Archive for the ‘Civil rights’ Category

Civil rights road trip through Alabama

October 1, 2009

(“Where they Went,” published July 5, 2009, Boston Globe)

Mary Plummer (left) and Maddy Entel dining outside at Nancy Paterson's Bistro in Montgomery, AL

Mary Plummer (left) and Maddy Entel take a break from touring in Montgomery, Ala.

WHO: Madeleine Entel, 58, of Wellfleet, , Mass. and Mary Plummer, 67, of Worcester, Mass.

WHERE: Alabama.

WHEN: A week in January.

WHY: “We’d talked about doing a civil rights trip for some time,’’ Plummer said. “We were particularly interested in visiting the Southern Poverty Law Center. We’ve both been members for quite a long time, at least since the ’80s.’’ The coincidental timing of their trip, the week before Martin Luther King Day and President Obama’s inauguration, made the visit even more meaningful, she said.

Mary walks into the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery

Visiting the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery was a highlight

NO PLACE FOR HATE: Because the women are longtime members of the center, known for its tolerance education and legal battles against hate groups, they were able to get a tour of its Montgomery headquarters. “It’s a beautiful modern building down the street from the capitol. There are no signs on the building, which is highly secured, but when you go in, you get a wonderful welcome and the building inside is very open,’’ Plummer said. “We were there two hours and our guide took us to all four floors. We saw where they do the publication Teaching Tolerance and where the lawyers work. They deal with specific cases of hate crimes and intolerance. We even got to meet Joe Levin, one of the cofounders. That was quite something. It was all very impressive. All the other things we saw all week were memorialized in the past, but here it’s an ongoing process, working in the present.’’

Maddy in front of the Civil Rights Memorial

Maddy poses in front of the memorial, designed by famed architect Maya Lin

MOVING MEMORIAL: Across the street, they visited the Civil Rights Memorial Center, sponsored by the Law Center and best known for its memorial designed by architect Maya Lin. “Water rolls down over a quote of Dr. King, ‘until justice rolls down like waters,’ and over a round slab with names of people honored. You’re encouraged to touch it,’’ Plummer said.

Historic sign commemorating Rosa Parks` role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Historic sign commemorates Rosa Parks` role in the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott

SITES OF RIGHTS AND WRONGS: Other stops in Montgomery included “the First White House of the Confederacy,’’ the former home of Jefferson Davis, head of the Confederacy; the historic Cloverdale neighborhood; Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts; the Troy University Rosa Parks Museum; and Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where King once served as pastor.

BIRMINGHAM BOUND: A 90-minute drive north took the women to Birmingham, where they spent hours at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum covering the history of civil rights, and visited the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four girls were killed in a racially motivated bomb attack in 1963. They found time for culture, too, visiting the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and the Birmingham Art Museum. “We really enjoyed the quilts from Gee’s Bend.’’ After a week in the South, she said, they were getting used to warmer weather, lower prices, and “a lot of y’alls.’’



Toni Morrison invites you to take a seat

June 15, 2009

200906_27b_Sullivans Island benchYou’ve heard of Ellis Island in New York, right? The first place some 12 million immigrants from Europe arrived on US soil. There’s another important entry port not quite so celebratory. Does Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina ring a bell? This residential barrier island 10 miles southeast of downtown Charleston is where an estimated around 200,000 to 360,000 slaves from Africa were first brought before being sold.  Nearly half of all living African Americans are said to have ancestors who passed through Sullivan’s Island.

The bench on the grounds of the park at Fort Moultrie

The bench at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island is a somber reminder of slavery

Wessel discovered information about the slave memorial while plotting out a bicycle ride we were doing from Charleston last week. As an aside during a tour of Fort Sumter the day before, a park guide said there was a new slavery monument on Sullivan Island. (Turns out there’s not really a monument.) That got Wessel to thinking about this story he’d read in The New York Times last July, about when writer extraordinaire Toni Morrison came to christen a bench the Toni Morrison Society had installed to memorialize the spot where slaves were first brought.

