What’s in a Name? : The Edmund Pettus Bridge

Update 7/15/16: My short trip to Selma last month, during which I asked a few people about the name change, suggested that people seem to share my view that the name should remain the same, a perspective shared by Selma native and Birmingham Congressional representative, Terri Sewell, and John Lewis.

There has been a lot of interest (in my facebook feed and elsewhere) lately about the names of historic buildings lately, especially those on college campuses. Many universities, particularly those in the South, are home to buildings named after Confederate military figures or politicians whose beliefs were deeply racist and segregationist, or who were members of the Ku Klux Klan and participated in lynchings and other forms of racial violence. This phenomenon is not restricted to universities, though they tend to get more press. I live around the corner from a subdivision called Forrest Pointe (named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, first Grand Wizard of the KKK and a slave trader before the Civil War) that was built sometime in the late 90s/early 2000s. Where I grew up in Northern Virginia, the main highway through town was named after Harry Byrd, a prominent Virginia politician and avowed white supremacist who led a massive resistance campaign that shut down public schools in several counties rather than desegregate them.

Marchers with signs approach the metal arch of the Edmund Pettus Bridge

Marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge at the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. (Photo by author)

Yesterday, I read an article about a current effort to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The proposed name is the Journey to Freedom Bridge.

I am usually on board with renaming buildings with racist origins. Often these names were chosen both to honor the legacy of an individual and to send a message about the space occupied by the building. Naming a site after a known white supremacist told people of color that they did not belong in a public space and so upheld institutionalized racism and white supremacy. The renaming process, when done thoughtfully, can be an important tool for interrogating both institutionalized racism and the history of a site, like the “See the Stripes” campaign at Clemson University. The “thoughtful” part is key, because it is equally important to avoid whitewashing history and erasing the white supremacist or segregationist history of a place.

I have mixed feelings about renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which probably seems hypocritical given my visceral opposition to anything being named for Nathan Bedford Forrest. Edmund Pettus was, after all, a Grand Dragon of the KKK. But like all historians, I think these things have to be taken in context. I’ve always thought there was some delicious irony and poetic justice in the idea that an avowed white supremacist’s name is best known for its association with a pivotal moment in the struggle for equality and voting rights. From my perspective, it makes the bridge an even more powerful symbol, as well as a reminder of how far we still have to go.

I’m glad to see people becoming engaged in important questions about the symbolic power of names and words. I’m heartened to see people connecting with this story in a personal way. I’m left wondering, though, how activists from Selma see this change? Is this progress, or simply writing over an uncomfortable juxtaposition of values? How do Selmians view the change? What does John Lewis think about it? I’ll be asking folks when I’m in Selma later this month, and I’ll try to update this post if I get any good feedback.

Two Black state troopers on crowd control at the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

Two Black state troopers on crowd control at the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. (Photo by author)

Quick Update: Deaccessioning & Sale of Art by Randolph College

Culture Grrl Lee Rosenbaum has an update on the status of two paintings sold by Randolph College: Through the Arroyo by Ernest Martin Hennings and A Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks. (My posts on the topic: Part 1 and Part 2)

Shipping Container Architecture

I wrote a post for the Center for Historic Preservation’s blog, Southern Rambles, on the use of shipping containers in vernacular and high-style architecture. It emerged from my work in South Africa, and might be of interest to readers here. Please feel free to check it out here!

The Real Africa – Pilanesburg National Park & Game Reserve

On the way to Pilanesburg (author's image)

On the way to Pilanesburg (author’s image)

When you tell people that you’re going to South Africa*, everyone wants to know if you’re planning to go on safari. A lot of well-meaning people chimed suggesting that I go to Kruger National Park, not realizing that Kruger is about an eight-hour drive from Johannesburg or that it’s the sort of place you need to visit for weeks. It’s definitely one of my dreams to visit Kruger, but it was never going to happen in the amount of time or budget I had for this trip. I did, however, manage to squeeze in a trip to Pilanesburg National Park and Game Reserve, which is less well-known but only a two-hour drive from Joburg.

