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Sara A. Lewis: Welcome to Points South. I’m your host, Sara A. Lewis of the Oxford American. In this episode, we’re thinking about stories—how we tell them, where we tell them, and why. This year marked 60 years since 1963, one of the most important and cataclysmic years in American history. From the 16th Street Church bombing, the assassination of Medgar Evers, the March on Washington, the assassination of President Kennedy—the events of 1963 form some of the biggest moments in the modern civil rights movement and in our national memory. But how do the stories of 1963, of the long civil rights movement, of human rights in America in general get told?

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SAL: Over the past few years, as I’ve traveled the South reporting stories for this podcast, I’ve visited dozens of historical sites, and I’ve been particularly focused on those that center racial equity and Black experiences. These parks, museums, and monuments tell the stories of civil rights in the places where they happened. In the beginning of my reporting, I didn’t plan to get meta—to look behind the curtain at how it is we tell our stories. But the how became as important to me as the why, as I met historians and scholars shaping our public history. So, what is public history? I asked Joyce-Zoë Farley, professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, to help me understand.

Joyce-Zoë Farley: So, public history is a field that developed in the academy in the late sixties, early seventies and it is a history outside of the classroom. You know, it could be a museum exhibit, a digital, um, exhibit. It could be, you know, just a placard on the street corner honoring, you know, the fact that this was once a historical neighborhood.

SAL: Dr. Farley explains that, since public sites like museums or historic buildings are often more accessible than academic textbooks or college classrooms, they can provide a way to connect communities to their own pasts.

JZF: So, I'm all about providing a consistent, persistent education outside of the classroom because you'd be surprised how many people don't know their own history. The purpose of telling the history is to honor the good, bad, and downright ugly. Um, and if public history is not doing it, then it's really not doing its job.

SAL: The good, the bad, the ugly—and frankly the forgotten. That’s why I started this podcast. Over and over again, during this process I’ve met people trying to make sense of our shared history, and today, I want to share conversations with those working to not only tell truths that are hard to confront, but engaging the public in that confrontation.

Ashley Rogers: Whitney Plantation is, uh, an outdoor museum and memorial, and our mission is to educate the public about the history and legacies of slavery in the United States.

SAL: Ashley Rogers is the executive director of the Whitney Plantation, a museum on the site of a former sugarcane plantation, just a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River in Wallace, Louisiana.

AR: Today, we are meeting inside a circa 1900 manager's house. Whitney Plantation was a working sugarcane plantation, and in an earlier period, indigo and rice from 1752 until 1975. So we have a built environment that spans the years 1790 to 1950. The manager's house where we are right now is a two story, pretty typical turn of the century home, uh, where the last overseer of the plantation lived. We're facing the river road, uh, where the Mississippi River is, and we are next to the plantation owner's house, the big house, which was built in 1790.

SAL: The Whitney’s big house is a white washed two-story building, supported by stately square columns and ringed with a white-railed balcony. The site looks similar to many of the other preserved plantation houses throughout Louisiana that now welcome tourists. Whitney is one of several such houses on the River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

AR: Plantation tourism is extremely popular across the South. Uh, Louisiana is certainly one of the major hubs of plantation tourism, you know, the others being South Carolina, Virginia, a little bit in, you know, around Savannah as well.

SAL: Unlike Whitney, most plantation tourism sites have not sought to educate their visitors about the enslaved people who worked on them.

AR: The classic story of plantation tourism in the South is that it, you know, began in the 20th century as this kind of, you know, very nostalgic look back at the sort of idea of the old South, and certainly upholding, you know, lost cause narratives. And so a lot of these plantation sites were built up as museums for, you know, kind of like a northern tourist audience who were coming through and to, you know, to see the South. And they would be architecture tours, or they would be tours about kind of furnishings, and, you know, the lives of the plantation owners. And really were kind of explicitly, in the earliest times, you know, setup is a way to kind of put the visitor in a space where they could imagine themselves living these grand lifestyles or, you know, being a guest in a home like this. And not all plantation museums are still doing this, but that's still not an uncommon narrative that you encounter in a lot of plantation sites.

