Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Claiming the South--and All of Its History

I had kind of a surreal moment in Forsyth Park the other day--one that is still on my mind. Forsyth Park is in historic Savannah, Georgia, just a few blocks from where I live--and right across the street from Savannah Law School, where I work.  I was walking by the large monument with the statue that is right in the middle of the park. There was a Black family taking pictures in front of the monument, and just as I walked pass them, one of them said to the others, "I wonder what this is."

I normally don't interfere in other people's family conversations, but I know full well what that monument is, and I had to tell them. So I got their attention and said bluntly, "It is a Confederate monument." I pointed to the inscription on the bust of Francis S. Bartow (which they were photographing), right where it says "Georgia Volunteers Confederate States Army." I thought of engaging them in further conversation, but they looked a bit stunned and embarrassed, and I did not want to exacerbate those feelings. They thanked me, and I walked away, feeling like I don't know what. I have many different thoughts about this stuff, and it has taken me a few days to process them.

Savannah has more than its fair share of Confederate landmarks, but what is interesting is how subtle there are. The statue in the middle of the monument in Forsyth Park is not a statue of Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee, but rather Major General Lafayette M. Laws. Neither he nor Bartow is someone that most people have heard of. I see tourists taking pictures of it all the time, and at first I presumed that they were celebrating the Confederacy. Over time, however, I have become convinced that they just see this nice statue (which it is) in the middle of the park and, like any other nice work of art, they take pictures in front of it.

Personally, I knew exactly what the monument was even before I moved to Savannah. I have walked by it hundreds of times, and literally every time, the thought has come in my head that it should be removed. But I also realize that like the tourists, I have walked by similar landmarks and even taken pictures of them without thinking much about it. Although one can usually find out by reading the inscriptions, most people don't do that. It seems that Savannah strives to keep these Confederate landmarks, but not to make them too conspicuous--lest they offend some of the many tourists who are always in the city. In my three plus years living in downtown and historic Savannah, rarely have I seen a Confederate flag--a much more obvious symbol of the Confederacy. There have been a few occasions, but far less than one might expect in a city where many are still resentful of General Sherman. 

There are plenty of other Confederate relics here that people might not be aware of. Right on Gwinnett and Drayton Streets, two blocks from Savannah Law School, there is a bed-n-breakfast called the Confederate House. It has rooms named after Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. According to its website, it was actually voted "the most romantic inn in Savannah" in 2013 by But unless you looked at the website or really paid attention, you would not know about it.

It may also be this type of subtlety that allows Savannah to thus far avoid the protests against racism that we are seeing in many other Southern cities. The prominent influence of SCAD--the Savannah College of Art and Design--is one of many factors that intersect with Savannah's history and make the city a unique and interesting confluence of cultures. But that same confluence also helps to mask Savannah's racist history.

I am glad to see that, in light of recent national events, people in the city are at least beginning to have a dialogue about these things.  Although the city of Savannah insists that only the state can rename bridges or order monuments to be removed, we need to start somewhere.  On Tuesday, September 5, there will be a free public forum to discuss renaming the Eugene Talmadge Bridge--which many say is the most prominent landmark in Savannah to be named after a reprehensible figure.  Talmadge was born after the Civil War, but he was a White supremacist and staunch segregationist Governor of Georgia in the late 1930s and early 1940s -- but yet another person that most visitors probably have not heard of.  Even if it does not lead directly to the renaming of the bridge or removal of Confederate monuments, this type of conversation can prompt people to recognize what is being displayed around them.

Nevertheless, there is another important point that I have to make--one that was on my mind even before these recent events. In spite of everything I said above, I do cringe when the first thing I hear out of Northerners' mouths is a diatribe about how racist the South is. One implication of such comments is that the North is somehow devoid of racism or at least less racist--a dubious proposition. Just because something is less visible does not mean it is less salient--as I pointed out above.

But even more importantly, when you view the South exclusively in terms of White supremacy, you are ignoring and erasing the struggle of Black people in the South--and thus using a White racist lens yourself. More Black people live here than anywhere else, and they are not an inconsequential part of the South's legacy. Remember that the struggle for racial equality began in the South and has deeper roots here than anywhere else in America. It was Black Southern civil rights leaders--national figures like Rev. Martin Luther King, and local leaders like Savannah's Rev. Ralph Mark Gilbert--who also define the South's history. Their legacy is as much a part of the South as is Jim Crow or the Confederacy. And as far as I am concerned, to forget the struggle of the Black South, or even to relegate it to the background, is to disrespect those who fought and died here for equal rights.  I realized this fully when I visited the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum in Savannah earlier this summer.  Everyone who visits Savannah should go to this museum, which documents an equally important part of the Savannah's history--and the South's history.  And when the Confederate monument in Forsyth Park finally does come down, we should put up a statue of Ralph Mark Gilbert in its place.

I am glad that cities across the South are beginning to acknowledge its racist history and the legacy of White supremacy that is still with us. My experience at Forsyth Park the other day shows just how important this acknowledgment is. But let us not forget the struggle of the Black South against such White supremacy--a struggle which continues to this day, and which is the very impetus that is leading us to have these conversations and take these actions right now.

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