MARCH 10, 2019
IT BEGAN with an ending. We did not realize then how fortunate we were to see Johnny Cash one last time. His career was riding tailwinds then, and he sounded in full voice, but there were portents in the air. His own breath sometimes came up short. I did not know that August 10, 1997, at the Chastain Park Amphitheatre in Atlanta, would be the last time Johnny ever played my hometown.
I grew up barely a mile away from the venue, on Pineland Road. Atlanta was then still riding Olympic winds, about to become the subject of A Man in Full, the sprawling satire by Tom Wolfe. Newcomers were arriving every day, it seemed, and on Atlanta’s rapidly changing and increasingly congested streetscape in the late 1990s, native Atlantans like me distinguished ourselves from grid-locked newbies with a proudly esoteric knowledge of back-ways and short-cuts. It was like a kind of religion, whose chief dogma is that there are many routes to salvation, but none of them involve the Downtown Connector.
My friend John grew up over near Lenox Square Mall, and he had the gnosis too. We were at Chastain for Johnny’s last show, and the next morning, we set off on a 12-day road trip across the South with a vague sense of a place that was in the middle of losing something. We wanted to seek out the backroads that we didn’t know, to get a little lost in other places that we knew even less than our own, or not at all.
We were looking for endings: vestiges of a South we had not known in Atlanta, a city that lacks the geographical moorings of many older American cities. It did not develop along a river or coastline, and retains no memory of itself as born on and bound to a specific spot of earth for a specific reason.
Atlanta is an accidental metropolis: it grew up around a railroad crossing, and as a result developed an unsentimental attitude toward history and place. Being famously burned to the ground by General William T. Sherman’s troops in 1864 didn’t help that attitude, either. After the War, Atlanta gave itself the motto Resurgens — “rising from the ashes” — and adopted the mythological phoenix as its official mascot.
The tradition of detachment from history may or may not have set in thanks to the effects of General Sherman, but nowadays in Atlanta, the ashes are often self-made. The city prides itself on being “too busy to hate,” presumably because it is too busy issuing demolition permits. Atlanta erases about one historic structure every week, and most of it goes unnoticed. Loew’s Grand Theatre — where Gone with the Wind premiered in 1939 — was summarily razed after a fire in 1978. The physical markers of Atlanta’s origins, its birthmarks, are all but untraceable now. The rail depot that was once the heart and the raison d’être of the city itself was demolished in 1864, but what replaced it has never occupied the center of the city’s spatial imagination. The Zero Mile Post where the rail lines that gave Atlanta its life once intersected is now almost impossible to access, inside the security office of a parking garage.
Sometimes it seems as if the urge for preservation in Atlanta is about as futile as changing the formula of Coca-Cola. At other times, it is as if even the city’s buildings themselves desire oblivion. Derelict throughout my childhood, the home where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind somehow managed to survive the rapacious redevelopment of midtown in the 1970s and ’80s. The home Mitchell affectionately called “The Dump” seemed cursed: it burned twice, most recently — and almost entirely — in 1994. Each time it was rebuilt, less like the original home than before. The resulting, sad simulacrum of the original structure became a metaphor for Atlanta in the late 20th century: a semblance of history in a city that didn’t seem to want either the semblance or the history anyway. It gets more emblematic: Mitchell’s twice-rebuilt “Dump” survived through fierce local support, but mainly through the largesse of Daimler-Benz, who used the site for their base during the 1996 Olympics. For better or worse, Atlanta is stuck with it.
On the other side of the Downtown Connector, sites of equal or greater historical importance have not benefited from the preservationist strain. Established in the 1940s, Aleck’s Barbecue Heaven on West Hunter Street on the west side of Atlanta was famous for smoked ribs and its proprietary Come Back sauce, but more famous for the people who came back there over and over again in the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, Ralph David Abernathy, and other leaders of the Civil Rights movement met regularly at Aleck’s to gormandize and strategize. As a general rule, they started the day at Paschal’s — an equally legendary Vine City restaurant — and ended it across the street at Aleck’s, often lingering late into the night. The location of Aleck’s was convenient: Abernathy’s church, West Hunter Street Baptist, was next door. When King moved back to Atlanta from Montgomery in 1960, he bought a home on Sunset Avenue, only a few blocks north. Soon after, he persuaded Abernathy to take the job at West Hunter Street. It is not inconceivable that it was all part of a plan for the two old friends to be close to Barbecue Heaven. The ribs were that good. By the late 1980s, when I ate there with my brother for the first time, a picture of King hung by the door, and his regular booth in the back had become a kind of sacred memorial. Aleck’s became a sort of image of the quest for justice itself: a moment of restoration, when its leaders were fed and filled, in the same way humans ought to be filled out, restored to their full selves. Aleck’s was a pilgrimage site, and not just because the ribs were phenomenal, but because of what it represented, who had eaten there, what revolutionary plots were hatched in the dim, hickory-smoke light emitting from the black-and-white television set behind the counter.
