Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Confederates On the Second Floor

Today my son and I went to the local art museum, and we saw an exhibit up on the second floor called “Homes and Heroes of the Civil War.” The exhibit was made up of two things: tintypes of Confederate officers, and photographs of the big houses they lived in.

photo by Jim DiVatale
Also, rocking chairs.

Now, I have Northern friends who find it incredible that Southern museums and historical institutions still routinely do this kind of thing. I wish I were more startled by it than I am. A few years ago, a colleague of mine expressed surprise that I came from a city (Jacksonville, FL) that had a Robert E. Lee High School. Why was that so surprising? I asked. He looked at me like I was insane. “Because Lee was a traitor, and he should have been hanged,” he said matter-of-factly. I gazed at him in horror. This is not the sort of thing you say in your out-loud voice down here.

To be honest, “traitor” sits as uneasily with me as “hero.” Confederate soldiers weren’t heroes for taking up arms against their government. They weren’t heroes for fighting and giving their lives to protect slavery. Nobody gets to be a hero for that. The slaves who lived and loved and died with the iron on their necks, the slaves who managed to build lives of dignity, forge families, nurture hopes and dreams, all in the grinding rack and daily prison of slavery – those are the heroes. The people who died to keep them in chains? Not heroes. But I don’t think it’s as cut-and-dried as traitor, either; lots of those soldiers were boys—literally boys—who were doing what they thought was the right thing by their community and their God. Many of them had no real choice. Many of them found themselves in impossible situations. Most of them didn’t own slaves. People are complicated, as complicated then as they are now. Though the war was about slavery, people don’t always fight for the reasons a war is “about,” and people carry with them into battle a complex freight of justifications, motivations, hopes, and ideas.

That’s why slapping a “heroes” label on them shortchanges the complexity of their time and their souls. They did rebel against their country, and they did lose. I’m grateful they lost, as we all should be. It’s tough to live in a place where the Sons of Confederate Veterans march in our Fourth of July parade, and where it’s not a given that people will be glad the Confederacy lost – in fact, it’s a pious commonplace to wish the opposite. I say tough, but it’s not really tough for me, because I’m white, so things like that don’t knife me to the bone the way they would if I were not white. I can shrug and roll my eyes and say, well, you know. That’s just the way it is.

More and more, the way it is looks like the way it was.

I bought a recently published book at the art museum, called Marietta: Gem City of the South. It’s a nice coffee table book – look at all the big pretty houses, look at the pretty things, look at all the record of white people’s lives. One of the biggest antebellum mansions in my neighborhood, Ivy Grove, was built by Cobb County’s biggest slaveholder, Edward Denmead. Denmead made his money hiring out slaves to build the Western and Atlantic Railroad, though you wouldn’t know that he dealt in the sweat of enslaved bodies from this book, which delicately calls it “contract work.” Anyway, Denmead, who was quite the contractor, built himself quite the house. The lavish full-page color photographs record his house’s every renovation through the centuries, and the lives of the illustrious white people who made it their home. In the corner of a page, there is a black-and-white photograph of a brick slave “cottage.” The laconic caption says simply that the cottage survived on the Ivy Grove property through the 1980s, when it was torn down to make way for a tennis court.

Ivy Grove decorated for Christmas on the 2009 Tour of Homes

That story kind of makes me want to burn down Ivy Grove, with a few of its former owners for kindling.

The houses of white people are preserved; the houses of black people are erased. The lives of white people are recorded; the lives of black people are ash on the wind. Did a historic preservation committee try to stop the Brown family, before they snuffed out one of the last records of antebellum black life in Marietta? Probably not. That’s not the way things work around here, where one or more Browns probably sat on that historic preservation committee. Besides, history is white.

In 1861, more black than white people lived in Marietta. Of course, you wouldn’t know it from my local museum’s exhibit, which referenced not a single black resident or wartime experience. Where are their houses? What were their names? We have only tantalizing glimpses preserved in wills, in public deeds, in the records of First Baptist Church, which noted down the name of the young black girl who dared to ask for a black mission to be founded, where black folk could worship away from the hot close confines of the upper-story room that looked down on the white folks’ Baptist sanctuary. Her request was granted, and that mission became Zion Baptist Church, which survives today, catty-corner from First Baptist. “Founded by Former Slaves,” their sign proudly proclaims. There aren’t any pictures of their first little church in that big coffee table book I bought, or of any other remnants of African-American life around here. History is white.

The name of the author and compiler of that doorstop of a book (which by the way I shelled out 70 bucks for) is Douglas Frey. That’s a pretty interesting name in these parts. William J. Frey was the sheriff of Cobb County, back in the early years of the twentieth century. It was on his property that Leo Frank was lynched, and Frey was one of the ringleaders of the lynching – or, as this book calls it, “the abduction and hanging of convicted child murderer Leo Frank.” I don’t actually know if Douglas Frey is related to that infamous Frey, but from the wording of that, it wouldn’t surprise me. Frey is still a powerful name around here, and the mention of Leo Frank can still make a room go uncomfortably quiet. The past, as Faulkner has it, isn't even past.

They way it is looks like the way it was.

History is written in bricks and mortar; what survives is what we believe. What doesn’t survive is invisible. For many years, this city was the home of more than just the people who lived in the grand homes with the grand names. It was the home of the black people who cooked, swaddled, scrubbed, tended and built this little city. There won’t ever be a coffee table book about their houses for sale in my local art museum, and no one calls them heroes.

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