Just sixteen years after doubling in size through the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from France, the United States threatened to splinter apart when residents of Missouri, a section along the eastern edge of the newly purchased lands, applied for statehood. Many of these settlers had migrated from slave states, bringing the practice with them, and accordingly, accepting their application to become the 23rd member of the union would upset the political balance, shifting Congressional power to favor the then-more numerous pro-slavery states. A compromise held the union together, but it was a choleric peace that could not survive as ongoing westward expansion fused migrants from slave and free states together in new lands, precipitating new clashes.
Here, of all places, God revealed to Joseph Smith, leader of a new sect known colloquially as “Mormons,” was His chosen site for the holy city of Zion. In Jackson County on the western frontier, the Lord intended them to build a temple with a central public square surrounded by residential lots for the faithful to serve as their mecca. It would be a refuge (amidst slavery) — a place for the downtrodden to worship and find peace, and in 1831, the saints, remarkably, began to come. From free states farther east, they left lives and familiar homes to bravely make the journey to a place already scarred by divisiveness and a people distrustful of abolitionism. It was a great flood of hundreds that swelled to thousands in a few short years.
The Mormon migrants’ numbers gave them immediate political standing; in a republic, a sudden majority overwhelms. United in philosophy and purpose, they voted in blocs and restricted their trade for the benefit of their members. They could affect the political landscape in their communities courtesy of their numerous ballots, and they thrived economically through their exclusive commercial network. Their pilgrimage appeared blessed.
However, their power naturally alienated and dismayed the “old settlers” already established there, who found their status upended in short time. Those who had pushed for statehood and pioneered the territory feared they would lose their political voice — and most especially, the reality that they might be powerless to defend slavery against this overwhelming influx of free-staters presented a looming threat.
So, non-Mormons took to harassing sect members and vandalizing their property, in an effort to scare them out, and fear prompted the saints to do other than turn the other cheek. Shortly, the hostilities escalated to armed clashes. Local law enforcement and the state militia provided no security, so the Mormons organized their own paramilitary groups to patrol and protect. Still, they were driven from one county to another — none of which stemmed the intimidating growth of their population.
For seven years, their resisted migration to the Promised Land continued, despite the violence and terrorism, but in August, 1838, anti-democratic forces finally had their way. In Daviess County, a group of non-Mormons forcibly prevented members of the sect from voting, and this time, when fighting broke out, the state militia did respond — only it was to have tragic consequences for the Mormons.
A riotous “war” erupted — engagement by raid, arson, theft and violence. Both sides did harm in turn (though the majority of the fatalities were Mormon), but the negative reports that reached Gov. Lilburn Boggs decried the Mormons particularly. Boggs issued an order to the militia: run them out of state or “exterminate” them. The intervention of Brigadier General Alexander Doniphan prevented any mass killing, but the Mormons (numbering some 8,000 then by estimates) were driven to Illinois — uncompensated for the property, livelihoods, and lost loved ones they left behind.
After the failure of their first Zion, the Mormons would again attempt to build a religious oasis, but they would be no more welcomed by the established citizenry in the free state than they had by their old pro-slavery neighbors. Yet, the saints persisted — as did their paramilitary tradition. Whatever their fears, they were not to be intimidated or dissuaded from their convictions, and because of theirs, the non-Mormon members of these communities would betray democratic principles and resort to violence to resist the influx. For both, the gun was a greater comfort than the law; for neither was it a healing, reassuring balm.
Students prepping for the AP US History exam can study up on terms with flashcards that remind them we refer to “natives in the way of westward expansion and [who] were working with [the B]ritish” as “the Indian Menace.” While this handy phrase neatly packages three hundred years of conquest into shorthand that is sure to please the Oklahoma legislature and Texas textbook approvers, it fails completely at recognizing the violence and cruelty that white settlers and leaders embraced to eradicate the presence of Native Americans in the pursuit of land. What’s more, it obfuscates the ways that white Americans exacerbated tensions with the original inhabitants and the illogicality of making war out of fear, when diplomacy and cooperation were available options.
In 1808, brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatwa founded Prophetstown (IN), soon to become the capital of a far-flung Indian confederacy. Tenskwatwa preached a return to traditional ways and rejection of white culture, while Tecumseh built military alliances between various nations in hope of creating a united defense that could effect what individual tribes could not. The new league was a kind of large-scale successor to the Iroquois Confederacy, which, after serving as pre-eminent military power on the continent for a good century, split when the members took opposing sides in the American Revolution. By that time, the Indian nations had nearly two hundred years of experience with fighting colonists.