Pilanesburg is a beautiful park. It is situated on an ecological transition zone, which means that it is home to a broad array of African wildlife. We saw lots of impala, elephants, zebra, hippo, wildebeest/gnu, giraffes, and warthogs, along with some harder-to-spot animals like ostrich, a white rhino, and even a leopard. Though I’m no photographer and of course I forgot my camera in the US (typical), I got some nice shots on my rented iPhone, especially when I held it up to the binoculars, because I am nothing if not resourceful.

white rhino

A white rhino, THANKS INGENUITY. (author’s image–as if anyone else would take credit for that)

The lone gnu. (author's image)

The lone gnu. (author’s image)

Although I had a great time enjoying the natural landscape and seeing the animals, the heritage preservationist in me kept wondering about the history of the park. A few years ago, a friend sent me an old (but excellent) article on the formation of Serengeti National Park.** The article described how the formation of the park included the removal of evidence of human life, except for tribes that were deemed sufficiently “primitive” to not disturb visitor’s chance to see the “real” Africa. The author describes the impact of this decision not only on the displaced people, but on those who were forced to remain “primitive” so they would not lose their homes and land. Beyond this, he describes how this affected the way visitors see the park and their ideas about what Africa really is. This last idea in particular is something that has stayed with me, though of course it’s hardly unique to Africa–Frederick Jackson Turner conveniently erased Native Americans from the landscape for his frontier thesis, and scores of people were evicted from their homes in Appalachia to make way for national parks. This idea was brought home quite strongly for me when my tour guide mentioned that she thought of this place as the “real South Africa.”

grasslands and scrub with mountains in the background

The “real” South Africa? (author’s image)

The problem with this idea is that the landscape at Pilanesburg, just as at Serengeti, is manufactured. Before it became a park, this land was home to Zulu warriors, Boer farmers, and later the re-settled Bakgatla tribe during apartheid. The land has been inhabited by humans and hominids for millions of years, and these people evolved alongside the animals in the park. When it was converted into a game reserve, much of the evidence of human habitation was erased, barring one remaining official building which has been converted into a visitor center. The animals that live in the park were reintroduced as part of Operation Genesis in the 1980s.

The Visitor's Center (author's image)

The Visitor’s Center (author’s image)

The thing is, for all its natural splendor, this place is no less a managed landscape than a city. It is stunning, but is it anymore the “real South Africa” than Johannesburg or Soweto or Cape Town? So much of South African history is fraught and intense, and the specter of apartheid lingers because for half a century it dominated people’s lives and the landscape. A place like Pilanesburg can seem like an oasis from these hard truths; after all, there are no people here. But apartheid was here, too. It’s why the Boer farmers are no longer here; they sold their land to the apartheid government, which used it to create a homeland for the Bakubung tribe where they would be racially and ethnically segregated. Pilanesburg is not what South Africa used to look like–it’s what it looks like now, with all of the layers of meaning that exist in any cultural landscape, and that’s worth keeping in mind whether you are walking through an informal settlement or staring in awe at a leopard casually surveying his territory.

Leopard at Pilanesburg (author's image, taken with the guide's camera)

Leopard at Pilanesburg (author’s image, taken with the guide’s camera)

*After they ask about Ebola, of course.
**Neumann, Roderick P. “Ways of Seeing Africa: Colonial Recasting of African Society and Landscape in Serengeti National Park.” Cultural Geographies 2, no. 2 (April 1995): 149-169. (I cannot recommend this article highly enough.)

The Cape Medical Museum

The thing about researching and working on difficult heritage is that it is difficult for a reason. Part of why I planned such a lengthy research trip to South Africa was that I knew I’d be confronting a lot of serious, emotional topics and sites, and I wanted to have time in between these more intense experiences to recover. I wanted to be sure that when I visited a site, I wasn’t emotionally exhausted from an earlier visit elsewhere. I want to be a thoughtful, engaged visitor, and that means not shutting down because I’ve spent the last three days confronting the horror that human beings inflict on each other. With that in mind, I made a visit to the Cape Medical Museum in Cape Town.

