Archive for February, 2007


Looking Past Little Rock

As reported on CNN, a federal judge recently ruled that Little Rock’s school district has integrated and no longer requires federal supervision. Given that city’s well-documented past, this is a certainly a symbolic achievement and one that deserves praise. It gives hope that the process begun more than a half century ago was not in vain. It can, however, be overstated.

Although court rulings and legislation have done much to abolish segregation in schools over the past fifty years, it would be unwise to assume that segregation in schools has been eradicated. My own research in one rural Alabama county shows that, as recently as 2004, the public school system educates 1199 black students and exactly two whites, while a private school is home to 72 whites and 17 blacks.

The sample size is admittedly small, but it nevertheless shows that in some places, integration has been slow in coming—or has yet to arrive at all.


Beating Around the Bush

On Thursday, I interviewed a former headmaster of the all-white private school I’m researching. Although friendly, he seemed somewhat reluctant and told me early in the interview that because of his current position, he wouldn’t discuss anything controversial. He also said several times that he no longer had any connection with the school and knew very little about its history since he left. Needless to say, this made me question how valuable he would be as a source.

Thankfully, however, he did give me some good information, particularly about the organization of the school. For example, I had not realized that—in addition to tuition—parents paid to be voting members of the school’s governing foundation. In one of the poorest counties in the nation, this would seem to a strong commitment to segregated education on the part of the parents.

He, of course, made no mention of segregation. Instead he emphasized that the decision to enroll in a private school was a “choice” made by parents because they wanted control over their children’s educations. When I tried to determine what made the school uniquely attractive to such parents, however, he stated that on a day-to-day basis, the school operated much like any public school. This of course begs the question, “So why did parents feel it necessary to leave the public school system?” When I pressed him on that, he replied that parents “obviously” had concerns about the quality of education in the public school system. “And that’s where I have to be careful what I say to you.”

Given that the school is now integrated, I asked if there had been any black students enrolled during his tenure, and he said there hadn’t. But, he was quick to mention, it wasn’t because the school was in any way discriminatory. In fact, he had on numerous occasions spoken personally with members of other races who were interested in the school, and although everyone went through the same application process, no blacks had ever applied.

Oral history is obviously limited by the interviewee’s personal memory of the past—at several points during this interview, my subject said, “Gosh, I just can’t remember that far back”—but it is also limited by what the subject chooses to remember (or “disremember”). Perhaps there is no way to know for sure which—if any—of my subject’s answers were based on “selective memory,” but obviously some things don’t add up. This, I think, speaks volumes.


White History Month?

In a recent article from The Nation, Gary Younge asks, “Whatever happened to James Blake?” Blake is, of course, the bus driver whom Rosa Parks flatly disobeyed, unwittingly beginning Montgomery Bus Boycott and securing herself a place in history. Younge also asks about the fates of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant (the men who murdered Emmett Till) and Victoria Price and Ruby Bates (the women who falsely accused the Scottsboro Boys of rape, landing them in prison for years).

He argues that we need a month (a “White History Month”) to talk about these people and their impact on history. Black History Month only goes so far, he claims, because “so much of [it] takes place in the passive voice. Leaders ‘get assassinated,’ patrons ‘are refused’ service, women ‘are ejected’ from public transport. … In removing the instigators, the historians remove the agency and, in the final reckoning, the historical responsibility.” To some extent, this criticism is unfair. Black History Month is intended as a celebration of black history, not as a means assigning blame. But this, in and of itself, creates problems.

Nevertheless, Younge has an important point to make about collective responsibility. “When it comes to excelling at military conflict,” he claims, “everyone lays claim to their national identity; people will say, ‘We won World War II.’ By contrast, those who say ‘we’ raped black slaves, massacred Indians or excluded Jews from higher education are hard to come by.”