When English settlers began moving into western Pennsylvania and what would later become Ohio and the Old Northwest, they ran into French forts built to serve as commercial stations as well as military outposts, in order to facilitate trade with their Indian partners. Dueling land claims would lead to the French and Indian War, pitting the English and their Native American allies against the residents and friends of New France. When the French abandoned their claim after the war, Pontiac, an Ottawa leader, continued the fight with a modest coalition mostly comprised of former French allies. The British bested them, but the Crown issued the Proclamation of 1763 to ease hostilities and lessen the need for armed conflict (and commitment of resources) in the future. Under this order, English colonists were prohibited from moving further west into Indian-held lands.
Of course, this restriction helped fuel the coming revolution. Settlers continued to move west, perpetuating clashes with Indian inhabitants. The “Indian Menace” (really, Native Americans’ armed resistance to settlers overtaking their homelands) then became a primary concern in western communities — as did British refusal to take up for the colonial drive to expand into the continent. Although the subsequent revolution broke the Iroquois Confederacy apart, in addition to ties with Great Britain, that didn’t mean peace, especially with other Native American tribes. Ongoing conflict was part of frontier life, and the Indian nations often got the upper hand — as when the Shawnee won the Battle of Fallen Timber in 1794. Land concessions and migration further west to avoid further engagements made Native Americans bitter but still no safer from Anglo encroachment.
By the early years of the 19th century, then, Tecumseh and Tenskwatwa found willing listeners when they urged the Indian nations to cooperate in order to present a united military front against the new American republic. Indeed, they were so successful that white settlers feared the nation’s survival (at least the western portion), if the pan-Indian alliance was fully realized. Acting preemptively, Governor William Henry Harrison of the Indiana Territory led an attack on the brothers’ base in 1811. Harrison and his men destroyed it in Tecumseh’s absence, but rather than break the confederacy in its youth, the attack only led to increasing violence and bloodshed thereafter.
During this time, many Indian groups remained trading partners with the British, who supplied them guns and ammunition. Sentiment in the US laid much of the blame for the ongoing fighting with the British then. A Congress slow to respond to public feeling witnessed a purge, as voters replaced a number of incumbents with representatives more willing to escalate the governmental response. Shortly, the country was at war with the Indians and their British allies again with the War of 1812, the resolution of which brought a final end to hostilities with the old country but did nothing to stop Indian resistance to the never-ending Staters’ encroachment.
Rather than focus on mutually-beneficial trade alliances and forgo further expansion of settlements as a way of avoiding more bloodshed and building cooperative commercial networks as the French and then British did with the various Native American nations, the US opted to pursue another century of war instead. By the 1830’s, the US controlled the lands east of the Mississippi, removing the Indian nations to less desirable and foreign places west. The costs — in money, lives, and betrayal of the principles enshrined in the Constitution — were great. As the country continued to sprawl west and removal was no longer physically possible, extermination, eradication, and then assimilation became official policy. Staters’ fear of the threat to their presence and sense of entitlement to the lands of the continent by an Indian “menace” became an unrelentingly cruel, violent peril to the Native Americans’ lives and culture. Of course, we still describe this in terms of white fear instead of aggression, even today.
Even before the uprising in Stono, whites in South Carolina feared a slave revolt. They considered their vulnerability, and in light of that, the legislature passed the Security Act in August of 1739. The law required white men to carry weapons even on their Sunday religious outings, contrary to the practice of the time. Before the penalties of the law went into effect, however, slaves made their Lord’s Day revolt — only to be suppressed violently through extralegal means. In the aftermath, the legislature dealt harshly in punishing the innocent slave population, but — interestingly — it also took steps then to curtail the sovereignty of slave owners too with the passage of the Negro Act of 1740.