Cape Medical Museum

Cape Medical Museum sign (author’s image)

The Cape Medical Museum does not have a website, and they are actually a bit tricky to find. I happened to see it when I rode past in a taxi, and knew that I absolutely HAD to visit. I have a pet interest in medical history, and I enjoy learning about the past through the lens of disease and medical practices. I love a good medical history book, especially when the writer explores the intersection between disease, science, culture, social history, and race. I listen to a lot of medical histories when I’m driving (not always the best idea if you don’t feel well), and right now I’ve been listening to Rabid: A Cultural History of Rabies, which I recommend highly.

Anyway! The museum is in an attractive but unassuming historic house in the Old Hospital Complex in Green Point, Cape Town. There is no admission fee (though I made a donation), and there are no guided tours. In addition to an extensive collection of medical machines and equipment, the museum includes a fantastic exhibit on various diseases that have invaded the region. The multilingual panels connect the facts of diseases like typhus and yellow fever to their impact on society. In a panel on the bubonic plague, for example, one section describes how the practice of quarantining Africans suspected of having plague in camps helped create the idea for townships under apartheid. One of these camps later became the site of the Nyanga township. Unfortunately, there was no photography in the museum, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Cape Medical Museum building

Cape Medical Museum building (author’s image)

The disease room also had a display case with small windows where visitors could look in and see some of the medical models physicians in training used to learn how to identify diseases like diphtheria and gonorrhea. Though these were not as elaborate as the casts and preserved parts I saw earlier this year at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, they still conveyed the horrifying commonness of these types of conditions.

There were several rooms dedicated to particular types of medical equipment, like dentistry and ophthalmology, and a few period rooms set up as an operating room, a dispensary, and a delivery room. These rooms also included display cases full of medical equipment from different time periods, which was both fascinating and a little disturbing. One of my favorite displays was a series of respirators/ventilators showing the evolution of that technology, and culminating with a 1960s-era Bird respirator.

If you do happen to find yourself in Cape Town, this little gem is well worth a visit. It’s an easy walk in Green Point or from the V&A Waterfront, and I spent about an hour and a half, which included reading all of the panels because that is how I roll.

Entryway from the foyer

A little something for the hist pres crowd: check out this stunning entryway! They sadly did not interpret the house, but they did let me photograph this (really poorly, apparently). (author’s terrible image)

The Hector Pieterson Museum & Memorial

On June 16, 1976, some 20,000 students in Soweto (a township southwest of Johannesburg, South Africa) gathered to march in peaceful protest against the implementation of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. The decree represented a significant attack from the apartheid regime on the already struggling education system available to students labeled “non-white.” Unlike white students, who received a free and mandatory education, parents of children classified as “non-white” had to pay tuition and for books send their children to non-compulsory schools where they were taught by teachers who were paid a pittance in appallingly poor conditions. The majority of students did not speak Afrikaans, nor did many of the teachers, so the transition to this new language would make it virtually impossible for many students to learn.

to hell with afrikaans

Reproduction of a sign from the June 16, 1976 protest. (via http://www.gutenberg-e.org/pohlandt-mccormick/archive/detail/DSCN2081.jpg.html)

The students planned to march from the Orlando West suburb of Soweto to Shap Stadium for a rally, but they encountered police led by Colonel Kleingeld. Kleingeld fired the first shot, and violence erupted as students fled or threw rocks at police, who in turn loosed dogs and fired tear gas canister and bullets at the students. A young man, Hector Pieterson, was shot, and photographer Sam Nzima snapped what would become the iconic image of the uprising, in which Hector’s body is carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo as his sister, Antoinette Sithole, runs alongside.** The violence led to more than 150 deaths, and in the following days students across the city and notably from the University of Witswatersrand joined in the protest. The decree was eventually repealed in 1979, but the student uprising is credited with reinvigorating the anti-apartheid campaign by organizing youth against the regime. If you want to know more, Helena Pohldant-McCormick has an amazing digital book project on the student uprising that is well worth checking out.

Hector Pieterson Museum (author's image)

Hector Pieterson Museum (author’s image)

I went to the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial twice during my visit to Johannesburg, both times as part of township tours of Soweto. I had no idea what to expect because the museum does not have a website or much of an online presence, at least not that I’ve been able to find beyond a few short blurbs on wikipedia and travel websites. I was impressed with the museum, which interprets the events of 1976 and contextualizes against both what happened before and after, and most impressively, includes discussion of lasting impact of the events and their interpretation and commemoration.