Aleck’s was a tangible, sensory connection to a living history that people like me, my brother, and John were not wholly exposed to in school. Only when each of us had left home and come back did we realize how strange it was that our elite education had made so little of the local culture of the city we had grown up in, so little of its most famous native son, so little of its own past. Maybe these subjects were meant to be the provenance of familial history and folklore rather than school, the kinds of stories you are supposed to hear in front of a fireplace, not a chalkboard. But we didn’t hear them in either place, and felt as though we had been cheated out of something important, ourselves casualties of the peculiarly American form of amnesia of which Atlanta is, in many ways, the not-so-shining exemplar. In 1997, John and I set out on the road, to try and capture some of that memory while it lasted.
By 1998, it was already too late. Aleck’s was gone.
We were both in our mid-20s on that first trip. Both sons of privilege, private-school white boys who had stumbled into evangelical Christianity in high school and then stumbled back out of it during college. We’d trod many of the same paths together through high school and college. In 1994, we fell for the same woman, who’d end up changing everything for both of us.
By the time we both took a seminar on her in 1994, we had only barely heard of Flannery O’Connor. Both natives of Georgia, we wondered with astonishment and maybe a pinch of resentment how we’d managed to make it into our 20s without ever being introduced to the greatest writer the state has produced. She showed a South that was refreshingly wild, Christ-haunted, shot through with violent grace, darkly hilarious — a South that the two of us missed out on, and were only just discovering.
We looked for the South that she knew, the hidden South that the eight-lanes had bypassed, the towns bled dry of life by the ever-swelling big box stores and fast food chains that made every town in the South like every other town. Atlanta had become the exemplar of the “doughnut-hole effect,” its city center essentially evacuated by a complex array of forces drawing development away from the historic center of town into rapidly expanding “edge cities” and suburban residential “communities.”
It was a different era when we started making these journeys. There was Kodachrome. We shot a lot of it, and even more rolls of black-and-white film. There were camera shops, and what we didn’t print ourselves in darkrooms or mail off to Kodak we took to them for processing. We rode in John’s 1977 Ford F-150 pickup. We used pay phones. We used paper maps. In a dumpy motel room in Conway, Arkansas, we watched Bill Clinton earnestly tell America that he actually did do what he had previously said he had not done.
It is now 21 years since that first tour. I was dating the woman who would become my wife in a few years. John would later, after we wrapped up the fifth and final tour, marry as well. We both went through endings, too: for John, of a marriage; for me, of a not very promising academic career for which I turned out to be supremely unfit. John has always been the more sensible one: he remains employed as a professional historian. I, by contrast, left a tenured professorship, and moved back to the Southeast to write fiction and essays, which seemed like a good idea at the time. I went through a series of dramatic, alcohol-inspired weight fluctuations; for 20 years John has remained a solid buck-forty.
My wife and I had four boys, and the prospect of doing another tour together seemed to have disappeared behind the mad rush of professional and domestic life. Perhaps because of that madness, it also began to reemerge as a kind of urgent necessity. We could talk for the rest of our lives about doing another tour, say to each other that we should really do that again sometime, while secretly knowing but refusing to admit that it would never happen. Or we could hit the road.
Which, in early 2018, we finally decided to do. We blocked out two weeks in July, and re-established the rules from our first trip: 1) Never, unless absolutely necessary, use interstates; 2) Never stay in hotels, unless absolutely necessary. On our first tour, we took one atlas and two relevant WPA Guides. We planned only that we would make it to New Orleans and then make the turn back home. We did not know how we would get there, or what we would see on the way.
We made concessions to a new era: I’d bring a laptop, and one digital camera, for video. We decided early on to shoot film again, which meant ordering it in advance. We talked about where we wanted to go this time, what sites we wanted to return to, what new places we would like to see.
Revisiting takes work. A first experience of a place is primarily an act of reception, of taking in what you had never seen before. But going back a second time requires the additional work of reckoning the fact that you are not the same person you were the first time, and neither is the place itself. The South is different now. So are we. This time, we take the minivan.
We leave from John’s house in Augusta. The screen door slams closed behind him as he walks the last item to the car: the dark Hazel Motes suit that he will probably never wear. He suggests we make our first stop outside of Augusta in Birdsville.
John has read about Birdsville in the WPA Guide to Georgia, which describes the place as “a small village that grew up about the ancestral home of the Francis Jones family.” The manor house was begun in 1762, making it one of the oldest surviving houses in the state. According to the Guide,
The avenues about Birdsville are lined with giant oaks almost two centuries old. Still standing at the crossroads are pre-Revolutionary buildings that made the Jones house the center of a small village. The small, gabled frame building was used as the inn, stage stop, and post office; here the members of the community gathered to learn news of the outside world.
Frequently, sites described in the WPA Guide have not survived, and have to be reconstructed in the imagination. But not Birdsville. It still looks almost exactly as the Guide has it, and feels as removed from the “outside world” as it probably did in 1840.
It’s still a private home, so we cannot get to the Jones Family Cemetery behind the house to see the final resting place of the woman the WPA Guide credits with saving the home from Yankee fire.
During the War between the States, General Sherman’s men had overrun the plantation, stripped it of its treasures, and started to burn the house. Having no desire to outlive her home, the mistress refused to leave her bed where she lay ill. Because of her persistence the soldiers extinguished the fire, already mounting from a room in the lower story.