“And for the better keeping slaves in due order and subjection, Be it further enacted…That no person whatsoever shall permit or suffer any slave under his or their care or management, and who lives or is employed in Charlestown, or any other town in this Province, to go out of the limits of the said town, or any such slave who lives in the country, to go out of the plantation to which such slave belongs, or in which plantation such slave is usually employed, without a letter…”
Controlling the local slave population likewise required controlling their white owners. Whether slave-owners wished to or not — and whether they were literate or not — the State forced them to track and restrict the freedom of movement of their slaves and provide written passes authorizing their travel. Were owners inclined to be lax about minding their slaves or willing to allow them to wander freely (perhaps to pay Sunday visits to neighboring sites on their day of rest) or simply averse to bothering to make a record of their desire for their slave representatives to run errands on their behalf, they would no longer have the freedom of their prerogative on that. In other words, fear of revolt from black slaves drove whites to also regulate each other and curtail the rights of free citizens to use their “property” as they saw fit. Oppression of the slaves required coercion of the oppressing class as well.
“And whereas, the having of slaves taught to write, or suffering them to be employed in writing, may be attended with great inconveniences; Be it therefore enacted…That all and every person and persons whatsoever, who shall hereinafter teach or cause any slave or slaves to be taught, to write…shall, for every such offense, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds current money.”
After the uprising, fear of a recurrence led to greater restrictions on white owners, but it also forced them into additional injustices towards their slaves. Prohibiting whites from educating their slaves certainly denied owners full use of their resources and the opportunity to develop their industries to their utmost. Worse, it compelled them to further dehumanize their black captives. The price of preventing written communication between slaves and opportunities for them to pursue their freedom in coordination with one another was denying them also the wonder of knowledge and intellectual growth. The natural consequence of that was to further degrade slaves and set a pattern for education in black communities that lingers still today. Thus, this law, under penalty of £100, promoted white collusion to bring even greater injustice upon innocent black Americans.
“And whatsoever master, owner or overseer shall permit or suffer his or their Negro or other slave or slaves…to beat drums, blow horns, or use any other loud instruments or whosoever shall suffer and countenance any public meeting or feastings of strange Negroes or slaves in their plantations, shall forfeit ten pounds, current money, for every such offence…”
Slave-owners were not only bound to deny their slaves opportunity for intellectual growth; they were also obliged to silence their sounds of joy, creativity, and communication. By law, masters could not permit either their association with other blacks. Hospitality and sociability became illegal acts for slaves; public celebrations and pulsing, blaring, sounding vociferance, more humanity denied them by the rule of law — and not just the whim or inclination of an individual cruel owner. The law bound whites together to a code of oppression, and it became, then, systemic.
“…and for every scalp of a grown Negro slave with the two ears, taken on the south side of St. John’s river, the sum of fifty pounds.”
Lastly, after forcing the cooperation of whites to further denigrate the humanity they might be willing to grant their slaves by denying them movement, sound, reading and opportunities to assemble and to curtail the rights of owners themselves, the law made citizens mercenaries as well. It granted license to any white person to capture, kill and scalp blacks running for their freedom and offered a bounty to entice them to do it. It was not the duty of the State alone — or even the chore of the slave-owner himself — to control slaves then. White colonists were enlisted to police the slave population (even if they were not slave-owners themselves), making all complicit in the subjugation of another race and enforcers of the systemic oppression. That they may not have used this license did not remove them from the conspiracy. Desired or not, they were coerced into the bond of white privilege by the law, and their trepidation drove the alliance, forever tying peace and order to group oppression of an intentionally dehumanized and handicapped class of people for the benefit of free labor.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth…
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
And sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread…
– Kindness, Naomi Shihab Nye
When the reinforced concrete presence of the supreme authority in your world literally explodes, and the streets are littered with the life work of civil servants made bureaucratic ash and coated in the blood of children, and the chaos and confusion of not understanding the incomprehensible outcome of violence and rage leaves a whole people in stunned immobility — staring unceasingly at live feeds of the heart-breaking mundanity of combing through rubble — you meet an evil you did not know existed before. Worse, you come to share a sorrow so big that it engulfs your family, your neighbors, your communities, and all within your state. There is a mass mourning; for 30 days, everywhere you go you are part of a funeral procession — but it’s a wandering cavalcade with no destination. There is a ground zero but no terminus. Grief radiates; it dissipates rather than ends.
In the aftermath, we performed public and private rites to express our grief and kept vigils in honor of those we grieved. We still meet together and speak the names of the victims, light candles, and share comfort. Every year, on this date, we relive a little and mark the event. We examine our scars. The tears come easily and it’s been now twenty years.