The bench was inaugurated in July 2008

The bench was inaugurated in July 2008

All we knew was that the bench was maintained by the National Park Service, so we cycled to Fort Moultrie on the southwestern tip of the island to see if it was there. There were no signs, but luckily the visitor center was open for another five minutes and a ranger told us to walk toward the water. Indeed, there it was, Toni Morrison’s metal bench.

Writer and Nobel winner Toni Morrison (photo Wikipedia Commons)

Writer and Nobel winner Toni Morrison (photo Wikipedia Commons)

The bench was inspired by something the Nobel prize winner said during an interview in 1989 (this quote is taken from the plaque near the bench, but not verified): “There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road.”

Diane contemplates the meaning of the bench

Sitting on the bench, Diane can't help but contemplate what once took place here

Reading that gives me chills. Sitting on the bench did, too, thinking about the thousands of people kidnapped from their homes, treated like animals, brought to a foreign land, and then sold to do hard labor. Wessel and I sat there, soaking in the enormity of it all. I can only hope that if I had lived during slavery, I would have been an abolitionist.

View across the marsh from the bench

From the bench you see Charleston Harbor

So now I must rail a bit. It embarrasses me that my country doesn’t have one national museum or monument about slavery.  (I’ll mention here that Fort Moultrie recently opened a terrific permanent exhibit called “African Passages” to examine Sullivan’s Island slave trade.) To set the record straight, as a Southerner, slavery was not confined to the South. In fact, Rhode Island merchants controlled the majority of the American slave trade. Slavery certainly wasn’t confined to my homeland, either. It’s estimated that “only” 5 to 10 percent of the as many as 15 million Africans taken to the Americas and the Caribbean were brought to the US. But still.

Entrance of Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, SC

The Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston

To Charleston’s credit, it has a museum dedicated to slavery, the Old Slave Mart Museum and is working on another. Meanwhile, other national projects are in the works, including, finally, a Smithsonian Museum in the works, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (The architect is from here in Durham!)

But we Americans also need a national museum dedicated solely to slavery, as well as many more “benches by the road.”

Civil rights beyond MLK weekend

January 18, 2008

If you’re interested in the Civil Rights movement, including information on visiting historic sites, there’s a wonderful book just out called “On the Road to Freedom: A Guide Tour of the Civil Rights Trail,” by Charles E. Cobb Jr. (Algonquin, $18.95). The sub-sub-title is: “The Marches, the Book cover On The Road To FreedomStruggles, the Triumphs, Speeches, Profiles, 150 Photos, Maps, Web Sites, and 400 Historic Sites.” Unfortunately, there’s no accompanying website, but the book is absolutely worth buying to learn about black history and civil rights sites in DC and the South.

Author Cobb will be touring in DC and the South almost daily through February and a bit beyond.

It’s funny. Folks talk about how racist the South is, but I’ve lived in the Tampa, Fla., and Boston areas, and now Durham, NC, and Durham is by far the most integrated place I’ve experienced. And it’s interesting, isn’t it, that the majority of Black Enterprise Magazine’s “Ten Best Cities for African Americans” are in the South. (None are in the north!) This makes me proud.

Absolutely, the South has had more than its share of atrocities. Like the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot, where riots broke out after blacks registered to vote and some 22 people were reported dead, all black. Only this year did our state leaders express “profound regret” about that awful chapter in history. Growing up in Raleigh in the ’60s, I remember how segregated we were. I was bussed to an “inner city” junior high school, which for me was an eye-opening experience.

After moving back to North Carolina in 2003, and especially since living in racially mixed Durham, I’ve been much more aware of the fight for black equality here, and have visited many sites, including the former Woolworth department store in Greensboro, where on Feb. 1, 1960, four students held one of the first sit-ins; and Parrish Street, aka “Black Wall Street,” the commercial strip in Durham that was home to many black-owned enterprises. There’s now an advocacy group working on the Parrish Sreet Project to commemorate its history and spur economic revitalization along a central downtown corridor. You can learn all about it during Preservation Durham’s free walking tours April through November.  So y’all come on over for a spell.