The Birdsville story is a great story, to be sure. Whether there is any truth to it or not, it is hard to say. It is also the kind of story that white Southerners during Jim Crow loved, because it’s a tale of noble defiance, of virtuous standing-your-ground in the face of the Yankee infidel. It’s not hard to see the Lost Cause subtext encoded in the language. And it’s not hard to figure out from this passage which side is the good one. On one hand there is the wanton, amoral violence of Sherman, whose men “overran,” “stripped,” and “burn[ed]” the Birdsville plantation. On the other, the “woman” at Birdsville, who “preserved” her home, and “refused” to abandon it, even in her illness. And then the relenting of the Union soldiers to the irrefutably superior moral example of the anonymous woman from Birdsville.
I mention this story because it is so subtle and seductive, but also because it is painfully familiar to me. There is a similar story in my own family’s history, but it’s not one that was handed down to me. I had to find it on my own.
My great-great-great-grandfather, Samuel Charles Candler, was a prominent citizen in Villa Rica, Georgia, 32 miles west of Atlanta. His wife, Martha Beall Candler, was descended from a six-foot-seven Scotsman who fought against Cromwell, was consigned to indentured servitude in Barbados, and was eventually deeded land in Maryland that became Georgetown. Martha inherited his improbable cast-iron disposition, but not his height. Known as “Old Hardshell,” she was barely five feet high, and gave birth to 11 children, including (among her eight sons) a farmer, a bank president, a Methodist bishop and the first chancellor of Emory University, the founder of the Coca-Cola Company and mayor of Atlanta, a Georgia Supreme Court Justice, and two United States Congressmen. Old Hardshell was a tough and imperious woman, a demanding and over-achieving mother you did not tussle with. That seems to have been known to everyone in Villa Rica, but not the Union soldiers who — the story goes — came up to the Candler home one day looking for Old Hardshell’s husband.
“I don’t know where he is, and even if I did I would not tell you,” she is supposed to have said.
“Don’t you know what we can do to you,” the soldier said, jabbing a pistol into her chest. “Don’t you know that we can send your soul straight to hell?”
“There is not room enough in hell for a Southern lady,” Old Hardshell replied. “It is too full of Yankees.”
They left her alone, and she lived another 30-plus years. I do not know if the episode ever happened, but like the Birdsville tale, it’s a hell of a story. I have gotten some mileage out of it myself over the years, even if Old Hardshell’s Baptist tough-mindedness did not make it all the way down to me.
By 2018, the exurban trend we were worried about in 1997 has at least partly reversed itself. Downtowns like Montgomery, Memphis, even post-Katrina New Orleans, are buzzing. You can get avocado toast in Greensboro, Alabama, and sip locally roasted espresso in the public amphitheater in Thomasville, Georgia.
That’s not all that’s different this time. We agree early on that sleeping outside in Mississippi in July is not really necessary. We get decent hotels this time, because we would need the wi-fi connection, right? I didn’t know what I would see in 1997, and knew even less about what I would miss. That would come much later. But what’s new in 2018 is the chance to look again, more closely, to resist the “oh, that’s cool” response, to slow down long enough to let your heart be troubled a little bit, maybe a lot.
This year, we decide to shoot film again, if for no other reason than a shot at the set of micro-experiences that shooting film makes possible: the patient set-up, the anticipation and excitement that your film will come back from the lab as good as you hope, the fear that it won’t come back at all, the wonder at seeing colors and tones on film that you had not seen in person, the occasional hits and the more common misses, the dashed hopes and the unforeseen surprises. Despite the fact that film photography is an art of seeing, so much of it depends upon the invisible: mechanical operations, chemical reactions, mathematical equations. The click of the shutter is the sound of trust, the acoustic element of an act of faith that your calculations are correct and that the camera is going to respect them, which it does not always do.
A cardboard box in the back of the minivan holds a couple dozen rolls of film, and a half-dozen WPA Guides, their literary analogues. WPA Guides were built for road trips. And, like the now-antique 35mm cameras John and I both pack, they don’t have to be charged.
Published between 1937 and 1941, the Guides were the products of FDR’s Federal Writers’ Project, which put thousands of jobless writers and researchers back to work producing a guidebook to each state in the Union. While the Writers’ Project was a national program, each volume was produced by a state agency and staffed by home-state writers, many of whom became canonical American novelists: Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow. Eudora Welty took photographs for the guide to her native Mississippi. Unlike contemporary travel books, the WPA Guides are fastidiously backward-looking acts of cultural preservation, works of literature wholly uninterested in being au courant. If Lonely Planet guides are the traveler’s equivalent of tourist information offices, the WPA Guides are their National Parks.
The fruits of society’s leftovers, they are both a record of an era and an indispensable resource to the forgotten hinterlands of American self-understanding. They were produced at a time — on the eve of a world war — when a confident narrative self-description about what it meant to be a (white) American was a political and cultural desideratum. They are an expression of a need to define American identity over against rising European — especially German — movements rooted in a deep, if manufactured, sense of national selfhood. The guides for the Southern states go even further, taking great pains to define white Southern culture over against “The Negro.”
