Reporter Brian Palmer is black. Editor Erin Hollaway Palmer is white. Starting on July 4, the Richmond, Virginia-based husband and wife drove west and farther south to trace the routes along which enslaved people were driven to distant markets by traders and to explore the Confederates in Erin’s family tree. In Part 6, the Palmers visit a sundown town, they learn about a famous black high school that was razed post-integration because whites refused to send their children there, and they come face-to-face with a proud Confederate in Erin’s family tree. 

Part 6. July 15–17: Tupelo, Mississippi, to Columbia, South Carolina

We drove into Columbia, South Carolina, in the dark last night, and have set ourselves up this morning at Drip, a coffee shop downtown. Good coffee, after nearly a week without, is balm for the soul. 

We’re going to need it, in light of what’s coming this afternoon: a Klan rally outside the State House to protest the July 10 removal of the Confederate battle flag from the capitol grounds. Governor Nikki Haley has tried to discourage people from attending. “Our family hopes the people of South Carolina will join us in staying away from the disruptive, hateful spectacle members of the Ku Klux Klan hope to create over the weekend and instead focus on what brings us together. We want to make the Statehouse a lonely place for them. In doing so, we’ll honor those we have lost and continue to make our state stronger,” Haley said in a statement on her Facebook page. An editorial in Columbia’s paper, The State, echoes this sentiment. 

“There’s nothing we can do to stop hate groups from staging rallies at our State House; the Constitution gives even the most odious people and groups the right to hold peaceful protests in such public places. But we can do something even better. We can stop them from accomplishing anything they hope to accomplish—by simply ignoring them. That’s always the best response to extremists.”

While I don’t exactly relish the prospect of staring down a bunch of racists in robes—Brian and I debated coming here all last week—I think it’s important to bear witness. It seems to me that ignoring extremists allows them to fester. By documenting them, we expose them in all their hatefulness. And we leave no question as to what their flag stands for. 

 

Photo: Brian Palmer Sign outside Wilborn Outdoors during parking lot construction, in Cullman, Alabama, on July 15, 2015.

 

Speaking of the flag—again—it was out in force in northern Alabama, where we lingered for a couple of days while looking for traces of my family history. We had cut across the state from Tupelo, Mississippi, stopping for gas in the town of Cullman, about 50 miles north of Birmingham. Unlike some of the other towns we’d passed through, it looked alive, which signaled to us that there might actually be a place to eat that wasn’t Applebee’s or Cracker Barrel. When we saw a sign for Berkeley Bob’s Coffee House & Whole Earth Store, we decided to look for parking—the name just seemed so incongruous in rural Alabama (plus, it included the magic word—“coffee”). 

Lunch itself wasn’t all that interesting, and the place itself was very white. All white, in fact, which always makes me uncomfortable, especially in the South, especially when the white people in question are not young. It’s unfair to make assumptions, but I do. We’d seen plenty of pickups with flapping battle flags on our drive from Tupelo, and there the damn thing was on the front page of the free local paper, Cullmansense, stocked by Berkeley Bob’s: “Confederate flag sales on the rise at Wilborn Outdoors,” read the headline. 

So where did we go next? Right over to Wilborn Outdoors. Did I get out of the car? No. I parked across the street, in fact, and kept the engine running—I would have roasted otherwise—while Brian went inside. The employee he spoke to, who asked that we not use his name, told Brian, “We never stocked them before. Everybody’s going crazy over it—we can’t keep them in.” As they chatted, the man took a phone call from a woman who wanted six flags. He said a guy had just come in and bought 40, cleaning them out.

As we left Cullman, having seen less than a handful of African-Americans out and about, Brian said ruefully, “This was probably one of those sundown towns.” Sure enough, the next day in Gadsden, about an hour east, we were told that Cullman is “like the home of the Klan.” “You probably got a lot of funny looks there,” Taylor Knowles III said to us. In fact, a 2010 New York Times Magazine story quotes James Fields, an African-American minister who grew up in Cullman County and served in local government, describing his response to residents who deny that a sign warning blacks to get out before dark ever stood in their city. “It was there and folks know it.”

 

Photo: Brian Palmer Taylor Knowles III at the Central-Carver Museum in Gadsden, Alabama, on July 16, 2015.

 

Knowles is the fiscal officer/curator/docent of the Central-Carver Museum, located where Carver High School once stood. Carver, which operated from 1936 until 1971, was Gadsden’s black school and a source of deep pride in the African-American community. One of its graduates, James Hood, integrated the University of Alabama in June 1963 with Vivian Malone from Mobile. Knowles himself, Carver class of 1960, was a good friend of Hood’s. He left town for California in 1963 immediately after a tense encounter with Alabama State Troopers, who had attacked Civil Rights protesters in Gadsden with cattle prods the day before.

After decades on the West Coast, Knowles returned home a few years ago. We spent over an hour with him at the museum, which is packed with Carver memorabilia, as well as of photographs of prominent graduates and archival materials relating to Civil Rights history, local and national. Carver closed because of integration, Knowles told us—whites didn’t want their children attending a black school—and demolition began in 1977 in the dark of night. 