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SAL: By focusing on the beauty of plantation houses and on the glamor of the people who once owned them, plantation tourism sites helped reinforce an idea of the antebellum South that leaves out the brutality of slavery. We can think of it as the Gone with the Wind version of Southern history—a story so popular and so pervasive that we start believing it as historical fact, regardless of the truths that it leaves out. Scholars like Dr. Farley call this kind of cultural myth a meta-narrative.

JZF: So meta-narrative is the overarching understanding. It is the narrative that has been told ad nauseum so much that you can repeat it without any difference or without any word change to the story that's been told. So for example, for the longest, the story about Christopher Columbus was that he discovered America, which caused a chain reaction that led to America today. And it wasn't until maybe two decades ago that people were like, “Ah, I don't really know if that's true. Let's, let's probe this further, let's look at it.” And so that became a counternarrative to the meta-narrative.

SAL: Meta-narratives permeate our lives, shaping how we view our culture, our country, and even our own, personal histories.

AR: Even when I was growing up in the South in the 1980s and 1990s, like, I didn't learn that the Civil War was fought over slavery. I mean, there's still just these like really pervasive kind of, you know, misinformation.

Amber Mitchell: And so within education department, which we work with 5th through 12th graders, we do an inquiry-based tour. Our tour is all about discussion and, um, self exploration and self-discovery through conversation.

SAL: Amber Mitchell is the director of education at Whitney.

AM: For students, they have a lot less time under this whole “history is very black and white” understanding, which is a misconception. Whenever we might have a challenge on site, it's not from the students, it's usually from the adults. Because adults really are the ones who have blockades about particular types of history. Um, for those who do challenge us, it's usually challenges along the lines of, “I mean, the slave owners were good, right? Like, these people had a place to stay and they had food to eat.” And this very backwards understanding of, you know, what does it mean to allow somebody to be a human being?

SAL: The Whitney Plantation offers a special kind of guided tour, a person to person experience with locals, descendants of both enslaved people and enslavers, trained to talk about the plantation’s past. One of the meta-narratives that interpreters at Whitney work to break down is the assumption that all work done by enslaved people was unskilled labor.

AR: Our national imagination about slavery is field work. And we imagine people in fields, and they certainly were. But I think that what we actually need to think about is a society that is so reliant on slave labor that, think about just what is labor in a society? And every job you can imagine has been done by enslaved people.

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AR: Here at Whitney Plantation, there was a distiller who made liquor here on the plantation. There were coopers who made barrels. There were blacksmiths. And, you know, I think this is a really important distinction about sugar plantations, is that they were agro-industrial. So, every sugar plantation had a sugar mill. And the sugar mill was an industrial site. So, you know, there were people who were enslaved here who were engineers, for instance. Um, they had to know how to maintain the really complicated equipment that was in the sugar mill, how to fix machines. The sugar makers who were enslaved here, they were in charge of the boiling process, they had to understand it on a chemical level. And, there were a lot of, you know, inventions and kind of improvements to the agricultural techniques that were created by enslaved people.

SAL: My experience visiting the Whitney Plantation underscored how meta-narratives can strip history of its complexity, like the enslaved agricultural engineer, and especially of individual experiences, which help us connect to the humans in our past.

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AR: One of the stories that we tell on our tour is about a woman who was enslaved here, whose name was Francoise. She gave birth to seven children, uh, from the time she was 13 to the time she was 23. And then she was recorded on an inventory in 1860 when she was about 30 years old. She only had two children at that time, and neither of them were among those first seven. So she had lost all seven of those children. We know many of them died. Two of them died the same month of October, 1853, within two weeks of each other. She had a seven year old daughter named Claire, who died in an accident, said she was burned. And so, you know, what's left is of, of her life that she, this, this tragedy she experienced is birth and death records, inventory sales where she was inventoried. And that's it. I don't, I don't have her words describing what it was like to lose two children in a two week period. But that's where we can present that and people can fill in that gap for themselves. Cause it's such a human experience, you know? The tragedy of losing a child.

SAL: I wasn’t surprised by this story. There are some visitors who are. And there are some visitors who have this kind of trauma hard-coded in their DNA. What was different for me, though, was the physical, corporeal experience of being there.