The WPA Guides occasionally hint at a world that perhaps only fiction can show truly. In their subject matter and descriptive style, they tend toward the picturesque. They stop at the margin of the grotesque, but do not cross into it. That is Flannery O’Connor’s world, where the darker interior life of the South seems to brood in the deep shadows of dense woods, hidden away like unshriven sin. It is the territory of her short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in which an Atlanta family is about to set off on a multigenerational road trip to Florida. In the opening scene, the relentlessly chatty grandmother flails the newspaper about her son’s bald head, about to knock sense into him.
“Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit,” she says, “is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it.” Her son does not listen to her, of course, and the trip does not end well.
July 2018: On the outskirts of Thomasville, Georgia, we stop for gas before dinner. It’s Sunday. Waiting in line to pay for the gas, I pick up a copy of the Thomasville Times-Enterprise. The headline: “MANHUNT UNDERWAY.”
Turns out the suspect, Robert Lee Carter II, took three members of a family hostage and tying them up in their home and bolted out a back window. Carter is still on the lam in South Georgia. Countless state troopers in hot pursuit want him for aggravated assault, and in connection with the disappearance of the 70-year-old Deanna Shirey.
The next morning, we stop to take pictures of wall murals at George’s Grocery on Main Street in Ochlocknee, north of Thomasville. George tells us that Carter has just been captured, not a mile away in Ochlocknee.
We learn later that Carter murdered Shirey and buried her in a shallow grave behind his house. As fitting as it is to feel as if we are inside of an O’Connor story, in the circumstances it feels better to be outside of one.
In 1997, we stopped in Tuskegee, Alabama. We were there long enough to eat lunch at Thomas Reed’s Chit’lin House Chicken Coop, and visit Booker T. Washington’s grave and the “Lifting the Veil” statue on the campus of the university. But that was about it. The town center of Tuskegee is barely a mile away from the campus. We missed it entirely.
This time is different. We come at it from another angle.
We park the car across from the First Methodist Church to take pictures of the foliage growing out of the brick spire. One block up, past the beauty shops, cell phone stores, and The Tuskegee News, the Confederate monument on the town square is not “partly hidden by thick elms and magnolias” like the WPA Guide says it was in 1940. A few magnolias remain, but the elms have presumably long since succumbed to the blight like they have everywhere in America. The monument is in full sun now. Like a redacted document, the inscription is blacked out. Someone has taken a can of black spray paint and a blunt object to the base.
I get the sense this is not the first time.
The Tuskegee Normal School for Colored Teachers (and later, Tuskegee Institute, and ultimately Tuskegee University) was established in 1881, and would eventually become one of the country’s most important institutions for higher learning for African Americans. The Confederate monument in Tuskegee was erected in 1906. Two months after the school celebrated its 25th anniversary, the white-controlled city of Tuskegee gave the town square to the United Daughters of the Confederacy as a “park for white people.”
Twenty years ago, I wasn’t wise to the ways the legacy of white supremacy is written into the landscape of places like Tuskegee, how monuments to Confederate soldiers were put up in public places like the town square here as reminders to African Americans of their place in an overtly racist regime, and as a warning to them not to forget it. I might have been able to believe then that the monuments were pretty banal, just part of the landscape, but exceptions to America’s story of itself. I failed to ask some pretty basic questions.
We ate in Thomas Reed’s restaurant in 1997, but I did not think then to ask about who Thomas Reed was.
But now I know 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. The episode landed Reed both in jail and in The New York Times.
On February 3, 1988, Reed and 13 others attempted to scale an eight-foot chain-link fence around the Capitol and purloin the flag. They were arrested, briefly held, 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. “But,” a write-up in The Chicago Tribune concluded, “the flag’s supporters argue that removing the flag is tantamount to erasing history.” In the 30 years since Reed’s mission to depose the Confederate flag in Montgomery, it seems that no new arguments for preserving Confederate flags and monuments have presented themselves. “Leave it, as a reminder,” used to be the final word on the subject, and where most whites were keen to leave the matter. It’s probably where, if pressed in 1988, I would have left it too.
But not Thomas Reed. In 1988, Reed was president of the Alabama NAACP, and had been involved in state politics for over 20 years. In 1970, he and Fred Gray, the pioneering civil rights attorney from Montgomery, became the first African Americans since Reconstruction to serve in the state legislature. Photographs of Reed in the Alabama State Archives show him on the edge of 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 image does not show what Thomas Reed can presumably see from the tailgate of the station wagon: the Confederate monument in blackface. The marble soldier is covered in black paint after a march earlier that year protesting the murder of Samuel L. Younge, a Tuskegee student and Navy man shot by a gas station owner in Tuskegee for attempting to use the white restroom.
In our high school, Tuesday was assembly day. I treated the weekly dispensation of Important Information with the same cynical indifference that my peers did. But when John Lewis came to speak to us, I sensed that something was different. He didn’t have to come talk to us, and had little to gain by doing so. It was the late ’80s, around the time he was reelected to a seat in the United States House of Representatives for the 5th Congressional District of Georgia. A distant relative of mine, Milton A. Candler, held the same seat from 1875 to 1879.