Memorial to fallen students in the courtyard at the Hector Pieterson Museum.

Memorial to fallen students in the courtyard at the Hector Pieterson Museum. (author’s image)

The museum constructs its narrative using extensive oral history testimony from many sides of the conflict; students, parents, and police. One of the things that stood out most to me was that there was a real effort to convey what happened in all its confusion and nuance. Contrasting interpretations are offered, as is testimony that complicated ideas about innocence in guilt. In particular, I was struck by the inclusion of the story of a young man who took part in the looting of a shop, probably because of how such reports in the US have been used to discredit the acts of rioters in Ferguson. The museum presents the participants as human beings with agency, and there is no effort to cast them as passive victims in order to make it clear that the violence committed against them was criminal.

For me, this was the most important aspect of the museum. In the US, we have a tendency to want to paint our conflicts in the most black and white terms possible; we like our heroes to be paragons of virtue and our villains to be flawed and malevolent. The problem is that history is made up of the acts of human beings who are inherently flawed and rarely all good or all evil. When we perpetuate these ideas in our presentations of history, we encourage the spread of these ideas in our larger culture. It perpetuates the idea that the only real victim is one who is totally innocent, not just in the context of the crime committed against him or her, but of anything ever. It’s why Trayvon Martin was labeled a thug. It’s why the Ferguson Police felt the need to inform the public that Michael Brown was suspected in the theft of a box of cigars on the day he was shot by Officer Darren Wilson. It’s the reason people wonder what rape victims were wearing.

Our cultural institutions are often reflections of the values we hold as a society. While they cannot single-handedly reform attitudes, they are uniquely placed to encourage dialogue about the past and the issues of race, class, gender, and justice that we still deal with today. When we visit these types of sites, we bring with us values and ideas that can be upheld or challenged by what we see. These sites should be places where we are encouraged to embrace complicated ideas and stories, and then carry that willingness to be uncomfortable and uncertain into the rest of our lives.

*South Africa had a number of racial classifications under apartheid, each of which conveyed a different level of privilege (all subordinate to white, of course). I place “non-white” in quotations because it is the language of the regime; I only use it here to refer to the laws of that period, as I recognize that it is no longer acceptable, and to convey the arbitrary nature of racial classification under apartheid.

**This photograph is widely available online, but I have chosen not to show it here because I do not have the permission of Sam Nzima. The image has a long history of incorrect attribution and appropriation of which I do not want to be a part. You can easily find it by clicking the link above or simply typing “Hector Pieterson” into the search engine of your choice.

A Trip to the Zoo

So I made it to Johannesburg, and I’ve now officially been here for a week. It seems like a lot longer, in part because it took two days to get here. I left last Sunday (Sept 28), flew overnight to London where I spent 14 hours (during which I visited the fantastic V&A Museum) before catching another overnight flight (10.5 hours) to Johannesburg. The trip to London was a bit rough; I didn’t sleep well, due to adrenaline and a bad seatmate, but I did get to see a great movie I’d been meaning to catch, Belle, which I recommend thoroughly. If you’re wondering why I don’t have any pictures from London, it’s because I left my camera at home, because of course I did. Fortunately, I am renting an iPhone while I’m in South Africa, so I have plenty of photos of my adventures here.


View down the street in the Melville suburb; walls and gates the entire way. (Author’s image)

After spending a day recovering from my journey, I decided to ease into my trip by starting out with a visit to the Johannesburg Zoo. One of the things that has really struck me about Joburg (or Jozi, as the locals call it) is how little public space there is. All of the houses are behind walls and fences and gates, so there’s very little to see when you walk down the street. Several tourism websites recommended the zoo as a place where it is possible to walk around and see things without concerns for safety that seem to be embedded into the physical space of the city elsewhere, and I definitely found that to be the case.

I took a taxi to the zoo (because everyone drives here), and I was pleasantly surprised. The zoo is laid out informally relative to a lot of zoos I’ve visited, by which I mean that there’s no clear direction of traffic or path to follow. There are some paved walks, but other walks are little more than dirt paths, though they are clearly meant for visitors since there are markers with information about the animals in each enclosure. One of my favorite things about the zoo was their work on historic preservation. Though the zoo has only limited space in which to expand, they have retained the historic animal enclosures and interpret them for visitors.