We participate in these rituals, which do the very thing the terrorist hoped to destroy: they bind us together and inspire us to do good for one another. In a rush, we gave of our money, our time, and our tears. Later, we left tributes and tokens in the fence that became the first, makeshift memorial. After two decades, we have a space dedicated to encouraging peace and reflection that brings beauty to the ugly, horrible act. We go there to walk among the chairs, large and small, and to inhabit a horrific minute suspended serenely in a still pool.
Most importantly, we commit to doing acts of service, kindness, or remembrance in honor of those lost and the sacrifices made in that dark time. Keeping alive what the Memorial calls the “tenderness of the response” to the bombing is our way of honoring, sanctifying, and amending the tragedy. To do these solemn good acts is to give no place to terrorism. The antidote to fear and hate is generosity of spirit. This, too, radiates into the world; like grief, its effect also has no end.
The bomb blast killed many, but the aftermath inspired so many more. We consciously choose to do good in the world because it’s our way of responding to the bad. You cannot undo cruel acts, but we can make sure they do not undo us. With kindness and generosity, we can turn tragedy into a motivation that unites and inspires us to be better. In our confusion and grief, it was the thing we just knew to do.
“And be it enacted…That all Negroes and Indians…mulattoes or mustizoes who now are, or shall hereafter be, in this Province, and all their issue and offspring, born or to be born, shall be…and remain forever hereafter, absolute slaves..and it shall be always presumed that every Negro, Indian, mulatto, and mustizo, is a slave…”
On the Lord’s Day, September 9, 1739, as their white owners observed their regular Sabbath routines, twenty slaves met down at the Stono River outside Charleston, South Carolina — the beginning of a failed American Revolution. It wasn’t the first slave rebellion in the English colonies, and it wouldn’t be the last (there were some 250 that we know of) — but it was bloody and, in a place where black slaves outnumbered white citizens, fear of a recurrence drove English citizens, steeped in their Bill of Rights and republicanism, to solidify control over their involuntary “workforce” through the mechanism of law afterwards.
By the time of the law’s passage, the approximately sixty rebels involved in the Stono uprising had been hunted down and killed — the right to trial (for the deaths of about twenty whites during the revolt) and access to the judiciary denied them. In May of 1740, however, the state legislature moved to punish too those slaves who had not participated, preemptively, and cruelly. It declared them “absolute” in their enslavement — a legal status that would extend beyond their lifetimes to include those of every one of their line after them.
“And be it further enacted…That it shall not be lawful for any slave, unless in the presence of some white person, to carry or make use of fire arms, or any offensive weapons whatsoever, unless such Negro or slave shall have a ticket or license, in writing, from his master, mistress or overseer, to hunt and kill game, cattle, or mischievous birds, or beasts of prey…”
That the Negro Act of 1740 also prohibited slaves from independently possessing guns and other weapons does not surprise. It seems a rational response — necessary to the forced suppression of unwilling people. The Act did not stop there, however. It went much further, assuring systemic impediments would prevent black Americans from obtaining a measure of material opportunity (if not legal parity) and dignity within the bounds of enslavement as well. The most fundamental example of this was the requirement that slaves carry passes — to move about, to indicate the legality of their presence and actions (as in carrying a weapon), and to tie them always to the permission of white prerogatives. Making them dependent on the will of their masters and governmental agents was not solely a security measure, however. It served also to deny them the humanity that comes with having free will.
“And whereas, several owners of slaves have permitted them to keep canoes, and to breed and raise horses, neat cattle and hogs, and to traffic and barter in several parts of this Province…Be it therefore enacted by the authority aforesaid, That it shall not be lawful for any slave so to buy, sell, trade, traffic, deal, or barter for any goods or commodities…”
In the same vein, the Act’s prohibition against self-employment for slaves both economically handicapped them — assuring they could enjoy no higher standard of living than that for which they were dependent on their white masters’ largesse — and denied them the opportunity to interact with other slaves through commercial networks. It divided and impoverished them, intentionally, and it also eliminated the possibility of negotiating their personal economic opportunities with local whites, who might consider them individually and on their merits. The law dictated a uniform dependent economic station for all slaves instead — a restriction designed to depress them, not simply minimize the threat of rebellion.