“We didn’t know nothin’ about it,” John Maull Jr., class of 1967, had told us before our museum visit. That’s right, Knowles said—the community was not informed. Had a couple of alums not been walking by that morning and seen what was going on, he said, everything—class portraits, trophies, yearbooks—would have ended up at the dump and “no one would have known this place existed.” 

 

Photo: Brian Palmer Detail of the Carver High School graduating class portrait, 1960, at the Central-Carver Museum in Gadsden, Alabama, on July 16, 2015.

 

Maull had been standing on his front porch, across the street from where we’d parked in a patch of precious shade. We went over to say hello and to see what he could tell us about the neighborhood, which is pocked with abandoned and beat-up homes.

In 1920, according to the census, my great-grandparents were renting a small house there, just around the corner at 614 Spring Street. How long had this been a black neighborhood? Brian asked. As long as he had been there, Maull answered—which is a long time. He’s been living in the same house since 1964.

Spring Street was all white in 1920. Two short blocks to the east, Kyle Street, with the exception of one family, was entirely black. I know next to nothing about my great-grandparents, Homer and Lillie Stripling Hollaway. They were not especially prosperous people, I gather from census records. Homer was listed as a “repairer” in a “car works” in 1920; Lillie was not working outside the home that year—she was also pregnant with my grandfather, who was born five months after the census was taken. Neither had attended school, though both, apparently, could read and write. 

By 1930, they had moved up north, to Middletown, Ohio, where Lillie died two years later in childbirth. After her death, the children were dispersed to live with relatives; my grandfather, Jimmy, was taken in by an aunt and uncle in New Jersey. And until fairly recently, that’s where I thought he was from, though I’m sure I’d been told he was born in Alabama. It wasn’t until I started researching Brian’s family in 2012 that I developed a greater interest in my own—and this “newfound” Southern connection intrigued me in ways it might not have before.

My grandpa died earlier this year at age 94, but he had long since disappeared into the vapors of dementia, so by the time I realized I had questions for him, it was too late. Grandpa’s mother, Lillie, was the daughter of a blacksmith, who in turn was the son of an illiterate farmer, Henry Marcus Stripling, born in Georgia in 1829.

On the eve of the Civil War, according to the census, Henry was living in Carroll County, to the west of Atlanta on the Alabama state line, with his wife and three children; his personal property was valued at $75—not a lot of money, even in 1860.

The following year, four months after the outbreak of war, Henry, along with one or more of his brothers, joined a Georgia unit of the Confederate army called Cobb’s Legion and seems to have served in some fashion until the very end, when his name appears on a list of prisoners of war surrendered at Appomattox in April 1865. Two years earlier, Henry had been hospitalized for a time in Richmond, at Chimborazo, the Confederacy’s largest medical facility. Come August, Brian and I will be living two blocks away from where the hospital once stood. 

I say this not with any pride—there’s nothing to be proud of—but with a certain amount of fascination. A distant fascination, though. On our way to Columbia from Gadsden, we stopped in Rome, Georgia, where Henry is buried with his wife and one of their sons. His Civil War service stands out in relief atop the gravestone—H.M. STRIPLING CONFEDERATE SOLDIER—evidently the source of some pride to Henry himself or to whoever purchased the stone. I stood there in the heat and felt … nothing. Actually, I felt hot, irritable, and eager to get back in the car and out of the Deep South. 

 

Photo: Brian Palmer Erin Hollaway Palmer at the grave of her great-great-great-grandfather Henry Marcus Stripling, Oakland Cemetery in Rome, Georgia, on July 17, 2015.

 

Maybe if I’d been closer to my own grandpa, I might have felt some connection, however tenuous, to Private Stripling, my great-great-great-grandfather. Or if I’d grown up steeping in Confederate mythology. Or if I didn’t know anything about slavery and its long, brutal legacy. It’s unlikely, given his net worth in 1860, that Henry himself owned slaves—I’ve not yet found any evidence that suggests he might have—but he nonetheless fought for years for a “country” that sought to preserve the institution of race-based slavery in perpetuity. There’s no denying this central fact, whatever Henry’s personal motivations might have been. 

Those motivations, as well as any other meaningful details about his life, will almost certainly remain a mystery. Henry couldn’t read or write, so that just about precludes the possibility of finding a cache of letters or a journal in the archives. I’ll keep looking online, and maybe I’ll get to Carroll County one day (after visiting a couple of courthouses in Alabama on the trail of other ancestors, we didn’t have much time to spare in Georgia).

I can’t say I have a burning desire to know more than I already do. Frankly, Henry’s story is not the one that interests me, perhaps because so many like it have already been told. What hasn’t been told, or told enough, are stories like that of Mat and Julia Palmer, Brian’s great-grandparents, who survived slavery and made something of their lives as free people—and who set us on this journey in the first place.