What I Did Not See in Tuskegee

I know there are those who insist that Confederate monuments do not make any political statements, but simply represent an innocent collective recognition of the self-sacrifice of fallen soldiers, and an attempt to preserve their memory. There was a time in my life when I might have been able to believe such a thing, a time when I failed to ask some pretty basic questions.

This is the Confederate monument in the town square in Tuskegee, Alabama. The Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers (and later, Tuskegee Institute, and ultimately Tuskegee University) would eventually become one of the country’s most important institutions for higher learning for African-Americans.

The Tuskegee Normal School was established in 1881. This monument was erected in 1906.

Monuments like his were put up all over the south, not simply so that we would remember the war dead. They were put up in public places like the town square in Tuskegee as reminders to African-Americans of their place in a white supremacist regime, and as a warning to them not to forget it.

We did not see this in 1997.

We visited Tuskegee briefly, ate lunch at Thomas Reed’s Chitlin House Chicken Coop, and then visited Booker T. Washington’s grave and the “Lifting the Veil” statue on the campus of the university. But that was about it. We missed the town of Tuskegee entirely.

Thomas Reed’s restaurant in Tuskegee in 1997.

This time was different. We approached from a different direction, from the east. But we also approached the city from a different angle this year, more attuned than we were twenty years ago to the ways the legacy of white supremacy is written into the landscape of places like Tuskegee.

We ate in Thomas Reed’s restaurant in 1997, but I did not think then to ask about who Thomas Reed was.

I later learned that Thomas Reed once vowed to climb up the State House in Montgomery and personally remove the Confederate battle flag flying atop the white dome. Apparently the flag went mysteriously missing the night before the planned coup, and was moved to the Confederate memorial on the north side of the Capitol. Turns out the episode landed Reed both in jail and in The New York Times.

On February 3, 1988, Reed and thirteen others attempted to scale an eight-foot chain-link fence around the Capitol and purloin the flag. They were held briefly and later released on $300 bond. Reed had made the removal of the flag a personal mission. “This is just the beginning,” he said at the time. Five years later, the flag was taken down from the cupola of the Capitol. A write-up in The Chicago Tribune at the time illustrates how the debate around the flag was framed thirty years ago. It concludes with the sentence: “But the flag’s supporters argue that removing the flag is tantamount to erasing history.”

It is not difficult to see now the subtext in such reportage. This was, for many years, the final word on the subject, and where most whites were keen to leave the matter.

But not Thomas Reed. By 1988, when Reed was President of the Alabama NAACP, he had been involved in state politics for over twenty years. In 1970, he and Fred Gray, a pioneering civil rights attorney from Montgomery, became the first African-Americans to serve in the Alabama legislature since Reconstruction. Photographs of Reed in the State Archives show him on the town square in Tuskegee in 1966, campaigning to a small crowd of mostly African-American men in fedoras, hands crossed, on hips, in pockets. He stands on the tailgate of a station wagon emblazoned with signs that say, THOMAS REED, THE MAN WE NEED.

The Room Where It Happened

I had been to Milledgeville a number of times before today, but it was never quite like today.

The first time I visited was in 1994. It was John’s first trip, too. We drove down from Winston-Salem to attend a conference on Flannery O’Connor at Georgia College. We had both taken a seminar on O’Connor recently with Ralph Wood, our professor at Wake Forest who was delivering a keynote at the conference, and the three of us took turns driving The Professor’s boxy blue Chevrolet Impala. It was our first exposure to the world in which O’Connor lived, but it was exposure at a distance: the farmhouse where O’Connor spent the last thirteen years of her life was not open to the public, and her scrupulously private mother, Regina, still lived in town at her house on Greene Street.

The conference was a big do, and really more like a festival. We attended a reception at the old Governor’s Mansion, heard readings by Joyce Carol Oates and Lee Smith, and a performance by Leo Kottke. Throughout the event an art exhibit displayed works inspired by O’Connor’s work and commissioned for the conference, including a striking series of abstract prints on “O’Connor’s Treelines” by an artist whose name we both forgot in the intervening years. But the images of some of those prints stuck with me: the sun shaped like a turnip slowly lowering over a jagged wall of pine, a purple sky deepening over a stylized scene of a farm in ruins.

Continue reading “The Room Where It Happened”

A Deeper South

Twenty-one years ago next month, Johnny Cash played Atlanta for the last time. John Hayes and I were in the audience that night in Chastain Park. The next morning, we left Atlanta in John’s 1977 Ford pickup bound, more or less, for New Orleans. We wanted to see the South that had produced Johnny Cash and Muddy Waters, Flannery O’Connor and Martin Luther King. The South that isn’t on the main tourist drag.

A deeper South.

It was August in a different era. Johnny Cash was still alive. We shot on 35mm Kodachrome transparencies and Ilford black and white film. We printed our own prints in hired-out darkrooms, mailed them off to Kodak or took them to local camera shops for processing. There was no Toyota Prius. We used pay phones. There was no GPS. We used maps.

The truck did not have air-conditioning. There were no cell phones, global positioning systems, We weren’t sure how we would get there, or where we would stay, or what we might see. We did not have much of a plan, but we did have a few rules:

1. No interstates; stick to back roads.
2. Camp in state parks and if necessary, the back of the truck. No hotels, unless absolutely necessary, in which case “hotel” should spelled with an “M”.
3. Take lots of pictures.

We had both grown up in Atlanta and attended the same private high school together, but neither of us had ever really seen the rest of the South. Since shortly after the Civil War, Atlanta made a name for itself by being forward-looking and sometimes deliberately dismissive of the past. We wanted to look backwards, at the landscapes that interstates had passed by, at towns that were being slowly drained of life by chain stores and shopping malls along the interstates, at the figures that we never got close enough to in high school to be shaken by.

We took four more trips in later years, and covered a lot of ground. We shot rolls and rolls of film and made various plans to publish them. We talked about doing another tour one day, but it never happened.

Until this year.

In three days, we are returning to the road. For two weeks we will retrace our steps from previous tours and light out into new territory. After years of becoming habituated to the convenience of digital photos, we will both be shooting film again (read my post from March about film vs. digital photography, “Truths Breathed through Silver”). The same rules apply, but this time there will be air-conditioning because it comes standard on a minivan. And also, duh.

The ethos of this trip is roughly seven parts old-school, analog, 78rpm, acoustic chemistry and one part new-school, digital, fiber-optic-speed electromagnetism. I will be posting regular updates on candler.ink, and you will be seeing more emails from me over the next few weeks. For more frequent updates and behind-the-scenes rough cuts from the road, follow us on Instagram (@adeepersouth), and be sure to tell your mom and them.

(And if you have a friend, neighbor, fishing buddy, yoga partner, or random stranger that you think would like to be on this list, please share this link with them: eepurl.com/cGmwc5)

You will be able to see these updates as they happen; wait a little longer and you will–Lord willing–be able to read the full account in print. An essay will appear in the fall, and later, a book will follow. The book is about how the South has changed over the course of our tours, but more about how we have changed with (or against) it. It is about what we did not look for and did not see the first (five) time(s) around, about the ways in which Southern memory is constructed and enacted publicly. And ultimately, it will be about the the subtle ways that selective cultural memory shapes private lives too, including our own.

My three most recent published essays for The Millions, The Christian Century and The Bitter Southerner reflect the direction this book has taken so far.

I hope you will follow along to see where it goes.