“And whereas, many of the slaves in this Province wear clothes much above the condition of slaves..For the prevention, therefore, of such practices for the future, Be it enacted…That no owner or proprietor of any Negro slave, or other slave, (except livery men and boys,) shall permit or suffer such Negro or other slave, to have or wear any sort of apparel whatsoever, finer, other, or greater value than Negro cloth, duffels, kerseys, osnabrigs, blue linen, check linen or coarse garlix, or calicoes, checked cottons, or Scotch plaids…”
Made defenseless and impoverished, the South Carolina Legislature also acted to further demean the surviving slaves — and those for generations forward — in denying them even a choice of clothing. In an age when deference guided social conventions, slaves were bound to wear the clothes of a lower caste, even over the skin that legally already condemned them. It was insult added to injury to restrict their dress after decreeing their color a presumption of their slave status. Always, within the boundaries of South Carolina, they would be judged on sight — by the color of their skin and by the fabric of their clothing. The law here again denied them the chance to be individual — to express themselves freely through fashion or to give an appearance that suggested pride or identification other than that determined for them by white citizens.
“And whereas, many disobedient and evil minded Negroes and other slaves, being the property of his Majesty’s subjects of this Province, have lately deserted the service of their owners, and have fled to St. Augustine and other places in Florida, in hopes of being there received and protected; and whereas, many other slaves have attempted to follow the same evil and pernicious example…”
Finally, lest the slaves attempt to free themselves non-violently from their impoverished and humiliated condition — to reject the social contract of their State — the law established means for preventing escape and punishing runaways for fleeing. Though the Spanish (with whom the English were then at war) hardly offered true equality to those who sought freedom, it was natural that — hearing promises enticing them to abandon their masters for Florida — slaves would desperately seize on a hope for liberty, and life, and to perhaps pursue entrepreneurship, fashion, society — that is, happiness — in some place beyond the reach of their masters’ new law. How else to escape the cruelty and meanness of their masters’ vengeance and the obsessive rule of their fear?
It begins with slavery, of course — and religion. Samuel Parris, a Puritan and early English colonist, turned to the ministry for a more regular income than that offered by his efforts at trade and his sugar plantation in Barbados (an inheritance). Ironically, the parish of Salem Village, whose pulpit Parris assumed in 1689, had a history of failing to compensate its ministers as agreed, and the same would happen with Parris in the end. The promise of pay brought him to the unchartered burg, however, and with him came his wife and family — and their slaves, Tituba and John.
In 1692, Parris’ daughter and niece began having “fits,” and the family could not account for the bizarre behavior. When it persisted for a few weeks despite watchfulness and prayer, the family sent for the local doctor to consult. His diagnosis: possible bewitching. Under questioning, the girls accused Tituba of witchcraft, blaming her for their enchantment — as assisted by local outcasts, Sarahs Osborne and Good. At the charge, the just Reverend Parris beat his slave, inducing her to confess to practicing witchcraft, signing the “Devil’s Book,” flying, and assaulting the girls. Under duress, Tituba confirmed Osborne and Good as her co-conspirators and claimed that there were others involved in a plot by the Devil against the colony. Fear of Satan, black magic, and a conspiracy of witches flooded Massachusetts Bay. Tituba was jailed and later sold away, while Good was hung and Osborne died awaiting trial. By then, however, more persons had begun to display signs of being “afflicted” and named other colonists as their persecutors. Instances of false witness burgeoned into a judicial rampage.
In the end, more than 150 persons were imprisoned and 22 died — either by hanging, torture, or poor conditions while in jail awaiting prosecution after being accused. Some were excommunicated from their churches and two fled the colony until the hysteria passed. Many were harassed or tortured into confessing, while those who adamantly maintained their innocence were convicted and executed. As fall began to wane, however, Governor Phips — returning from a military expedition against the Indians and finding that his own wife had been accused — suspended all trials, and the furor too started to ebb.
In May of the following year, Phips released the remaining accused, as popular opinion shifted against the witch hunts. Reverend Parris admitted that he might “have been mistaken” in his position, while some accusers recanted their claims. Much later, jurors, a judge and one of the alleged victims would publicly regret their involvement in the injustice. A penitent colony held a Day of Repentance in 1697 for what had occurred, and in 1702, the trials were declared “unlawful” after the fact. Beginning in 1711, the colony undertook restitution to the falsely accused and their survivors. The names of the condemned were cleared, and memorials were made to those sacrificed to fear, hatred, and panic.
