The Promised LandPosted June 23rd, 2011 by Thomas Norman DeWolf
When I was a child, many of my friends were recent arrivals from the South whose families came north during “The Great Migration.” Those of us who were born in Chicago sometimes laughed at their funny accents and country ways. There were also many children who disappeared every summer. When school let out for vacation, their parents sent them south to experience country life with their grandparents.
I was not one of those children. Although I have undeniable roots in Alabama and Mississippi, I was not born there nor did I have grandparents in those locations to spend my summers with. I didn’t visit the South until I was a married woman with a child of my own. I have been making pilgrimages back at almost every opportunity since.
My journeys take me to a lot of old courthouses, cemeteries and farms. As a genealogist, I believe the best way to appreciate the truth about my ancestors is to walk in their footsteps. And that is one of the things I did during my most recent excursion with Tom DeWolf.
Together, we visited the courthouse in Forrest County, Mississippi; a county named for Nathan B. Forrest, a Confederate general and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. We also went to Money, Mississippi where we saw the dilapidated remains of the general store where Emmett Till purportedly whispered at the proprietor’s wife, Carolyn Bryant. We walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where civil rights demonstrators were beaten and incarcerated on “Bloody Sunday”; Tuskegee University, whose buildings the KKK had a habit of burning down and Clarksdale, where, as late as 1997, the high school prom was a segregated affair. (No wonder Clarksdale is known as the place where the blues was born.) We went to Charlottesville, Virginia where 80 of Thomas Jefferson’s 200 slaves were held in bondage — including some of his own children. In Richmond, we experienced ghostly chills as we walked the Slavery Trail. In Tulsa, Oklahoma we relived “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history” which involved the entire black part of town being burned to the ground in a fit of white rage.
Almost every location we visited has a bitter memory associated with it. Every time I go South, I am reminded of that and the paradox that the South, as bitter as the memories may be, is the only homeland most African Americans will ever know.
It is interesting to note today that African American people are engaged in a reverse pattern of migration. They are pulling up stakes in northern cities like New York and Chicago to return to places like Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia.
One thing my elders used to tell me is that Southerner’s were not hypocrites. They let you know straight out where you stood. That place was at the back of the bus, in the balcony of the theater, drinking at the colored water fountain and standing in line while others were served. In the north, they played a game of saying you were equal and that color didn’t matter, even though it did. We were last hired and first fired, paid less and expected to do more, given the dirtiest and most menial of jobs, redlined into conclaves where integration was a myth and educated to the point of only functional literacy.
I have a hard time these days gauging whether and how much things have changed — South OR North. A recent Pew Center poll (April, 2011) of Mississippi Republicans reported that 46 percent think interracial marriage should be illegal. At the same time, Mississippi leads the nation in growth of interracial relationships. According to Census Bureau data, the figure went up by 70 percent between 2000 and 2010. The nation’s mixed-race population is also growing dramatically, with the South leading the way. In Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee, this population expanded by more than 50 percent. I am not sure what this translates into in terms of actual numbers. If you start with two people, a 50 percent increase would take that up to three.
I am not advocating here for interracial relationships or reverse migration. The gist of the matter is that, in spite of all the bitter memories, my ancestral paths keep leading me South. In almost every town, I haven’t needed a GPS to find the ancestral homestead. At virtually every cemetery, I feel like I’m holding a dowsing rod as I discover graves of ancestors I may not even have been looking for. I feel very much at home with my former in-laws in the little town of Tallassee and enjoy riding back roads during deer season with my shotgun in tow.
If my son weren’t so committed to living in New York with my grandchildren, I might be on the midnight train because, after all is said and done, where — exactly — IS the promised land?
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