Old Polar Bear Enclosure Marker

IMG_0018 Interpretive marker for the Old Polar Bear Enclosure and Old Polar Bear Enclosure (Author’s images).

Lion cubs (including a rare white lion) playing in their new enclosure (author's image).

Lion cubs (including a rare white lion) playing in their new enclosure (author’s image).

Some of the enclosures have been repurposed to house new species. The Old Polar Bear Enclosure (pictured above) is now home to the bushbabies. It’s a great lesson on the evolution of animal husbandry, though it’s a little horrifying to imagine some of these animals being kept in such small spaces. Along with the Old Polar Bear Enclosure, the zoo also still has the Old Carnivore Enclosure and the Old Elephant House. These sites all have interpretive markers that discuss when they were built, and acknowledge that these facilities were state-of-the-art at the time they were constructed. While the zoo still has lions and elephants, they are now housed in much more generous spaces.

Preservationists like to talk about the importance of protecting the layers of past embedded in the landscape, meaning that we want to protect the evidence of how the use of the physical landscape has changed and evolved. In a historic house, this means keeping additions made throughout the house’s life that show how various residents adapted the house to their changing needs. In the case of the zoo, it means keeping and reusing old structures so that visitors can see and appreciate how this zoo (and zoos generally) have evolved to provide better and better care for their animals. The approach used by the Johannesburg Zoo is a great example of an effective and low-maintenance way to expand the visitor experience to include education about history as well as animals. If you find yourself in Joburg on a beautiful day (like I did), it’s well worth a visit.

Friendly shire horse

Of course I made friends with this very sweet Shire horse from their farm exhibit (author’s image).

Getting kisses from a juvenile sable antelope

I also made friends with this juvenile sable antelope (author’s image).

obligatory zoo peacock

Obligatory zoo peacock (author’s image).

Watch This Space

You may (or may not) have noticed that it’s been quite a while since I last posted here. All of my good intentions about continuing to blog have fallen to the wayside as I have been dedicating my writing energy to the dissertation and, more recently, the dreaded job application process. It’s been a productive summer. I have two chapters out for review with my committee, and a third has just undergone its first review with my supervisor, and I’ve even found some positions to apply for. But I didn’t decide to start blogging again to bore you with the details of my academic progress; I want to share some exciting news.

On September 28, I will embark on a six-week trip to Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa to conduct research for my dissertation. I will be meeting with a few contacts, visiting historic sites, taking tours, and trying to remind myself that this is in fact real life. This trip has been in the planning stages for a long time, and it’s hard to believe that it’s actually finally happening. In order to make the most of my time, I will be blogging more actively from South Africa, mostly site reviews and observations about the heritage landscape. I’m even renting an iPhone while I’m there to make it even easier to document my trip! (Yes, I am one of those Luddites clinging desperately to a flip phone.)

So… watch this space!

Same Song, Different Verse

If you’ve been keeping up with the bankruptcy situation in Detroit, you’re probably aware that the situation is pretty dire. The city is home to thousands of abandoned buildings, ranging from grand industrial and commercial buildings to private homes. The sprawling metropolis’ population has steadily declined since the mid-20th century, but it was laid particularly low by the Great Recession. In 2013, the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, arguing that its debts far exceeded anything the city could afford to pay. After a series of court cases, the bankruptcy was allowed. Since the decision at the end of 2013, the city has been in negotiation with its creditors over the terms of its bankruptcy, to be decided by a federal judge this year.

William Livingstone House in Detroit, as photographed by Yves Marchand & Roland Meffre: http://www.marchandmeffre.com/detroit/

William Livingstone House in Detroit, as photographed by Yves Marchand & Roland Meffre: http://www.marchandmeffre.com/detroit/

One of the key pieces in the debate is the fate of the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The DIA is home to an extraordinary collection, ranked as one of the top six in the United States. It holds the a Van Gogh self-portrait, the first Van Gogh painting to become part of an American museum’s collections, along with extensive collections of art from around the world. The DIA offers free admission to local residents (those who live in Detroit and three surrounding counties), something that is sadly increasingly rare.