Milton was a Democrat, but not like Lewis. In the late 19th century, the party was decidedly different than it is today; it largely represented the white elite, the main engine of resistance against the new enfranchisement of African Americans during Reconstruction. I know nothing of Milton’s personal political views, but I have a decent idea. Nothing of his story has been passed down to me through family lore. If any of my forebears know anything about Milt, they aren’t telling.
I didn’t know about Milt at all when Lewis came to speak at our high school. I only knew slightly more about Lewis, but not much. I knew that he had marched in Selma. I knew that he upset Julian Bond in the Democratic runoff in 1986, and then won easily in the general election. But what I remember from the time he was running for Congress is that his opponents criticized Lewis for the way he talked. It was not difficult to see, even then, the thinly veiled racism behind those criticisms.
Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge again in 2018, I wish that I had had more of a moment with John Lewis 30 years ago, had the guts to go down front and shake his hand, ask him to tell me more, to teach me, point me where to go to learn. But that’s not what happened; he was off and we were soon backpack-laden again and shuffling off to geometry class or P.E., resuming grade-school gossip and maybe pretending not to have been too shaken by what we had just heard because that would not have been cool.
The final frame on the last roll of black-and-white Kodak film from 1997 is of the golden dome of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta. It is evening. The mercury vapor light of Miss Freedom’s torch atop the dome is visible against a darkening August sky. In shadow in the foreground: The horse-mounted figure of Confederate General John B. Gordon. It is the last photograph I took on the first tour.
After 12 days in the sweltering heat of the Deep South in July 2018, from Augusta to Fargo, Georgia, to a near-death experience with a leather-vested Crocodile-Dundee-style-knife-wielding biker in north Florida to a manhunt in Thomasville, to Montgomery, a strange encounter with the president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Selma, across the Black Belt into Mississippi, up the Delta from Yazoo City to Dyess, Arkansas, to make the turn at Memphis, across northeast Mississippi from Holly Springs to Okolona and back east via Birmingham, we end up here again, on the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol. Through a strange coincidence or subconscious convergence, my last photograph from this trip is of the same view as my last one in 1997, of the Capitol dome. It is seven in the evening. The light is harsher this time, but unusually crisp for Atlanta in July. Gordon is not in shadow, but in the bright but waning sun. The light of Ms. Freedom — as she is now known — is washed out by the hot light of Georgia summer.
The Georgia State Capitol has always looked a little imbalanced to me. The showy dome layered with Georgia gold and the Indiana limestone of the main structure go together about as well as you might imagine Georgia and Indiana would. It’s a combination of ambitious pretense with no-nonsense pragmatism. But more than that: the disparity between the bling of the dome and the comparably spartan structure that holds it up could be a metaphor for the oppressive social and political structures that have propped up the image of Georgia and its capital as models of progress grounded in the amnesic pursuit of wealth.
The Capitol grounds are shaded with native trees — Southern magnolia, pecan, live oak — but there is less shade than there used to be. After an infestation of starlings came to roost in the 1960s, then–Secretary of State Ben Fortson waged a protracted and mostly unsuccessful war against the birds with tin cans, shotguns, flares, and Roman candles. He lost, and so did three huge magnolias that Fortson had removed. Like the Confederate monument in Tuskegee, the dozen or so monuments to Georgia’s political past on the Capitol grounds are more exposed now.
When we were here in 1997, the entrance on Washington Street had been guarded by a statue of “the fiery agrarian Senator Thomas E. Watson,” as the WPA Guide to Atlanta puts it, in characteristically WPA Guide fashion, “with upraised fist in an attitude of oratorical eloquence.” Whatever the attitude, the message seems to be “get the hell off my lawn.” In 2013, Watson himself was removed from the lawn, turned 180 degrees, and set in a park across the street so that now the incendiary agrarian populist raises his fist toward the Capitol itself, not as its gatekeeper but as its benighted exile.
There is a certain kind of Southern mythologist who reveres Watson as the model of the protective, gun-toting, father figure who would sooner cold-cock a Yankee industrialist than see his maidenly agrarian South “outraged” by unwanted advances upon her virginal purity. Watson was also a racist firebrand who became increasingly hostile toward African Americans over the course of his 40-year career in politics. In 1913, he wrote, “In the South we have to lynch him [the Negro] occasionally, and flog him, now and then, to keep him from blaspheming the Almighty, by his conduct, on account of his smell and color.” Even if that were the only such comment he had ever made about the matter, it would be enough to question the wisdom of a statue of Watson in front of the entrance to the state capitol. But Watson had his own newspaper, The Jeffersonian, in which he fumed prolifically about the evils of Jews, Catholics, Negroes, and Coca-Cola. He used it to stoke populist anger against Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman who in 1915 was awaiting a death sentence in the state pen in Milledgeville for the murder of Mary Phagan, a white woman. When Frank’s sentence was ultimately commuted to life in prison, a mob of white men, prodded on partly by Watson’s editorials, lynched Frank on the town square in Marietta in August 1915.
Watson has been reassigned, but others remain. Like Governor Joseph Brown, mustache-less Shenandoah beard down to his midsection, patrician hand on the shoulder of his downcast wife. They are the picture of an antebellum marriage, which surely still brings a nostalgic tear to some eyes around here: he — overcoat draped over one arm, clutching a rolled-up document of some official nature — the pragmatic man of action, business, leadership; she — Bible in her lap, not daring to look up beyond her immediate footprint — the picture of domestic piety and Southern womanhood, the steadfast and matronly guardian of home.
