Earlier this month, I joined other members of the National Trust on a memorable trip from Memphis down to the Mississippi Delta. Dr. Bill Ferris, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and one of the nation’s leading scholars on the American South, joined us and helped set the context for what we were seeing in places such as Oxford, Sumner, Indianola, and Dockery Farms. His remarks were a masters class in the connections of place with memory, history, food, drink, literature, race, and gender.
At one point, Bill noted that a relative of his liked to say that “he was raised on cornbread and recollections.” As someone who has eaten my fair share of cornbread, often quotes my grandmother, and tells stories passed down from my father, I understood completely.
We launched our journey into the Delta from Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home in Oxford. Both the site and writer are reminders of the importance of recollections and history to life today. Historic sites at their best are dynamic places where past, present, and future meet in a variety of ways. I often say that “the period of significance is now” with historic sites to point to those intersections. You cannot have been in the preservation field very long without hearing the famous William Faulkner quote from Requiem for a Nun, which goes, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That’s very true at a place like Rowan Oak, where communities of people who write and love literature, admire architecture, and enjoy good liquor and good company all visit for remembrance and inspiration. (To that last point, Faulkner has another famous line which suggests that “pouring out liquor is like burning books.” He enjoyed his Four Roses.)
At its best, memory is a poet and not a historian. But not all recollections are correct, and some are purposefully misleading, including “Lost Cause” memories told by my beloved grandmother. Perhaps the most meaningful and moving part of the trip was the 90 minutes we spent at the courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, where the murderers of young Emmett Till were tried and acquitted in 1955, setting off events that led to the modern Civil Rights movement. Visitors are invited to “engage in the story of Emmett Till, explore your own story, and create a new emerging story with us.” It is important to bring this past into the present, where we are still grappling with the racism that led to Till’s murder and the murder through lynching of at least 4,000 African Americans from 1877 – 1950. In that restored courthouse, we read aloud an apology from citizens of Tallahatchie County to the family of Emmett Till. One of our National Trust Council members spontaneously used that venue to speak from the heart about his mother’s recollections as a young African American woman in the Delta who was only five years older than Till. This is a historic site that exists to tell the story of Emmett Till in order to move people forward.
You don’t have to be a historian to play a role in the telling of the full American story. I happened to be with attorney Bryan Stevenson — the dynamic founder and head of the Equal Justice Institute — last week, and was reminded of the work we all have to do when he said “injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.” If we want to build communities and a nation full of hope, it is important that we set forth a new narrative about the injustices in our lives, past and present. Historic sites, monuments, and recollections are good places to begin.
Have a good week.
More to come…