Here he hits the nail on the head: Americans do have problems accepting responsibility for the past. Younge laments the fact that Americans refuse to be held responsible “for what their ancestors did” or “the priveleges they enjoy as a result.” I tend to agree, but he misses one important point. What about those whose ancestors are legitimately innocent? As Matthew Frye Jacobson notes in concluding his 1998 book Whiteness of a Different Color, many members would-be “whites” now choose to identify primarily with their ethnic heritage, be it Irish or Italian, in an ostensible attempt to avoid the stigma of “white privilege.” Perhaps their ancestors owned no slaves—indeed, most southerners owned no slaves—but like it or not, this is a part of America’s racial heritage, and they cannot (and should not) run from it.

I would agree with Younge that we must relieve “the burden on African-Americans to recast the nation’s entire racial history in the shortest month of the year,” but a White History Month we do not need. Separating Rosa Parks’ story from James Blake’s does little good. No, what we need is a better way to incorporate our “separate pasts” year-round.

Instead of cordoning off Black History in February, we should discuss it every day. On the anniversary of Emmett Till’s death, we should discuss the actions of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant and what drove them to do what they did. On the anniversary of the Brown decision, we should discuss what it was and what it meant. And everyday, we should remove the passive voice from our discussions. Black history and white history have been created in conjunction with each other—we cannot pretend that they are separate without doing ourselves a great disservice.


My Own Southern Past(s)

Perhaps the logical place to begin a blog titled “Southern Pasts” is with a discussion of my own southern past. As I mentioned in the “about” section, I am a product of the late twentieth century South. Unlike medievalists or historians of distant lands, I study the time and place from which I come. Although my story does not seem particularly interesting, my roots perhaps do.

I was born in Alabama to parents who were born in Alabama. I’m not sure how far back this trend goes, but suffice it to say I am an Alabamian by birth. After moving out of the state at age four, I spent much of my childhood on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, surrounded by equally southern relatives.

When I was thirteen, my family moved north. Although I certainly didn’t realize it at the time, I think suburban Philadelphia is where I first became interested in the South and its history. As the only kid who said “y’all,” I felt very much the outsider—and I quickly shed most, if not all, markers of my southern culture. Stereotypes of the South were plentiful, and I wanted no part of them, so I consciously dropped whatever accent I had. I even affected a northern dialect, although not very successfully. Of course, I could never trade biscuits and gravy for bagels and lox, but I became—in short—a northerner.

My mother was quick to chastise me for “forgetting where I came from,” but as a teenager, I thought she was simply overreacting as usual. Of course, when I think back on this now, I can understand her feelings a bit better. She had spent her entire life—the better part of a half-century—in Alabama and Mississippi. The South was all she knew.

Her mother had grown up in rural Alabama, the daughter of sharecroppers, and had left during World War II to take advantage of the boom in southern war industries. She worked for a time at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which housed—unbeknownst to her, of course—one-third of the Manhattan Project, and later at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi, where she met my grandfather.

They were soon married, and after my grandfather left the Navy in the 1950s, he went to work for the Alabama Power Company, which brought electricity to a predominantly rural state. The family moved often from plant to plant, and as a child, my mother lived all over Alabama. At ten years old, she found herself in the middle of a civil rights demonstration when my grandfather unwittingly drove downtown on the day of a march. She remembers her class cheering when it was announced that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. And she graduated from a high school integrated by busing.

My grandmother’s sister witnessed George Wallace’s famed “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” firsthand and supposedly wielded an ice pick against Klan members who stopped her car as she drove her black maid home.

Of course, you might ask, how do these stories make up my own southern past? It’s a valid point. I would respond that while I am a part of none of them, each of them is a part of me. I grew up hearing these stories and wondering about the time when things like that happened, even as I lived in the place. This is why I study the history of the South. It is a place of great upheaval, and it is a place where things seemingly never change. The place today is in many ways no different from the rest of the country. Even with something of an outsider’s perspective, its pasts are my pasts, and so I attempt to understand it on its own terms, a goal which has frustrated generations of insiders and outsiders alike.

Currently Reading

Dennis Covington, Salvation on Sand Mountain