“IN MEMORY OF THOSE INNOCENTS WHO DIED DURING THE SALEM VILLAGE WITCHCRAFT HYSTERIA OF 1692″
These words adorn the front of a stone monument erected in 1992 for historically-minded tourists who come to visit still today for the town’s infamy. After perusing the memorial’s inscriptions, visitors can walk the well-kept grounds of the demolished parsonage, where the marker tells us Tituba told the children tales of witchcraft, and wander the old cemetery, where they can read the poem Parris wrote to his wife inscribed on her tombstone:
Sleep precious Dust no Stranger now to Rest.
Thou hast thy longed wish in Abrahams Brest.
Farewell best Wife, choice Mother, Neighbour, Friend.
Weel wail the less for hopes of Thee i th End.
Thou hast thy longed wish in Abrahams Brest.
Farewell best Wife, choice Mother, Neighbour, Friend.
Weel wail the less for hopes of Thee i th End.
Tituba, of course, is not honored with the town’s victims, in the cemetery, or at any of the other local sites, and she received no restitution for her imprisonment. Her ending is unknown.
I am always amused when Staters describe our citizenry as “people of faith” — in part because faith, per the Good Book, is supposed to overcome fear. Judging Staters on their responses to fearful situations or on acts indicative of their faith in themselves and the American Way to overcome doesn’t always suggest a people of confidence — more a community of doubt.
Looking back at our history, we can see that we have often been motivated by fear and that this has shaped the choices we’ve made — even as we see ourselves as a proud, powerful nation. Ours is a superpower that acts repeatedly in panic and alarm. One could argue that we are the perfect foil for terrorism; it’s almost Pavlovian the way our country behaves in the face of the pettiest of threats at times (much less when the situation warrants true concern). We don’t even seem to recognize the disconnect between the ways we act and the words we use to describe ourselves either. We may swear that these colors don’t run, but they don’t hesitate to pass discriminatory laws or voluntarily surrender our rights in a panic just the same.
The Ebola epidemic, which has dominated headlines in the US for months and for which Congress recently appropriated $5.4 billion to fight after it claimed the life of one citizen, is the most recent example (and don’t kid yourself that Staters were eager to drop that kind of coin out of pure humanitarianism) — but it’s probably not the most egregious act. Certainly, we’ve spent far more of our tax money on and expanded governmental powers to combat other threats before. Robert Wiebe brilliantly described how the Progressives, driven by fear of immigrants, the poor, and those of other races (in combination with social and economic upheavals), created new mechanisms of control in the early 20th century in response to their anxieties about the disorder around them. I think it wrong to see this exclusively as a Progressive trait or a temporary abnormality in outlook. I think it American — though I’m not sure we are exceptional in this.
As a writing project for this year, I’m going to dedicate my blog posts to recounting some of the stories of how we have responded to and acted out of fear in the past. Each month, I’m going to cover another example from our history that illustrates the effects of our fright and the things dread has prodded us to do. Hopefully, these stories will be illustrative as much as embarrassing and entertaining. Truthfully, there has been a boldness to our fearful acts at times, and we hardly seem to fear what our fears make us. In that, perhaps a sense of consciousness is the least we fear and the most interesting thing about American anxiety.
There’s a natural but unsettling feeling of not-belonging that comes with being in a new place. Nothing gives you a sense of the familiar — not the street leading to your new “home,” not the local pub, and most certainly not the faces of the strangers all around you. You are a visitor or a transplant. You are a stranger.
I left a place I know, and by “know” I mean I have a history there — and I am familiar with its history beyond me. I came to know it through my time and experience there. Temporality of knowing is fundamental to the human condition. We must have time with something — with a place, with people — in order to know it or them. Experience is the only way to get beyond the instantly observable. That is, to have a conscious understanding of something.
Can I navigate this new place? Yes, with difficulty. I get lost. I look things up. I have to ask for help. With tools, I can be functional here, but I do not know it. I don’t understand the signs in the windows of houses I pass or the unfamiliar traffic patterns or the beer selections.
In time I will. If I stay, I will know these things — and the more serious history and aspects of the place too. I can come to understand the socio-economic conditions, the culture, the habits and mores of the folks here. Now, I guess at it, but I can come to have such an awareness of it that I take its familiarity for granted. Then I will have a history here.
There’s no getting around it: belonging — knowing — requires historical experience. Making history here will take some time. Until then…
”The whole family hadn’t one member buried here. Everybody was
on the surface of the country, flat on his feet, selling watermelons,
or plowing a row of vines.
We were in Fresno, but we were nowhere, too. How could we really
be in a place until death had caught up with one of us, and we had
buried him and knew he was there?”
