"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Connecticut Yankee in the South


I love the South and especially Mississippi.  This love – this interest - was easy to explain because each trip was filled with history, magnificent antebellum houses, open people with stories to tell, small towns, community.  There is something beautiful about the Deep South, especially in the Mississippi Delta when the cotton is ripe and ready to be picked – acres and acres of white cotton receding into the distance on all sides.  I would always find ways to be near the Mississippi River, powerful, majestic, and a major part of our history. 

The reactions I got to this enthusiastic paean were surprising.  I was called explicitly or implicitly a traitor – an apostate, a heretic, consorting with the enemy, a turncoat.  Going to Mississippi was wrong, immoral, and a betrayal of Northern liberal, progressive ideals.  The cotton plant that I brought back – a souvenir of the South – was, I was told, a symbol of slavery and I should not display it.  For me, however, the cotton plant was magical.  One of my father’s friends sent me one when I was a child, and I thought it was beautiful and mysterious.  A plant that was light and fluffy like a cloud.  A plant from which my clothes were made. 

On our Southern trips we stayed in over 100 magnificent antebellum homes, restored to their original condition and appointed with furniture and appurtenances from the period – chests, highboys, armoires, beds, chairs, sofas and loveseats, clocks, lamps, mirrors, writing desks, fireplaces.  Some of these homes, like Equen Plantation in Mississippi, are spectacular.  Each room more beautiful than the next.  I never could decide in which to sit.  Early morning coffee in the sitting room/conservatory; breakfast and dinner in the formal dining room; drinks in one of the parlors (in these old houses there were parlors for men and women).  The Chretien Point Plantation in Louisiana was similar.  We got stranded there because of being blown back from the Gulf by a hurricane; but stranded was hardly the word.  Long summer afternoons on the top floor verandah, overlooking a vast lawn with live oaks, or in the library, study, parlor, or various living rooms. 

We stayed in town houses, vast plantation houses in the middle of the cotton fields, elaborate manors constructed by wealthy businessmen in Vicksburg and Natchez.  Each house was carefully and lovingly restored.  Nearly ever proprietor had a story to tell about the house, why he had bought it, and what it meant to him.  Some proprietors purchased family property that had been in other hands for decades so that they could return it to their own historical legacy.  Others were simply protective of a patrimony which they felt important to preserve.  Others wanted simply to rescue beautiful old buildings.  Once we stayed in a home in Lancaster, South Carolina.  The owner had bought the remains of a historic house which had been destroyed and left as rubble, found the original plans, numbered each board and plank, hauled them to a piece of land he had bought, and over two years reconstructed the house.  Amazing and beautiful.

Many of these plantation homes had journals kept by the original owners.  One in particular had the elaborate slave records kept by the owner who was also a doctor.  It was a meticulously kept ledger of expenses and productivity – a true accountant’s tracking of his investment.  He had kept the name of each slave and how much he had spent on housing, food, heating, medical care, etc. At the time I was reading Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Slavery (Fogel), an important book looking at slavery as an economic institution and shedding light on one of the most critical issues of the Civil War period – would slavery have eventually collapsed under its own weight, or was it a stable institution that needed to be destroyed? Was the war more about slavery per se or about two conflicting economic systems?  Reading the ledgers and daily log of the doctor/planter, I was better able to understand Fogel and his economic-based arguments. 

We stayed at one antebellum mansion in Jackson, Mississippi and the owner had one of the state’s most complete library of Civil War era books – antebellum, war, and Reconstruction.  The owner was an amateur historian with a particular interest in Reconstruction, and we spent hours discussing what for me is the most important part of the era.  Reconstruction, the politics and philosophy behind it and its dismal failures is replayed again and again in modern American history, national and international.  We continue to believe that our way is right, that we have a moral obligation to enforce it, and ultimately lose out to a more tenacious and committed enemy – think of Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iraq.  The North imposed impossible conditions on the South, and the South, understanding that it had great power given the North’s desire to build a more perfect Union, rejected them.  De facto slavery continued for another 100 years.

One time we stayed on the Arkansas side of the River in its own Delta, and I had endless talks with people down at the port of Helena about river traffic today and before.  The town – like many small towns in the South – was trying to fend off the natural decline as industry moved out, and had built a museum of the Blues.  It contained many fascinating pictures of the town, of the Delta, and of the River.  The same in Natchez and Vicksburg – the museums are treasures.  We stayed at a townhouse in Vicksburg, bought by a relative of the original owners who had been in the house during the siege of Vicksburg; and he held us spellbound with a story, reconstructed from the oral history of his family and written narratives, about the siege, how cannonballs rained on them from Union ships on the river, how his family survived but the town did not.

Our Southern trips were also about discovering small town Southern life.  I come from an industrial New England city, one of the largest cities in America at the time of the Civil War and responsible for producing many of the industrial products and armaments needed by the Union Army.  It was by no means a small town.  It was a city; and the real small towns we visited in the South were always no more than 5000 inhabitants, usually less, and had, despite economic decline, a real cohesive community.  The towns that were able to survive had some stable institutional base – a hospital, university or college, some important industry.  The others were just crumbling, with old downtowns, abandoned buildings, and little else. 

Cleveland, Mississippi, is one of those towns – solid institutional base, and growing modestly.  Greenwood, Mississippi is the corporate home of Viking Stoves and the corporation has invested in infrastructure and amenities.  It has still retained its old charm, but has been resuscitated. Laurel Mississippi has an excellent art museum with an impressive collection, and it has been a center of social and commercial activity.

Columbus, Mississippi (probably a small city rather than a small town) has Mississippi University for Women, no longer only for women, although the name remains because of its long history as a pioneering institutions, the first public women’s college in the United States.   Because of a strong and active community, Columbus has attracted national and international companies, and I have watched the downtown grow over the six years since my first visit.  It is alive and well with a lot of promise, although many of the old families are dying out and there are many beautiful homes on the market.  Thanks to the people behind the Tennessee Williams Festival held every year (this is the Centennial Year of his birth), Columbus is becoming better known statewide, nationally, and internationally as a place of artistic and historical interest.

On our trips we have visited hundreds of small towns in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.  Some, like those I have mentioned above are thriving.  Others are struggling to retain identity and community, but face the inexorable pressures of a changing economy.  In each town I looked for signs of promise as I do in my own home town of New Britain, Connecticut.  Will the new State of Court of Appeals finally be the one institution that will revitalize downtown? Will the new economic base (New Britain was always “The Hardware Capital of the World” and home to Fafnir Bearings, Corbin Locks, and Stanley Tools) of small-scale tool and dye and other subsidiary industrial enterprises bring upper and middle level managers who want to live in a town, not in the suburbs? 

New Britain just completely restored and renovated Walnut Hill Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead in 1870.  It was a grand park with 100 year old oaks, spacious grounds, parks, and walkways.  It was always used for sports, picnics, and outings, especially by the Polish immigrants (now a more diverse immigrant community).

The Park was also home to the New Britain Art Museum, a small treasure housing paintings by well known American artists.  It, too, was recently renovated and expanded so, like Columbus, it has attracted a statewide if not national attention.  New Britain is no longer The Hardware City, but the home of the Museum.

I want to see towns and small cities survive.  Perhaps because I have lived for so long in big cities (Washington DC for the past 34 years, Bombay, Delhi), I have romanticized life in these smaller places.  Perhaps it is because I am older; but, especially in the small towns like Columbus, there is something particularly attractive – a quieter life? Community? Engagement?  Whatever the reasons, I feel a part of these places.  I am rooting for them.

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