The LA Times does a much better job unpacking the legal and political aspects of bankruptcy case than I am equipped to do, but the crux of the situation is that the city has been working on a “grand bargain” which involves the state, several private foundations, and the museum raising some $820 million to fund the municipal pensions that are on the chopping block. In exchange, the city will give the collection and the building to the affiliated nonprofit that runs the museum. This bargain allows the art collection to remain local and available while rescuing the pensions and benefits of city workers.

Detroit’s creditors, however, are less than pleased. Financial Guaranty Insurance Company has insisted that the collection is worth far more than $800 million, and want the entire collection to go on the auction block to repay Detroit’s debt. The infamous Koch brothers have weighed in, with their PAC Americans for Prosperity threatening to “make life difficult” in the next election for any Republicans who vote for the grand bargain, despite its popularity with Michigan residents on both sides of the political aisle.

Edgar Degas' The Violinist and the Young Woman, part of the DIA's permanent collection. Via wikimedia commons.

Edgar Degas’ The Violinist and the Young Woman, part of the DIA’s permanent collection. Via wikimedia commons.

It’s hard to see this story and not be reminded of all of the art and museum collections currently and previously under threat. The Maier Museum situation of course comes to mind, along with the Fisk University’s sale of its Georgia O’Keeffe collection to the Crystal Bridges Museum (founded by a Wal-Mart heiress). It’s also hard not to be frustrated by this trend of putting price tags on cultural heritage.

For me, access to cultural heritage is a key part of the democratic experience. There was a time when people believed that fine art was the exclusive purview of the wealthy and aristocratic, and that ordinary people could not appreciate such things. Museums like the DIA are the opposite of this notion. Those collections belong in a very real sense to every visitor who walks through its doors to visit them. For locals especially, the chance to see a collection like that of the DIA in their hometown is a chance to visit far away places practically for free. As globalization has contributed to a sense of same-ness, museums offer a place to experience the truly unique in person.

Detroit has suffered in the last ten years or so. The population has declined, and the built environment has suffered tremendously. To further gut the city’s cultural heritage by auctioning off its signature art collection would be a devastating blow, and to what end? So that wealthy creditors won’t have a bad quarter? To appease a pair of billionaires? Detroit has taken extraordinary measures to rebuild itself, with local businesses and government going to great lengths to encourage people to return to the city and revitalize it. In a way, it would be poetic if a city built on capitalist enterprise was destroyed by it, but there would be no beauty in that poetry, only a landscape whose abandoned buildings reflect the barrenness of its soul, and the first bleak signpost on a road many cities may shortly follow.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

“Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

“It’s Complicated”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about interpreting uncomfortable history. It’s something I’m engaging with in my dissertation, and it’s something that seems to be popping up a lot.

FBI poster of missing civil rights workers

FBI poster of missing civil rights workers

On Wednesday night, I made the trek up to Nashville to see a documentary, Freedom Summer, being shown as part of the Nashville Film Festival. As you might have guessed from the title, the film focuses on the Mississippi “Freedom Summer” Project of 1964, during which hundreds of college students from around the country poured into Mississippi under the auspices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to assist and encourage black Mississippians in attempting to register to vote. The registration effort led to the establishment of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an alternative integrated delegation of Mississippians who unsuccessfully attempted to replace the all-white official delegation. Freedom Summer gained national attention when three civil rights workers (James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner) disappeared while investigating a church burning in Neshoba County. Their bodies were later found buried 12 feet beneath an earthen dam. The story was dramatized for the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.*

Thursday night, I went up to Nashville again for a curator-led tour and roundtable discussion of the Tennessee State Museum’s new exhibit, Slaves and Slaveholders of Wessyngton Plantation.** The exhibit, which was two years in the making, is a close study of life and relationships on a 13,000-acre Robertson County tobacco plantation. It’s a great (and free) exhibit, and if you find yourself in Nashville before August 31, you should make a point of visiting. The event was organized by the Inter-museum Council of Nashville, so attendees included museum professionals, historians, and people in related fields, and we had a great conversation about the evolution of the exhibit and some of the challenges of interpreting the painful past. The Wessyngton Plantation story is unique in that nearly all of the plantation’s records from the antebellum period survive, including farm records that detail the involvement of the plantation mistress in both industry and punishment of slaves. The exhibit also features a math workbook that belonged to one of the Washington men, which includes word problems that talk about dividing workloads among overseers and slaves, showing how the institution of slavery shaped every aspect of the antebellum plantation world.