– William Saroyan, “Madness in the Family”
White residents fled Charleston, South Carolina in droves as the Union army approached in mid-February, 1865. In short order, the city population became overwhelmingly black, due to the white flight, and in the months following, the free black population began determining what their post-war life would be like. They sought out displaced kinfolk, hoping first to restore their families, which had been divided by slavery. Like other southerners, they also struggled to find means to obtain food and shelter in a devastated economy. And, too, they celebrated their freedom and the death of the Confederacy with tears and gladness.
Amidst this battle for survival and their eruptions of celebration and joy, black residents also honored those who died in the cause of bringing them freedom. During the war, the plantation class’ old playground — the Washington Race Course, a track operated by the South Carolina Jockey Club in Charleston — was transcripted to serve as a prison for Union POW’s. The dying Confederacy had neither the means nor the drive to provide decent detention conditions at the end. In the cold winter months of December, January, and early February, a great many of the prisoners died from exposure and poor care; others died from disease. All told, 257 of the more than 2,000 kept there did not survive. Their bodies were unceremoniously dumped into a mass grave behind the fine Grandstand — abandoned by the fleeing Confederate army as Union forces neared. But, local black citizens did not forget them. Even as they struggled to feed their families and build new lives, they stopped to dig up the remains and rebury them properly on the grounds. The graves were marked, and over the new cemetery, an arch was erected with “Martyrs of the Race Course” emblazoned on it to signify the sacredness of the site.
On May 1st, black Charlestonians gathered — with white sympathizers — in the thousands to pay tribute to these fallen soldiers. Three thousand children led the procession singing tribute to another white martyr of the cause:
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
But his soul goes marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
His soul goes marching on.
The parade continued with the singing of spirituals and the Star-Spangled Banner. Women followed the children in — their arms full with wreaths and crosses to place on the graves. Behind them rows of free black men marched in time, followed by Union troops and various other local residents — white and black — who brought up the rear. After the grand entrance, local ministers conducted a dedication service, and then the celebrants ate picnics while soldiers drilled for their entertainment. Some 10,000 people — mourners and friends, the paper called them — participated in the day’s events.
A year later, white ladies in the South appropriated this remembrance. In April and May of 1866, they held “Decoration Day” ceremonies — this time to honor Confederate soldiers lost to the Lost Cause. White South Carolinians then also laid wreaths on graves and held solemn services to remember the dead — not the Union soldiers their black peers celebrated the year before, but the white men who died to preserve the old slave system. These remembrance activities, in turn, inspired northerners to emulate the practice a couple of years later. Northern celebrations, however, were more likely to include singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe’s appropriation of John Brown’s Body, than the original that was sung by the black children of Charleston in 1865. In the south, the anniversary of General Johnston’s surrender to General Sherman and Jefferson Davis’ birthday were common Decoration Day dates — but in South Carolina, it was marked on May 10th, Stonewall Jackson’s birthday. In 1971, Congress legislated a national Memorial Day celebration on the last Monday in May, but Confederate Memorial Days persist in states around the south on traditional days of remembrance.
Later in the nineteenth century, the cemetery of the martyrs in Charleston was similarly appropriated. The bodies were ultimately moved to a federal site in Beaufort, South Carolina, and the old race track repurposed into a city park. It was renamed for Wade Hampton — a Confederate general and post-war governor of South Carolina who helped “redeem” the state for white Democrats. Hampton’s own redemption led to political prominence; later in the century, he even served as Railroad Commissioner for the US government, appointed by Grover Cleveland. Now named for one who helped free the state from northern control, the racetrack-turned-burial-site was “redeemed,” too, and remade into a public space that again offered recreation for generations of white Charlestonians under segregation and the Hampton banner.
When the race track was dissembled in 1903, scions of Charleston society gifted the old gates from its entrance to industrialist August Belmont. Belmont, of course, built the race track in New York that bears his name. His was a new private recreational site where the great monied set could indulge in sport and fashion, and the membership was unparalleled in its wealth and power. Those gates that once welcomed the old slave-owning aristocracy of Charleston then greeted the new industrial aristocrats: the Vanderbilts, DuPonts, et al. The gates, and with them the legacy of antebellum leisure made possible by slavery, were thus appropriated as well then. New money and a new system of legal segregation built on the remnants of antebellum wealth and privilege created a modern social structure also based on race and class.
