Reporter Brian Palmer is black. Editor Erin Hollaway Palmer is white. On July 4, 2015, the Richmond, Virginia-based husband and wife began a journey west and farther south to trace the routes white salesmen used to distribute enslaved black people, learn about Brian’s formerly enslaved ancestors—and explore Erin’s Confederate ones. In this new Colorlines series the Palmers will document the big lie of Confederate history, the small moments of unease, and the profound weirdness of a polite society wracked by racism.
Part 1. July 4. Richmond, Virginia
Erin and I start our Fourth of July on Richmond’s Monument Avenue at the statue of Arthur Ashe. We’re heading out of town, west and south, and want to begin our trip from a place of strength, rooted in reality. To get there from our apartment, we take Main Street to Davis, named originally for Jefferson, the president of the Confederacy, but reassigned in our imaginations to the actress Viola, to us a more deserving honoree.
The Ashe statue is the humblest in the collection of memorials on the avenue. “Humble” is perhaps too generous. It is cartoonish and overshadowed by stately Confederate colossi. But the Ashe statue represents a real person, not a mythic construction. Ashe was an African-American son of this city who rose to greatness and who inspired people like my own father, a black man born in 1928 on a farm in York County, Virginia. My dad was never more than a hard-hitting duffer on the tennis court, but he took pride in Ashe, and he forced me to study this composed and honorable man and the sport that had propelled him to prominence.
Monument Avenue is anchored by the statue of Robert E. Lee, unveiled in 1890. The Lee statue was among the first monuments erected in a national program launched by Confederate partisans to literally embed their distorted narrative of the Civil War into American public memory. By the time the last Confederate statue went up in 1929, Virginia’s white elite had stolen many of the civil and human rights won by blacks in the years after the war. The 1902 state constitution disenfranchised most black citizens and many poor whites. The 1924 “Act to Preserve Racial Integrity” enshrined white supremacy in law. In 1926 the state mandated “the separation of white and colored persons at public halls, theaters, opera houses, motion picture shows and places of public entertainment and public assemblages.” Blacks were harassed, tortured and killed to enforce these laws and conventions. These are the facts, not the myths, of the avenue.
Erin and I planned our trip months ago. We would head to Alabama and other points south to do research for the documentary we’re producing, “Make the Ground Talk.” The doc delves deeply into the stories of my great-grandparents—enslaved people who emancipated themselves by fleeing to Union lines during the war. Mat Palmer, my great-grandfather, served in the United States Colored Troops, somehow making his way from bondage in Goochland County to freedom in Richmond and eventually a little town called Magruder (which, ironically, gets its name from a Confederate general). While researching my family, Erin started looking into her own ancestry. What she found, distant Confederate roots in northeastern Alabama, disturbed her. But she—we—wanted to trace these roots.
The plan for our low-key trip—we’d jokingly dubbed it “Confederates and Caffeine” (I’m an unapologetic coffee snob)—shattered on June 17. We grieved.
The slaughter of nine black churchgoers at Charleston, South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church sparked a debate about the Confederate flag, even as we tried to mourn, because the young man who allegedly committed the crime wrapped himself in it and all it stood for. As a result, the hollowness of the argument popularized by defenders of Confederate myth—that the flag stands for “heritage, not hate”—has been subject to renewed national scrutiny.
In Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, conversations in local media about Confederate symbols exploded only when the statues along Monument Avenue were spray-painted, most notably the massive tribute to Jefferson Davis, which is just a few blocks from our apartment. The ragged “Black lives matter” tag didn’t last long. Erin and I watched a young white man, an independent contractor hired by the city, scrub away the remaining traces the day after it made the news.
Our greatest fear is that the examination of what these symbols and statues represent—slavery and the violent reaction to black empowerment in the 19th and 20th centuries—will similarly be erased by those who continue to sell a hateful ideology as American history. In other words, that the politicians and pundits who gin up white resentment with fake history will continue to rule the day.
We started working on our film in 2012, when issues of racial history—and racist remembrance—were not a part of the national discussion the way they are now, after Charleston. So on this trip, we are traveling south along historically resonant paths to confront the “heritage, not hate” myth and, perhaps more important, to find touchstones of truth with which to resist it.
Route 60 west from Richmond takes us through seven counties on our way to Lexington, the center of the Robert E. Lee cult of personality. Even in the smaller towns along the way, Confederate monuments have pride of place. They’re not as grand as Richmond’s—in Buckingham Courthouse, a modest obelisk juts skyward in the parking lot of a raggedy strip mall across from the court—but they usually stand uncontested, fiction fashioned into fact in our common spaces.
We arrive in Lexington around lunchtime on Independence Day. American flags decorate businesses, homes and T-shirts. As we walk toward Washington and Lee University, a pickup truck with a large Confederate battle flag planted in its bed rolls by.
The Lee Chapel is a simple and stunningly well-preserved building. Mark, a guide, directs our attention to the sculpture of Lee, the college’s 11th president, in repose. “He’s sleeping, he’s not dead.” Actually, he is, and we’re standing directly atop his crypt, where his wife, his children and his parents also lie. His horse, Traveller, is interred there, too.