Brown led the state during the Civil War, and after it was over he ran a mining operation in northwest Georgia, and made a fortune off of convict labor, a system that Douglas Blackmon has recently described as “slavery by another name.”
The main entrance to the capitol that Watson once guarded is still flanked by four large plaques, erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1920, narrating the “sanguinary” siege of Atlanta by federal troops in 1864. Their effect is more Lost Cause mythmaking than history: they tell how, with a “heroism worthy of Sparta, the inhabitants stood the supreme test,” enduring a “fearful siege which, lasting for six weeks, was veritably a reign of terror.”
Despite everything else I have seen in the last two weeks — and over the last 20 years — the presence of these plaques is still hard to believe. The white supremacist regime in Georgia politics once ensured that you did not cross into the shrine of government without passing the image of a pissed-off Tom Watson and four skewed accounts of one moment in the city’s history. In the same way that Confederate memorials were often placed on courthouse lawns, the symbolism of the architecture of the state capitol was surely no accident: it implies that by entering this building you are tacitly accepting or submitting to an order of things in which history, politics, and law serve white people, to the explicit misfortune of African Americans.
But for every main gateway, there is a service entrance.
At the northeast corner of the building, facing the intersection of Capitol Avenue and the boulevard named for him, there’s a new statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in a quiet corner of the capitol grounds. Like Joseph Brown on the other side of the building, overcoat draped over one arm, he clutches not the Bible but documents, in the prosaic form of a folder full of papers. The monument is barely a year old. The front of the capitol is for the whites who supposedly made history, but the back side is the black section.
A few steps away from the new MLK statue is another monument to African-American history in Georgia. Entitled Expelled Because of Color, the 1976 sculpture by John Riddle tells the story of African-American experience in Georgia from images of slavery to the ballot box. The title is a reference to an event in state history that I am hearing about for the first time.
During Reconstruction in Georgia, dozens of newly enfranchised African Americans were seated in the state legislature and thereby given hitherto unknown political power. White resistance kicked in. Thirty-three African-American legislators were kicked out of the capitol on the unsurprisingly spurious grounds that their eligibility to hold office was not established by law. The real reason, of course, is obvious.
It’s an episode that did not make it into my education. I had to go around back, seek it out.
In Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois describes the episode. Led by a white Democratic Senator, “a movement was started to declare that since Negroes were not citizens, they could not hold office.” The motion was eventually struck from the record, but the damage was done. Shortly thereafter the push to have African-American members removed from the Senate and House succeeded.
The white Democratic Senator who led the movement: Milton A. Candler.
We spend the hot afternoon of the next day on the sprawling Atlanta University campus, the largest contiguous consortium of African-American colleges in the nation. Arguably the center of African-American higher education in the United States, the site is comprised of several historically black colleges and universities: Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Spelman, The Interdenominational Theological Center, Morehouse School of Medicine. This is the first time I have set foot on the campus. I am 46.
I had to go to North Carolina to first hear the name Flannery O’Connor, who had lived less than a hundred miles from where I grew up. We never read Martin Luther King Jr. in high school and never heard about Du Bois, both of whom had lived within 10 miles of the elite private high school where I did not learn about them.
Atlanta is especially skilled at not making much of local heroes — it is too busy, you will recall. But King and Du Bois were both threatening to the white establishment to which my family belongs and which schools like mine have educated. But they were also two thinkers who offered the possibility to imagine a different way forward: an honest, sober self-examination of white indifference and its costs, and a way to localize and personalize the struggle for civil rights as a project that belonged to Atlanta as a whole, and not just one section of it. In my own case, ignorance about Du Bois is more acute. He’s taught me more about my own family history than I have learned from my own flesh and blood.
He taught for 23 years on this campus in west Atlanta, and wrote two masterpieces in this place. And while this is my first time to see Atlanta University, it’s not as though I was never exposed to the area. Atlanta’s Westside was a regular stop on the elementary school field trip circuit. But when our school took us to this part of town, they took us to the other side of the University complex, to the West End, a historically black section of town along a boulevard named for Ralph David Abernathy.
But we didn’t go to West End to see the epicenter of African-American culture in Atlanta. We went to visit the Wren’s Nest, the stately Victorian home of Joel Chandler Harris, one-time associate editor of the Atlanta Constitution, and the author of trickster tales he “wrote” from 1880 until his death in 1908, attributed to a formerly enslaved raconteur called Uncle Remus.
The freckle-faced redhead son of an Irish immigrant mother and an unknown father, Harris was bullied as a kid, and even as an adult. Whatever the cultural impact of his stories were to be a hundred years later, he felt at least some qualified sense of kinship with the enslaved people on Turnwold Plantation near Eatonton, where he first heard the stories he adapted into the Uncle Remus tales. Du Bois, who was then teaching at Atlanta University, sought Harris out in 1899. In Dusk of Dawn, he describes going to meet him:
[I] started down to the Atlanta Constitution office, carrying in my pocket a letter of introduction to Joel Chandler Harris. I did not get there. On the way news met me: Sam Hose had been lynched, and they said that his knuckles were on exhibition at a grocery store farther down on Mitchell Street, along which I was walking. I turned back to the University. I began to turn aside from my work. I did not meet Joel Chandler Harris nor the editor of the Constitution.
