Two weeks ago, my husband and I stopped in Charlottesville, VA on our road trip through the South. We toured Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, visited the beautiful campus of the University of VA, and walked through Charlottesville’s historic downtown mall appreciating the architecture and the slower pace of the South.
Today, I look at the headlines and find it hard to believe what took place over the weekend in the town we found so charming and relaxed.
Hard to believe, but not impossible to believe because of what else we learned on our tour of the South.
For instance, it is well-known that Jefferson owned slaves and is believed to have fathered several children with one of his slaves. However, less known is our greatest Founding Father’s conviction that blacks were an intellectually inferior race, incapable of being full citizens. Despite being intelligent, worldly and well-read, Jefferson did not support the abolition of slavery rather he believed the only solution to slavery was to repatriate blacks to Africa.
In Memphis ― a city known as the black business capital during Reconstruction ― we drove through neighborhoods of abject poverty. Black neighborhoods. We also visited the National Civil Rights Museum located on the site of the hotel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. We spent three hours in this museum, but could easily have spent eight. The museum ― not Washington, DC with its monuments to white men like Jefferson who defined blacks as ⅗ of a human ― should be a required field trip for all middle schoolers.
We went to the museum to learn not only about civil rights history, but also to inform ourselves about our nation’s present troubles.
For starters, we learned about the transatlantic slave trade including the middle passage, and the millions of human beings who died during this forced migration; We learned that on the cusp of the Civil War, the U.S. had nearly four million slaves, human “property” worth more than $3 billion ― roughly $10 trillion today. The work of slaves created wealth ― not to mention tobacco and rum ― for the white man, and made possible America’s economic success and ascendancy on the world stage.
We were reminded that in 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that separate but equal ― they never were ― accommodations for blacks were constitutional allowing Jim Crow laws to flourish.
We learned that while the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed blacks the right to vote, southern states amended their state constitutions with requirements that African Americans, and many poor whites could not meet: literacy tests, poll taxes and grandfather clauses (If this doesn’t sound familiar, it should.) When these measures failed to keep Americans away from the ballot box, southern whites turned to violence. By 1940, only three percent of the South’s eligible blacks were registered to vote. And because registrars chose jurors from voter rolls, African Americans could not serve on juries making the scales of justice weighted totally against black citizens.
We learned about racial terrorism and lynching mobs in the South. We learned about church bombings and arson. Cross burnings and hate speech. We learned how the perpetrators of these crimes were rarely charged let alone convicted.
We learned that African Americans did not accept second-class treatment and they fought back, and kept at it until Jim Crow laws were off the books.
We learned about the psychology of segregation and how the “doll test” demonstrated that segregated schools created “a sense inferiority and self-hatred in black children.”
We learned that the history of the Civil Rights movement is populated with the stories of strong, intelligent, outspoken women including Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Septima Clark, Ida Wells, Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Marian Wright Edelman, and the domestic workers in Montgomery, AL who boycotted the segregated public transportation system and for months walked several miles to and from their jobs at the risk of being arrested for supporting an “illegal” boycott. Without their resolve, the boycott would have failed.
We learned of the sit-ins in Greensboro, NC and other cities throughout the South, and how more than 3,000 protesters were beaten in the process by angry whites.
We learned more than we were ever taught in school about CORE and SNCC, the Freedom Riders, the Nation of Islam and the Black Power movements. In the process, we received lessons in unspeakable courage, resilience, persistence, desperation, betrayal, and love for one’s fellow human being.
We learned about the March on Washington in 1963, the March on Selma and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and the Memphis sanitation strike in 1968 that led up to Martin Luther King’s assassination, a demise he had tragically predicted for himself.
So is Charlottesville a surprise? Not entirely. Not when we have a president who stokes the bigotry and hatred that has permeated the South for centuries; a president who offered to pay legal fees for those who attacked protesters at his rallies. A president who won’t disavow an endorsement of the former leader of the KKK, David Duke. A president who won’t call white supremacist terrorists our enemy, however, will call the free press our enemy and the intelligence community Nazis.
The sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, author, writer and editor W.E.B. DuBois wrote in 1903, “The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line.” It would appear the problem of the 21st Century is that same problem, for until we learn our history (then learn from it) we are destined to repeat it.