The exhibit tells complicated stories like that of Granville Washington (in the light vest), who was the unacknowledged son of his owner, George A. Washington. (via tnmuseum.org)

The exhibit tells complicated stories like that of Granville Washington (in the light vest), who was the unacknowledged son of his owner, George A. Washington. (via tnmuseum.org)

At the same time that these conversations were taking place, a friend sent me a link to this great video describing what’s going on in the Central African Republic. I love the vlogbrothers, and if you’re not familiar with them, you should remedy that maybe right now. Anyway, aside from the content, what really grabbed me about the video was the point John makes about how as Americans, we’re very attached to good vs. evil in our narratives, and that this is something that we both deliberately and subconsciously project onto our history. I also came across a good piece on History@Work (NCPH’s blog) about finding a balance between the need to tell a story that won’t put visitors off without backing away from hard truths.

The thread that pulled these various moments/experiences together for me was that tension between the need to be good historians who confront the truth in all its ugliness and good storytellers who can engage and entertain visitors. Sometimes we do this well, and other times we do it less well. For me, the success of the Wessyngton Plantation exhibit in presenting the lives of the enslaved people is that alongside accounts of punishments and a display case with neck shackles is the story of individuals who created their own lives and families within bondage. The exhibit does not fetishize the violence and brutality of slavery, nor does it try to paint a picture of happy slaves under a “good” master. It simply describes what was and leaves it to the visitor to make what he or she will of it.

I had more mixed feelings about Freedom Summer. While it was an excellent documentary, I found myself a little frustrated by the ending, which on the one hand connected rejection of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party with the rise of black separatism (yes!), but then on the other hand tied it to the success of the Voting Rights Act. Now, I agree that the Freedom Summer Project had an important impact on that legislation, but the connection with the material presented in the film felt like an afterthought–a need to tie a bow and put a “happily ever after” on a story that frankly didn’t need one. So much of the film focused on how the experience of Freedom Summer changed the way both the civil rights workers and the black Mississippians thought about themselves that tacking that connection on at the end felt awkward in an otherwise beautifully made film. The film would have been stronger overall if the creators had simply let the work speak for itself and left viewers to decide for themselves whether the ending was happy or not.

Exception: it is always correct to root for Arya Stark.

Exception: it is always correct to root for Arya Stark.

I think that sometimes as public historians we can fall victim to that desire to create a neat, tidy narrative arc with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and in particular, we want to end on an optimistic note. There’s nothing wrong with at impulse, and a huge part of our job is presenting content in accessible ways that encourage people to think critically. While I don’t have any great magic trick for solving that problem, I think it’s worth looking at pop culture for ideas. I think we’re at a really good moment in pop culture for engaging with complicated stories that go beyond the epic good vs. evil grand narrative of say, Lord of the Rings.*** There are popular shows with much more complicated stories that engage in much more complex narratives, shows like Mad Men where the characters do terrible things to each other and themselves and yet we still care about them, or Game of Thrones where good guys die, bad guys live, and it’s hard to find a hero(ine). While I’m not suggesting we pattern the history we present after these programs (both of those shows have serious issues with representations of people of color, for one thing, and we have enough trouble with that already), they point to a willingness of the public, or at least parts of it, to be entertained by and engaged with complicated stories and multidimensional characters. If people can (and do) follow along and be fascinated by complex characters like Don Draper and Varys, surely they can do the same for figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.

The way we think about and understand the past has a tremendous impact on how we think about and understand the present. Is emancipation a happy ending for enslaved people? Does the civil rights movement have a happy ending? Does it have an ending at all?


*Mississippi Burning is a problematic film in a lot of ways, not least of which is the passivity that characterizes all of its African American characters and the heroic role it assigns the FBI.

**Much of the research for this exhibit is based on the work of John F. Baker, Jr., who has published a book on the topic. Full disclosure: I have purchased the book, but not yet read it.

***I love LOTR, please don’t send me hate mail.