where MLK and Reverend Fred Shuttleworth led numerous rallys against the system. Both men organised ‘Project C’, an initiative which centered on the confrontation of racism and violence. At this time, African Americans couldn’t use public parks, or gather in any place apart from their own churches. Violence was rife, and the infamous city commissioner, Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, ruled the city with an iron fist. Connor used his immense power to crush black resistance and arrest hundreds of activists and ordinary citizens. He had MLK arrested, and had the audacity to defy President Kennedy when the latter demanded to know why MLK had not been allowed a phone call. During a march in ’63, Connor ordered the fire department to hose protestors – mainly teenagers and young people – with jets of water so strong it could shave bark from the surrounding trees. One woman claimed parts of her hair have never grown back because of the force of the blast. (The infamous picture of a dog attacking a protestor happened here, and is immortalized in stone in a small memorial). Connor ensured the police dogs were trained to bite and never let go, and typically, his dog (named ‘Nigger’) was the most violent dog on the force. After a peaceful march organised by King and Shuttleworth, Connor locked children up for days in jail with little food, and when he ran out of space, he used pig stys. He often released children at 3am and told them to make their own way home; worried friends and parents often worked in shifts at street corners to pick up wandering children. The media coverage of the march shocked the nation, and when a second march was scheduled the fire department refused a direct order from Connor to use the jets of water again. 

The tour guide also focused on the bombing of 1963: four little girls were killed when a bomb blast tore through a church in the city. On the same day, two black male teenagers were also killed in separate racial incidents, one shot by a 16-year-old member of the KKK, the other by the police. (This was covered up at the time as the police didn’t want to take responsibility for this at the time of the church bombing). The tour and my subsequent visit to the museum reinforced my sense of awe at the activists’ bravery and their unwillingness to surrender their cause. This history can never be forgotten.
In the park there were several memorials to the Civil Rights Movement. The guide explained they are products of their time: one statue depicted the attacks on the protestors but showed the jets of water with no one operating them. The fire department didn’t want to be associated with the violence, so were conveniently removed from the park. Likewise, statues of dogs are sculpted launching out of a wall (left), but face inward towards the cetre of the park so passers by or cars cannot see them from the road. This was really interesting, and something I would have loved to study for my Masters in Public History. This level of memorialization and forgetting shows us that public memory is often abused to distort the past.

But the most interesting fact I learned? One that, if I had known, I would have shoved it in that lady’s face in Selma? In the 1930s, Hitler sent agents to the South to study the segregation laws, and used them as a base for his Nuremberg Laws. Hitler copied the South, and people still don’t think there was a problem.