Very soon, thousands of attendees will stream past those very race course gates to attend the Belmont Stakes. They will be eager for the possibility of another historic Triple Crown win. Just a week after South Carolina observed its most recent Confederate Memorial Day, a Derby winner also took the Preakness — another product of the new money aristocracy’s supplanting of the slave-owning class, giving form to Crown hopes at Belmont. Before then, however, we will mark our annual remembrance of those lost in war — with appeals to patriotism and celebrations of militarism throughout our country. We do this because we remember the martyrs to the causes (and especially the more recent causes), but we want to forget The Cause and those grateful people who benefited from its success — but then lost much of the freedom for which the martyrs had given their lives. It has all been appropriated into sport and recreational spaces and white privilege and biased history now. This is the course of race in America: past privilege seeds new privilege and the legacies go marching on.
Trooper Charles Hanger was patrolling the I-35 corridor in north-central Oklahoma on the morning of April 19, 1995, stopping to help a stranded motorist and then heading north on a call to aid another when he noticed a yellow Mercury sedan without a tag. Hanger signaled for the car to pull over, and the driver complied. The two men got out of their vehicles and met between them. The trooper testified later that he questioned the man about the missing tag, and the driver said that he had recently bought the car and had not yet obtained a tag for it. It seemed a routine stop, until Hanger noticed a bulge under the driver’s windbreaker. He instructed the man to unzip his jacket and open it. Before being discovered, the man volunteered: “I have a gun.”
The trooper immediately pulled his gun and aimed at the driver’s head. He took the weapon from the man and tossed it away. Hanger asked why he was carrying the weapon, and the man, now splayed against the car, responded that he thought he needed it for protection. The trooper handcuffed the driver and read him his Miranda rights. Thereafter, with little conversation between them as they sat side-by-side in the front of the patrol car, they made their way to the jail in Perry, Oklahoma. The man’s only concern, the trooper said later, was that he should have his gun returned to him. At the county jail, the driver — Timothy McVeigh — was booked for transporting a loaded firearm in a vehicle, unlawfully carrying a weapon, and failure to obtain a tag and insurance on the car. In the subsequent two days leading up to his court hearing on these charges, federal agents were able to identify McVeigh as the man responsible for the Murrah Building bombing in Oklahoma City and locate him waiting in the county jail.
Normally, failure to display a tag and carry proof of insurance are not violations for which one is arrested. These are just misdemeanor charges under the Oklahoma Statutes, and a car isn’t even impounded during stops based on these infractions, usually. Instead, one is simply ticketed/fined and, perhaps, denied driving privileges for a period of time later (although a conviction can warrant a brief jail sentence, which is not common in practice). Since McVeigh was carrying a loaded weapon, however, he was arrested immediately. The following month, the Oklahoma legislature passed a law (that the Governor signed) permitting citizens to carry a concealed weapon upon obtaining a license to do so — ostensibly for personal protection. Just a couple of years ago, the legislature amended the Self-Defense Act to permit licensees to carry their weapons in full view as well.
Of course, the persons from whom McVeigh would have needed protection were the authorities, pursuing him for his crimes. Bizarrely — and disturbingly — if he had committed his act of terrorism just a few months later, the trooper could have had no cause to detain him at his stop. With credentials, McVeigh could have continued on his escape north, delayed only to obtain a ticket he would likely never pay. The manhunt for him would certainly have become more lengthy and complicated then as well. Who knows how long it would’ve taken to locate him, had he not been tucked away in a jail in Noble County. He probably could have hidden in a remote location in another state and even gone underground — perhaps aided by sympathizers who shared his hostility to government. A costly and time-consuming pursuit would then have been necessitated. It might even have been that the authorities would never locate him. Had he not been stopped and discovered illegally carrying a weapon when he was, his odds of finding safe haven would have been far greater.
Even more troubling, any number of future domestic terrorists and armed anti-government revolutionaries need not fear being detained as McVeigh was either. Fleeing from a crime scene created by their impersonal weapons — at a sporting event, clinic, parking lot, or courthouse — their personal ones might not be enough to cause their arrest if stopped.* License to protection would preclude any detention that would allow investigators time to track their suspects as they sat incommunicado. Reduced gun restrictions now prevent a trooper from responding as Hanger did. Accordingly, self-protection has undoubtedly made us all less safe.
*Since 2001, bombs have been set by domestic terrorists at each of the kinds of places listed. Some of these crimes remain unsolved.