AM: To be able to step out and feel that Louisiana heat, you know, the heat of the summer when an enslaved person would have been cultivating maybe their own food. It's a different kind of feeling when you step into a slave quarters and you realize this is where people were living, this is where people were sleeping. This is where culture was being created. Black American culture or aspects of Black American culture were being created. But I think that for most people, what's different about a space and a place like Whitney, um, unlike going to just another general museum, is that there's a power of place.

SAL: Learning that the Whitney Plantation was in operation in some capacity until 1975 challenged another meta-narrative—that the conditions of slavery ended with the Civil War. I’d actually started this series wanting to tell stories from Reconstruction, one of the least understood or studied eras of American history, and the long traditions of agency, autonomy, and joy that counter a singular understanding of the Black experience in the South. To expand the narrative of slave labor as the defining experience of African-Americans. So I visited Mitchelville, South Carolina.

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Lola Campbell: People just don't know about the story. People don't know what Mitchelville is. And when I say people don't know, not saying, you know, people from Arkansas don't know about it. I'm just saying that people that live here on this island, um, you know, people that have moved here, some people who have been here for a long time, don't know what Mitchelville is and, and the importance of it.

SAL: Lola Campbell is the board chair for the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, a public history site dedicated to telling the story of the first settlement in the U.S. that was self-governed by free slaves.

LC: Before the end of the Civil War, they were enslaved. They had to live by someone else's orders and not by, you know, their own free will. So coming into Mitchelville, they were able to create a community with homes, churches, you know, stores, schools that were for them, that were run by them, where they were able to mold what they were learning, and what they were teaching to young citizens of Mitchelville. It was just a new day, really. I know that sounds pretty cliche, but a new day for them.

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SAL: Located on Hilton Head Island, just a short drive from the main drag of restaurants, boutiques, and resorts in the popular tourist site, is a quiet wooded area just off the marsh.

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LC: You'll walk into the park, you'll see, um, a, uh, a replica of a praise house, a replica of a general store. Um, we also have an actual bateaux, um, that wooden flat bottom rowboat that is, was used for so much transportation purposes for many of the people on the island. You'll see, um, some panels that tell you about the history of the bateaux and the importance to the culture. And just about the Gullah culture in general. You know, think about these people who were overnight freed, you know, able to do what they wanted to do, able to create a future for themselves and able to have their own home, you know, that they could decorate how they wanted to. That they could, um, you know, that they could wake up in the morning, leave to now go to a job that, you know, would pay them wages, uh, in order to continue to live.

SAL: As you can hear in the background, the place is like a sanctuary. Peaceful, protected, and alive with nature. The Park’s next project is to add exhibits representing the homes that Mitchelville residents owned, lived in, and cared for.

LC: The homes were the essence of what was here. where do we find our safest and most comfortable space? I would say in your home, right?

SAL: By centering the community established by Mitchelville residents, the Park creates a counternarrative to the widespread acceptance of slavery as a kind of necessary paternalism. I spoke with Lola for a piece you’ll hear in a few weeks, but I wanted to include some of our conversation here, because her work in preserving the history of Mitchelville is a strong counterstory to what we think of when we think of Hilton Head. But as important as it is for us to highlight stories that don’t center violence, I knew that I needed to go to Birmingham this year, sixty years after 1963, to understand how the stories from this city, once ground zero for civil rights activism, resonate today. Denise Gilmore is the senior Director of the Division of Social Justice and Racial Equity in the City of Birmingham’s Mayor's Office.

Denise Gilmore: So, Birmingham is unique in that the civil rights history is actually present every day. So you don't really have to go that far to be able to experience Birmingham's civil and human rights history. In fact, many of the people that were at, at the forefront of the 1963 campaign in Birmingham are still with us. The children that were foot soldiers back in 1963 are still active today. So you've got this history that is right here and available.

SAL: Denise’s division is tasked with, among other things, developing ways to educate both Birmingham residents and visitors to that rich history. One of the city’s strategies for doing this is creating and maintaining public history sites.