The episode was traumatic for Du Bois. He had been writing a “careful and reasoned statement concerning the evident facts” of the case, and evidently planned to submit them to the Constitution. But the sight of Hose’s knuckles in the grocery shop window was “a red ray which could not be ignored.” Du Bois became convinced that “one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered, and starved.” The event changed his life.
None of this made it into the presentations on our field trips to west Atlanta. It might as well have never happened. We never heard about W. E. B. Du Bois, never heard that the nation’s most prominent African-American intellectual lived and taught in this same neighborhood, and certainly never heard about Sam Hose. Atlanta has a history of razing historic buildings, but an even more troubling history of erasing the memory of its most consequential figures, especially when they are black. Naming streets for some of them may be a good way of honoring them, but it is a better way of ensuring that they will never be talked about.
The house on Sunset Avenue where King spent his last eight years belongs to a different family now. There is no sign to mark it out, except for the conspicuous No Trespassing signs in the yard. I can hardly blame them. Maybe they’ve had enough of the gawkers, the snoopers, the past.
Parking is free, however, at the Wren’s Nest. It sits — oddly enough — next door to the West Hunter Street Baptist Church, where Ralph David Abernathy moved his congregation in 1973. Fronting the boulevard named for Abernathy, Joel Chandler Harris’s house is a conflicted outlier, like its owner and his body of work. To many people that work represents a soothing mythology of half-truths, to others a nefarious white appropriation of black culture.
A high school education can only give you so much, it is true, and it would be churlish to expect too much from it. But what we were given was less an incomplete set of historical facts than a distorted view of reality in which Joel Chandler Harris is a more noteworthy local celebrity than Martin Luther King Jr. or W. E. B. Du Bois. We were given the residue of a deliberate choice to pass over in silence an essential portion of our own city’s history.
Truth has not been especially well remembered in a city that has made forgetfulness a marketing strategy. Du Bois has been a victim of that oblivion far more than King has. Even if we had been taken on a field trip to Clark Atlanta University in the 1980s, we would have seen no visible signs of Du Bois’s presence. The bust of him in front of Harkness Hall was erected only in 2013. The University did not — until relatively recently — go out of its way to highlight its most famous former faculty member. Du Bois had been kicked off campus in 1943, and died in self-imposed exile in Ghana in 1963, one day before the March on Washington.
I knew nothing about Sam Hose in 1997. It would be 20 years before I learned about him.
“There’s a book you should read,” David tells me over a lunch in November 2017. David is a Southern historian. A real one, unlike me. So when he tells me there’s a book I need to read, I pay attention. “It’s called At the Altar of Lynching,” he says. It’s about the lynching of Sam Hose, a black man accused of murdering a white man in the town of Palmetto in Coweta County, Georgia, in April 1899. “It’s by Don Matthews,” he says.
“I think it will interest you,” David says. “It concerns your family.”
I put off taking him up on his recommendation for months. His cryptic comment about my family did not make me exactly eager to pick it up. He was right. It does concern my family. My great-great uncles are in there. So is my great-great-grandfather.
And it’s not just that book, either. Characters from my family’s past start to pop up in connection with events I can’t believe it’s taken me 46 years to learn about. Philip Dray’s At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America opens with an account of Du Bois seeing Sam Hose’s knuckles in a shop window.
On page four: “Georgia governor Allen D. Candler, widely known to endorse lynching as a method of controlling black criminality, termed the Palmetto murder ‘the most diabolical in the annals of crime’ and declared its details ‘too horrible for publication.’”
But the details were published, over and over again. The lynching of Sam Hose is one of the most well-documented events in Georgia criminal history. And it’s impossible to tell that story — one of America’s most notorious acts of white terror — without mentioning Allen Candler. My family name is front-and-center in the history of lynching of African Americans in the United States. How am I only just now hearing about it?
Allen Candler was the leader of the state at a time when his first cousin, my great-great-grandfather, was a colonel in command of a regiment of the state militia and a superior court judge, and his brother and another cousin powerful figures in state politics. As a candidate for the state legislature in 1882, Allen was endorsed by the Atlanta Constitution as a “plain man of the people.” When the Georgia legislature voted in 1899 to segregate Pullman rail cars, Du Bois and a “committee of the Negroes of Atlanta” personally approached Candler in his downtown office, and pressed him to refuse to sign the legislation into law. Despite initial assurances to Du Bois, Candler ultimately signed the bill creating separate Pullman cars for whites and blacks.
On April 12, 1899, Sam Hose, a 21-year-old African-American man killed his boss, Alfred Cranford, with an ax and fled the scene. There was powerful evidence he was acting in self-defense, but that made no difference. For weeks, the Atlanta papers carried news of the sensational event and speculated on Hose’s whereabouts, until he was apprehended on the 22nd. A crowd of thousands, including many who traveled from Atlanta on a specially commissioned train, watched as Hose was tortured and burned alive the following day in a field outside Newnan.
