There’s not a whole, whole lot new to report today. Kind of like yesterday, I spent something like five to six hours in the car driving across western Alabama and all of Mississippi. Along the way I popped into Tuscaloosa to photograph three historical markers for the Alabama marker program paper. Tuscaloosa was a convenient place to stop because it has three of the scant few markers in Alabama that even give slavery a mention. Montgomery has a handful, too, so that’s why it’s the last stop on my way home next week. Tuscaloosa has a surprisingly small town feel for having such a large university. It also looked liked it has some holdovers from segregation, just by driving across town there are some clear signs of poverty and race on the landscape.
After Tuscaloosa, I stopped after another 1.5 hour drive in Meridian, MS, to have lunch with an old high school friend—Gavin Breeden. Gavin is a Presbyterian minister in Meridian, and it was fun to catch up with him and also talk about my research. He gave me some insights into Meridian and confirmed some things about the differences of living in the “Deep South” vs. where we grew up (Martin, though not that far from Meridian or climatologically all that different, definitely fits the mold of a “Mid South” town…whatever that means. I’m too tired to flesh that out right now.)
Two key insights/points from talking with Gavin: one, without me even having mentioned this, he brought up how important the idea of empathy is to understand the memory of slavery. Second, he brought that up by telling me about a new board game he bought recently called the Underground Railroad. While at first blush, that game might sound like it trivializes issues surrounding slavery, Gavin explained that the game is not some much a cutesy kind of game but one for serious board game types. Through various strategy, the players “work” as abolitionists helping slaves escape to Canada, with a lot of historical information woven in. Sounds like a game I’m going to need to check out. Apparently the best card in the is “Harriet Tubman.” Neat!
After lunch, I had my first good sweat of the trip under the Deep South sun/humidity combo. I stopped in at the Meridian Tourism Office to pick up a copy of their Civil Rights marker map. I walked around downtown Meridian for about an hour to see/photograph the first seven signs in the program. I didn’t know anything about Meridian before starting this research, so I only found out at lunch that the city was once the largest city in Mississippi sometime before/shortly after the Civil War. The downtown area is substantially dilapidated today, hurt tremendously by white flight, though it showing a few signs of life/gentrification. Similar to Tuscaloosa, there is a palpable separation that still hangs over the city between the formerly African American business district and the rest of the downtown surrounding the county courthouse and the federal court (which, I learned today, was the site where the case against the Mississippi Freedom Summer murderers was heard.) There were not many people downtown at all, and I stuck out like a sore thumb in a red t-shirt with a gigantic camera… And yes, until I started heading back toward the federal courthouse side of downtown, I one of only three or four white people that I saw out and about. From a reflexivity standpoint, this was a very surreal moment. Having read a lot about the experiences of blacks in the South during Jim Crow and the range from uneasiness to outright terror that people experience during that time, this geographic/spatial act of just walking around in an unfamiliar, dilapidated area allowed me a moment (however brief, and yes, I can’t overemphasize how fully I am aware that the situations do not truly compare given my positionality as a white male) of empathetic understanding with the people who had to experience those feelings as a part of their everyday life.
After Meridian, I drove the final 3 or so hours to Natchez, arriving too late to get any real work done. I checked into my hotel and drove a little bit around downtown Natchez. It is unlike pretty much anywhere I’ve been before, and definitely a unique gem of a Southern city. Having read Steve Hoelscher’s (2003) article on Natchez, it’s starting to come together for me seeing it in person. I’ll have more thoughts on this later, since I’ll be here a couple more days. I ate dinner at a local place, Biscuit and Blues. Pretty good food. One thing I observed already about Natchez is that it’s apparently very popular among European tourists. I walked into the hotel with a German (or possibly Austrian, Swiss, or other German-speaking nationality) couple, and at dinner I had first an Italian couple and later a French family sit on either side of me at the restaurant! No, I didn’t strike up a conversation with any of them, but that is one advantage of being able to identify around half a dozen European languages just by hearing them! (Side note: I count English, Norwegian, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese. Plus I can usually guess when it comes to Russian. Now if only I spoke any of them fluently besides English!)
Tomorrow’s plan is to get up early and head over to Frogmore Plantation across the river and spend the afternoon at the Natchez Museum of African-American History and Culture.