Erin tells me she has to leave. The hagiography is simply too oppressive. But I stay. I am angry, always, that our history can be so seamlessly tailored and retailored by the powerful to exclude the brutality and oppression that made this country run. So I have to look.
Paeans to the military legend and family man abound. His silk and leather slippers are on display. I do not see here what I have learned from Robert Thompson, Eric Foner and other historians. Lee rented out enslaved people and earned a profit from their labor. And he could be brutal, despite his much-vaunted gentility and supposed philosophical objection to the institution of slavery. Erin and I did not patronize the well-stocked gift shop.
We hadn’t heard of Abingdon until the day before we left Richmond, while searching for the routes that enslaved people were forced to travel on their way to market in the Deep South. (Roughly 300,000 African Americans were sold south from Virginia between 1830 and 1860.) In this picturesque town 175 miles southwest of Lexington, there are few vestiges of the city’s Civil War– and Reconstruction-era past. We decide to visit the grave of Landon Boyd, a once-enslaved African-American who sat on the jury that would have tried Jefferson Davis for treason, had President Andrew Johnson not granted him amnesty in 1868.
On our way up Main Street toward Sinking Spring Cemetery, two pickup trucks festooned with Confederate flags chug by. The driver of the second truck smiles and peels a hand off the steering wheel to offer half a wave. My first reaction is, oddly enough, to smile back—not to signal approval, but to express, somehow, that I am not intimidated. I will not reward him with a serious expression. We walk on, a little dazed by this encounter.
But we’re not done with the flag yet. In a vending box outside the post office, a huge photo on the front page of the local newspaper, the Bristol Herald Courier, catches Erin’s eye: A 17-year-old boy in a yellow T-shirt holds the corners of the Confederate battle flag beneath the headline “Unwavering support.” Erin reluctantly forks over 75 cents (I’m out of change) to buy the last copy.
The boy is featured for organizing a parade of cars and trucks decorated in Confederate flags from Bristol to nearby Johnson City, Tennessee. He called it a “Freedom Ride.”
Shockingly, the editors didn’t see fit to refer to the original freedom rides, the ones initiated by Civil Rights activists in the early 1960s to achieve actual freedom of travel for black people.
Instead, the newspaper grants this child the first and last word on the meaning of the flag. “Read up and make sure you know exactly what the real details are,” he tells the writer. The flag, he asserts, isn’t about slavery but about states’ rights. His ancestors “were just fighting because they felt they were being oppressed.”
Sound familiar? Never mind that this tired argument has been demolished, most recently in the Washington Post by James W. Loewen, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Vermont and the author of “The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader.” What’s terrifying is that the Bristol Herald Courier and other local papers certainly hold greater sway than the Post in small-town America.
We tuck the paper away and enter Sinking Spring, finding ourselves first in the larger, white section of this once-segregated burial ground, with its requisite, well-tended plot honoring the Unknown Confederate Dead. Landon Boyd, who had been a brick mason while enslaved, is buried in the black section, across the street. The grass here is trimmed. His small headstone is surrounded by a little patch of poison ivy. But Boyd is listed on the map of the cemetery, and that matters.
Our Fourth of July ends in Cumberland Square Park, in Bristol, right on the Tennessee line. Hundreds of people have gathered to hear country rock and watch the fireworks. A Cobra helicopter welded to a pedestal looms over the crowd.
We feel odd as an interracial couple, though we see at least one more. This is as much about class as it is about race—from what we can see these are not the well-heeled tourists of Lexington or Abingdon. This is a white, working-class town with a sprinkling of people of color, black and Latino. We line up along the road to watch the explosions in the sky, which faintly illuminate the monument to the common Confederate soldier, cordoned off for the evening. A woman in front of us videos with her phone, her ponytail poking out beneath a tiny battle flag embroidered on her pink baseball cap.
Brian Palmer is a freelance visual journalist and educator living in Richmond, Virginia. Palmer has been on the photography and editorial staffs at The Village Voice, US News & World Report and Fortune, and he’s been an on-air correspondent for CNN. Palmer’s photographs have appeared in the New York Times, Pixel Press, Politiken, Die Zeit, and other outlets. He has contributed video to PBS, ABC World News, and MTV News & Docs, and he has written for Mother Jones, Huffington Post, the Nation Investigative Fund, The Root among other news outlets. In 2016 he will teach at Columbia Journalism School.
Erin Hollaway Palmer is an editor, writer and educator living in Richmond. She edits for websites and publications and serves as a tutor at Literacy for Life in Williamsburg. Hollaway Palmer moved to Virginia in 2013 with her husband to produce “Make the Ground Talk,” a documentary that evokes life in a historic black community that was uprooted during World War II to build a naval base, now a top-secret U.S. military installation. Hollaway Palmer has been a managing editor for Parade and National Geographic Adventure magazines.