Reporter Brian Palmer is black. Editor Erin Hollaway Palmer is white. On July 4, the Richmond, Virginia-based husband and wife began traveling 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 Part 2 of this new Colorlines series, the Palmers visit a pre-Civil War black cemetery and a house where Freedom Riders strategized. They also encounter the always-jarring Confederate battle flag at a roadside produce stand.
Part 2. July 5. Asheville, North Carolina
We’d planned our trip to Asheville more as a rest (and coffee) stop than a research destination.
Fate intervenes wonderfully.
At Waking Life Espresso, Aaron, the young barista, asks where we’re from and what brought us to town. I mention our documentary and our interest in old African-American cemeteries. It so happens, he tells us, that a team of local folks and professors has been working for years on the preservation of a black cemetery in the city. He’d read about it in the Mountain Xpress newspaper last fall.
Erin and I spend a lot of time in old, neglected black cemeteries. A lot of time. In fact, we moved to Virginia to make a documentary that starts in one, and we spend most weekends helping to clear another. This is the last thing we were expecting to encounter in Appalachia’s “it” city. We have to go see for ourselves.
The South Asheville Cemetery lies on rolling, wooded land behind St. John “A” Baptist Church. Some graves have modern headstones, others are marked with large rocks, and some are not marked at all. Time and human hands, it seems, have degraded and damaged the headstones (some have been toppled), but the cemetery, which predates the Civil War, is obviously well cared for. This is one of the surprises we live—and travel—for.
July 6. Asheville to Montgomery, Alabama
About an hour outside Asheville, Erin starts to pull off at a roadside stand but swerves back onto the asphalt after seeing the enormous battle flags flapping over the fruits and vegetables. I would have stopped to talk to the vendor, a middle-aged white woman—but the driver had exercised her veto power. “It always feels like an assault seeing this flag,” Erin says later. “You never know when it’s going to make an appearance.”
I am intrigued, not threatened, by these flag people. Over the past couple of years that we’ve lived in Virginia, Erin and I have covered a number of Civil War reenactments and visited cemeteries where Confederate soldiers are interred. I have spoken to men who don the Confederate uniform, women who portray widows, and people who tend the graves of their ancestors and others. All assert pride in their heritage. Some add the usual things about states’ rights and protecting home and hearth against Northern aggression.
I have had conversations with some folks that have progressed beyond chats in passing to e-mail exchanges. The one constant I have found is an inability to confront one basic fact: that terror was the foundation of their “Southern way of life." Law gave all white people, not simply enslavers, dominion over black bodies. I have asked a handful of men how they would have lived under such a system. I have asked if they can imagine their own flesh and blood—particularly their wives, sisters, daughters, mothers—living as property to be used and abused. I have never received a direct answer, only deflections.
This denial frustrates and angers me, but I get it. Their fantasy world falls apart when they are forced to accept that my ancestors were as human as theirs. But it enrages Erin. “To the point that I can’t look these people in the eye,” she says. "I’m ashamed to be in their presence.”
We cut down through the northwestern tip of South Carolina, avoiding the interstate to get a feel for the country, however brief. On Route 11, two pickup trucks of Confederate flaggers blow by in the opposite direction. We pick up the Interstate in Georgia and take it the rest of the way.
July 7 and 8. Montgomery, Alabama
An elderly African-American couple pulls up next to us on South Jackson Street in Montgomery as we read a historical marker, the man piloting the large sedan. “Do you know the way to the Ross-Clayton Funeral Home?” the woman in the passenger seat asks. “We’re from Virginia,” I tell her. “We have no idea.”
We gesture to a woman standing on the porch of a house. She’d seen us looking at the sign a few minutes earlier and had told us to begin reading from the other side. That’s where the text starts, she’d shouted over a hedge. And she would know: The marker honors her father, Richard H. Harris, who, with his wife, Vera, hosted a group of Nashville Freedom Riders in that house.
These were the real Freedom Riders—not the posers in pickups we saw in Virginia. Diane Nash, John Lewis and other Riders held strategy sessions there with Ralph Abernathy, James Farmer and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who lived right down the block at the Dexter Avenue Baptist parsonage. During the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955–56, Harris, a pharmacist, coordinated transportation for participants out of his drugstore, an extremely brave and risky act.
Valda Harris Montgomery, an Alabama State physical therapy professor, comes off the porch to give the folks directions—go to the light, take a right, then go to the second stoplight. “You can’t miss it. It’s big.”
Montgomery, a native of the city of Montgomery, wrote a book called "Just a Neighbor: A Child’s Memoir of the Civil Rights Movement." She gives us a quick introduction to her neighborhood, Centennial Hill, and its history. “Those people considered to be the icons now were just neighbors of the family. They were just doing what needed to be done.”
If you walk, Montgomery tells us, you can see most of the major Civil Rights Movement sites—the parsonage where King and his family lived from 1954 to 1960; Dexter Avenue Baptist Church; the Civil Rights Memorial Museum at the Southern Poverty Law Center. So we thank her and walk.
We knock on the door of the Dexter Avenue Interpretive Center and Parsonage Museum a little after 10 a.m.—the opening time according to the sign at the entrance—but no one answers, so we wander the small garden out back. A few minutes later, I knock again, and this time someone unlocks the door from the inside, and then returns to the counter. I push the door open.
After we pay our admission fee, a staffer leads us into a room with chairs facing a giant monitor for an orientation. The introductory video does something important, though it could use an update: It places Dr. King in the context of the church and the community, and makes clear that he built on the work of his predecessors, among them Vernon Johns, who delivered revolutionary sermons such as “It’s Safe to Murder Negroes in Montgomery” in 1949.
There is a wall of photos to our left, many showing a startlingly young and relaxed MLK Jr. This is the only place we can see them, our guide tells us. The pictures were taken by Roscoe Williams, a deacon at Dexter Avenue Baptist, and donated to the church by his widow. "We ask that visitors not photograph them," says our guide. Photography inside the parsonage, restored and furnished to resemble what it might have looked like when the King family lived there, is also prohibited.
Were the house a sacred space, a shrine, I could understand the restriction, but it isn’t, nor is it presented as such on the tour—it’s an old home in which a succession of pastors resided with their families until the 1990s. There is something missing in the guide’s focus on what is “authentic,” as in owned by the Kings—in the Reverend’s study there’s the fan, bookshelves, desk, record player and so on—and what had been donated to add to the period effect.
The displays at the Civil Rights Memorial Museum, run by the Southern Poverty Law Center, are spare—small portraits of people killed during the struggle, accompanied by brief descriptions—but heartbreaking. There are the stories many of us know well—the murders of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, of Medgar Evers and Viola Liuzzo. There is one, though, that grabs us on this particular day.
“A-student Virgil Ware, 13, was riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bicycle, excitedly planning a paper route,” reads the caption below a very serious-looking photograph of the boy. “Neither had heard about the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing earlier that day. Two white youths, inflamed by a segregationist rally, drove by on a motor scooter decorated with Confederate flags and shot him.”
If there were a shred a validity to the “heritage, not hate” line, it could not withstand this.
One of the last portraits is of an Arizona man named Balbir Singh Sodhi, killed four days after 9/11 while tending the grass in front of his Chevron station. His killer “said that Sodhi looked like a terrorist and boasted that he had murdered a ‘towel head.’” But Sodhi’s son gets the last word: “My father had a lot of friends, but no enemies. The word hatred was not in his vocabulary at all, but he ended up falling from the bullet of hate.”
It’s not melodramatic to say we leave drained and hurting.