By Elizabeth Lande, Reporter
The American South is very, very old. It seems to breathe history, with every square harboring its own secrets of the Antebellum era and beyond.
Live oaks draped with Spanish moss pose beside stately town houses that have sat on their foundations since long before the Civil War. It’s an effortlessly elegant place, straight out of “Gone With the Wind,” and I’ve been spoiled enough to experience it nearly every year of my life.
My repeat visits have given me a special appreciation for all aspects of Dixieland. I’m a sucker for hush puppies, love a sudden Southern downpour and have given up trying not to say “y’all.”
However, until a few years ago, I was remarkably blind to the intensity of the racial issues running like the mighty Mississippi.
When the Charlottesville riots made headline news last summer, my experiences with the South were firmly shaken. I had never imagined that such an event could occur, despite the lingering civil disputes.
Somehow, an entire chapter of the South’s modern history had slipped past me, and as spring break neared, promising another trip to the Deep South, I began to delve further into the narrative. I was eager to read the pages I’d missed.
What I found was a nuanced gray area of Southern culture. Dixie, it seems, does not represent a condition of extreme racism or one of peaceful acceptance. My experience was one of in-betweens — racist prejudice is very much alive, but I had to look for it.
As a white female of the middle class, I saw no obvious signs yelling, “This is racism.” Smaller, more complex hints lurk in the background, ones that people ignore and don’t talk about.
These hidden details may be rather miniscule, but they paint a picture of the centuries-long struggle against oppression.
When our plane touched down at in Savannah, Georgia, I was, needless to say, biased. I didn’t want my second home to be a monstrosity of racism.
As my great uncle drove us down oak-lined lanes to his home, it became obvious that I was fighting a losing battle.
He gestured to the slightly rundown houses we drove past, explaining that even fifteen years ago, many of them had belonged to white people. But then one black family moved in, and everyone else left, leaving an entire neighborhood empty. No whites would move in, and all of the homes gradually came under ownership of black residents.
It was as good an example of white flight as a Human Geography teacher could ask for, and it was clearly caused by racial divisions. But, instead of standing out as being blatant racism, the flight is less obvious.
This doesn’t excuse it, of course, but it does portray a society that acts less to abuse another group and more to support themselves.
This aspect was especially evident when I took a trolley tour to Old Savannah. I enjoyed the typical tourist activities — waiting for 30 minutes to get ice cream at Leopold’s, taking pictures of the clock tower from “Forrest Gump” and being disappointed that the iconic bench from the 1994 classic was no longer there — but I was also intrigued to learn what I could about the racial issues.
The city is gorgeous, filled with grand squares and towering statues of leaders and monuments dedicated to famous families.
Particularly imposing is a carved figure of Georgia’s colonial founder, James Oglethorpe, located in Chippewa Square. A marble pedestal boosts him higher into the air, and various lights stand by to illuminate him when dusk falls.
Sculptures and obelisks for conquering heroes fill the other squares, often surrounded by aging town mansions.
None of these landmarks are clear statements of racism. But, in their heyday, they ignored the fact that other people lived right alongside them. As time moved on and policy changed, the statues and homes remained in blissful silence, perfecting the art of turning a blind eye.
Now, I’m not obsessive over being politically correct, but I do try to accept that dark parts of history exist.
I don’t think that every citizen of the South is racist just because statues of white men stand in Georgian cities. But it is compelling to think about the South’s failure to honor the people from which it draws significant amounts of its culture and economy .
Bonaventure Cemetery proved to be another place of confusing discrimination. I came across multiple markers proclaiming that the men beneath them had served in the Confederate army. One boy had died at age 19, sacrificing himself for a cause he believed in. There’s no way of knowing what he truly fought for — slavery or simply the Southern way of life — but it is another aspect to the layered tapestry of racism.
It was surprisingly peaceful to walk along the gravel paths, searching for other Confederate markers.
I passed by family plots with impressive stonework of angels or urns, and modest headstones carved from a simple marble slab. I found the grave of Conrad Aiken down by the Wilmington river, and was reminded of his poem about how “all lovely things will have an ending.”
It was fitting, I suppose, to wander the gothic grounds of burial with such a thought in mind.
I kept it with me as our trip took us from Savannah to some family property on the coast. It’s not a glamorous Scarlett O’Hara throwback, but it is old, and it has a wealth of information. I poured through the family records, searching for racist language or prejudice.
I was pleasantly surprised to find just the opposite; Hosea, the black man that my great-great-grandmother employed as a chauffeur in the 1920s and 30s, was very much one of the family. The log entries about him were nothing short of praise.
However, it is worth noting that he would likely not have had the opportunity to advance from his position.
If you’re ever lucky enough to visit Dixie, I can’t guarantee that you won’t be slapped in the face with racism. A good deal of what you find depends on what you look for, but also what you look like.
The South has come a long way from the days of slavery and the “separate but equal” doctrine, but the journey isn’t yet over. The discrimination lingers in the shadows, almost a breath on the breeze sighing through the old houses.