Asked for comment about the lynching of Sam Hose, Allen Candler put the onus of responsibility on African Americans. He said:
The negroes of that community lost the best opportunity they will ever have to elevate themselves in the estimation of their white neighbors. The diabolical nature of the double crime was well-known, and they owed it to their race to exhaust every means of bringing Holt to justice. I want to protect [negroes] in every legal right and against mob violence, and I stand ready to empty every resource of the state in doing so; but they must realize that in order to merit and receive the protection of the community, they must show a willingness to at least aid in protecting the community against the lawless element of their own race.
One month later, Governor Candler delivered the opening address at the Fourth Conference for the Study of the Negro Problems, organized by Du Bois and held at Atlanta University. In the name of the state of Georgia, he expressed affirmation for and loyalty to the work of the University. He urged African Americans to be modest in their expectations, however: “[I]t is unreasonable to suppose that a race emerging from a state of servitude should accomplish in one generation what it has taken our race six hundred years to accomplish.”
The presumption that Africans had no culture before they were brought in chains from their native lands was a convenient mythology to serve the logic of white supremacy, and Candler was hardly alone in holding this view. While his official statements on the subject of African-American education were predictably high-sounding, his private sentiments seem to have been less enthusiastic.
Two years after the lynching of Sam Hose, Candler was approached at an event in Savannah and pressed for comment about Northern industrialists then touring Atlanta with a view to endowing colleges and schools for African Americans. The governor expressed approval for what Booker T. Washington was doing in Tuskegee, but added that education of African Americans should not go beyond agriculture. “I do not believe in the higher education of the darkey. He must be taught the trades. When he is taught the fine arts, he is educated above his caste, and it makes him unhappy.”
Those comments would have surprised no one in 1899. They were expressions of a view that Allen Candler’s constituents voted into the state’s official pulpit in 1898. It’s in this context that Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk, whose chapter on Atlanta in particular includes a vigorous defense of a humanistic ideal of the university, whose vocation is finally not technical skill but the pursuit of truth, by the whole person. That is not a coincidence.
I read Du Bois now under the shadow of my distant cousin. I am not especially surprised that my family has never mentioned Allen Candler. Nor am I surprised to learn that he was a racist. What is surprising is that, even in my own tight-lipped family, an event of such local and national significance should have been so completely passed over in silence.
It ended with a beginning. Aleck’s is long gone. There is no trace of it, no smoke-tinged vestige of either the barbecue or the American history that was made here. In its place, a sidewalk leading to a Walmart parking lot.
West Hunter Street Baptist Church is still there, barely. It sits vacant and boarded up, as if in preparation for a hurricane. At the east end of the boulevard, the gigantic über-modern Mercedes-Benz Stadium looms incongruously like an oversized spaceship in port.
Among the last stops: A return visit to Hillcrest Cemetery on US 78 in Villa Rica, where my great-great-great-grandfather Samuel is buried next to Old Hardshell. I know more about him this time than I did the last time I was here 21 years ago. I know now what I did not want or lacked the mind to know then. I now know one of his sons tried to get African Americans removed from the Georgia Senate in 1868. I now know that his nephew Allen did a lot more than just compile historical records. I now know that Samuel himself was one of the largest slaveowners in Carroll County until the end of the Civil War.
On the grounds of the capitol in mid-July 2018, beneath the diminished shade of oaks and magnolias that are not as grand as they are supposed to have been, I find something else I did not see in 1997: a reduced history — my city’s, but also my own. The bronze-cast monuments to public history are the crystalized and gathered residue of collective memory but more of collective forgetting. They serve more to occlude than to disclose. The codification of memory, whether public or personal, tends to serve the work of amnesia more than of living remembrance. What the condensation of memory into cold monuments and fixed family fables leaves out, whether through oblivion, time, or self-interest, however, is the more interesting — and, paradoxically, more hopeful — matter.
O’Connor’s work helped introduce me to a South I had little experience with. But she also introduced me to the idea that hope — for oneself, for one’s city, for one’s nation — is only to be found in an honest, and often violent, confrontation with the past — one’s own, one’s city’s, and one’s nation’s. Mythologies may be soothing, and even good for tourism, but they cannot save us. O’Connor showed me that there is no future for any of us without a clear-eyed and unsentimental reckoning with our own complicity in the suffering of others. That there is nothing more terrifying, exciting, and liberating than the unlearning of untruths, the dethroning of the self and its enabling illusions, the freedom of spaces newly opened up where lies once were.
On the last day of the 2018 tour, I am seeking out the bust of Du Bois, a new presence. I think I know how to get there, but as I make a turn down the wrong street, I realize that I am not as familiar with my hometown as I used to be. I begin to wonder whether I really have the gnosis anymore, or if I ever did. I turn onto a street I do not recognize. It is possible that it was not here the last time. I do not know if it is the right road, but it will — I hope — get me where I think I am going. I do know, however, that if I am going to get to know the place of my birth this time, I am going to have to get lost again. A lot.
Pete Candler is a writer and photographer based in Asheville, North Carolina. He is currently working on a book about the South. Additional photos and writings from the Southern tours can be found at adeepersouth.com.