DG: The city of Birmingham, for example, invested 10 million dollars in the restoration of the A.G. Gaston Motel, which was the historic centerpiece of Project C uh, Project Confrontation Campaign. The War Room was located room 30 at the A.G. Gaston Motel. Where Reverend King and Reverend Shuttlesworth and A.D. King and all the civil rights leaders gathered to strategize and plan for what ultimately became the children's march, and then the ongoing protest and sit-ins at the downtown restaurants and retail stores. So the city has taken a major lead in making sure that the historic civil rights district is preserved, that there are people that help to promote the district as well as the historic Fourth Avenue, uh, business district. There's a portion of City Walk that actually also invites visitors to experience and to learn about the civil rights history of Birmingham. And so, it is very difficult for anybody in Birmingham government to be able to separate themselves from Birmingham's rich history. Why would you? Because people come from all over the world. Because to actually walk in the places that Dr. King walked, um, is sacred ground.

SAL: Today, the beautifully restored Gaston Motel is part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. Birmingham also has a museum dedicated to civil rights history, which features many sites of significance around the city—and is a great starting point for mapping out site visits. Every time I’ve visited Birmingham, I’ve stopped at the 16th Street Baptist church, the site of a bombing, which was documented in Spike Lee’s film Four Little Girls. This was the first time I had the opportunity to go inside. We weren’t allowed to record the visit, which was led by a woman who’d been a parishioner since before the bombing and had experienced Dr. King preach in the sanctuary.

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SAL: Today, the room appears just as it did on September 15, 1963 when white supremacists set off a bomb that killed Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, four little girls just attending Sunday school. Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, two black boys, were also shot to death that day. Yet, the restored sanctuary, with bright red carpet, grand pipe organ, and impeccably preserved pews, is a peaceful place that invites contemplation. The sunlight shines through stained glass windows, one of which, installed to replace a window blown out by the bomb, was made by a Welsh artist and donated by the people of Wales in a “gesture of sympathy” for that unspeakably tragic day. As I visited sites like these around the South, that require constant care—in preservation, in restoration, often illuminating histories many would like to forget—I asked the scholars and public historians tasked with keeping these stories alive about the end goal of their work.

AR: What I always say is that I want people to leave here and think differently about their world, because I think that this is a complicated and multifaceted history that's gonna hit people in different ways based on where they came from. You know, their own family story, their own individual identity. It's gonna feel different. Not everybody's gonna get the same lesson, and that's okay, because there's a lot to unpack here. This is about dismantling white supremacy and dismantling racism, which we are not done with and we won't be done with maybe in my lifetime. But, you know, certainly truth telling is one of the ways that we start to get there.

JZF: One of the first goals for me, which is very important, is having engaged citizenry. But then the other thing is, is to honor history that has either been incredibly adulterated, so much to the point that there is no inkling of truth, um, but then also honoring a history that very little people know anything about. And so, you know, given these unsung heroes, they're just due, um, and you know, adding to the history that's already on the books.

LC: Man, I hope that people take away the story. You know, I grew up here, I went to church right down the street, and I didn't know about it. So, I hope what happens is people start to feel the way that I have felt since I knew what Mitchelville was. As a native islander, I feel pride.

DG: When we think about social justice and racial equity, it has to be about the people and making things available for the very people that we're trying to serve. That they then become owners of these spaces and stewards of these spaces. Of course there were renowned civil rights leaders, we know that. But I always like to remind people that it was ordinary people that stood in the courtyard of the Gaston Motel to take that strategic direction from Dr. King and Reverend Shuttlesworth on what to do next. Because here we are 60 years later, and I believe ordinary people, those of us can make change.

SAL: Within the broad stories that define our history, and those that challenge our collective understanding, are the people who occupied these spaces before us. The inscription under the stained glass window in the 16th Street Baptist Church reads “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”

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SAL: This episode was produced by me, Christian Leus, and Christian Brown. Thank you to Dr. Joyce Zoë-Farley, Ashley Rogers and Amber Mitchell, Lola Campbell, and Denise Gilmore. Post-production and score thanks to Curtis Fye and Trey Pollard of Spacebomb. This episode is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit OxfordAmerican.org/PointsSouth to find more episodes, plus films, photographs, and more from the world of Points South.