Reporter Brian Palmer is black. Editor Erin Hollaway Palmer is white. Since July 4, the Richmond, Virginia-based husband and wife have been driving west and farther south to trace the routes white salesmen used to distribute enslaved blacks, learn about Brian’s formerly enslaved ancestors—and explore Erin’s Confederate ones.
In Part 4 of this Colorlines series, the Palmers addess the racism built into some of America’s highways, wrestle with whether or not symbols such as the Confederate flag even deserve our attention, and have some fun. (There’s a Laurence Fishburne sighting!)
Part 4. July 11: New Orleans, Louisiana
After we leave the exhibition at the Historic New Orleans Collection, we zigzag through the Quarter toward the Marigny. An African-American man, roughly my age but with a little more mass to him, sits on the stoop of a small house talking to two white guys, who are standing. There’s a business-suited older white man off to the side, also standing. I catch a glimpse of the black man’s face beneath his hat as Erin and I pass. That’s Morpheus, I think, before I recall the actor’s name. I debate whether to turn around, and then I do a 180. I need to know if he is who I think he is. Call it a journalist’s vanity. As I approach the group, Suitman surges toward me, chest first.
“May I help you?”
“I just wanted to ask if you’re shooting a movie around here,” I say to the seated man.
"No," he replies, cautiously. “I own a house in the neighborhood.”
“What’s your name?” he asks me. I tell him.
“My name’s Laurence.”
I nod, say thank you, and back away from Mr. Fishburne.
Erin and I head to the Central Business District. There, Robert E. Lee looms atop a plinth several stories high. Other Confederates command traffic islands in this city. Slavery and segregation are barely memorialized in the New Orleans landscape, but the Confederacy is well commemorated.
This may change, if not immediately: Mayor Mitch Landrieu has called for the removal of some Confederate statuary as well as a Reconstruction-era monument erected by the city’s racist paramilitary White League. The City Council voted unanimously to hold public hearings. Comments sections in local news media, particularly the Times-Picayune, are blowing up with invective, huzzahs, prejudice, snark and so much more.
“Move all of the Confederate Statues to New Orleans Country club so the[y] can be among the people that love them,” says someone commenting as “Nat Turner.”
“[L]et’s be really honest—ALL blacks really want is to intermarry with the white race and dilute it so that in future generations that [sic] are no more whites and no more blacks—only mixed race,” writes “Life4U” later in the thread. “Make sure they know how many blacks kill other blacks each year . . . STOP THE BLAME GAME!”
It’s not pretty, but it is heartening to watch this long-deferred conversation explode.
July 12: New Orleans
On Saturday we visit Sylvester Francis’ Backstreet Cultural Museum in Tremé. Francis’ emphysema forces him to whisper and wheeze, but he struggles through an introduction to his storefront collection of Mardi Gras Indian costumes and memorabilia from social aid and pleasure clubs. Francis, a photographer and filmmaker who has documented the community since the 1980s, takes our cash for the entry fee—they call it a “cover charge”—before turning us over to his brother, Robert, for the tour.
I pull out my notebook. Robert shakes his head and makes a stop sign of his hand. "Don’t write anything down," he tells me. He repeats what the signs on the wall say: "No video, no audio, a maximum of four photographs per room" (there are two). He explains that the makers of the elaborate costumes around us, towering assemblages of beads, sequins and feathers, invest a year’s worth of work and hundreds, even thousands of dollars, in them. These folks get upset when pictures of their suits pop up on the Web, in print, in videos, unattributed, and they get nothing for it. "I understand," I tell him. Backstreet is a private repository of a very public traditional African-American street art, one that people with cameras and privilege, from academics to auteurs, have capitalized on for years. The Francises don’t control what happens out on the street, but they can control what happens at 1116 Henriette Delille Street.
Robert, the elder Francis, had mentioned before the tour that a funeral just a few blocks away would have a second line, a traditional jazz band procession. I take out my notebook again to jot down directions. "You don’t need that," he says. "Listen. Walk down St. Philip—traffic goes this way, you go the other way. Go under the bridge. You’ll see the people.”
Folks dressed more for a barbecue than a funeral hang out in a pickup truck at the end of the block as more formally attired adults and kids walk in and out of Charbonnet Funeral Home. A man sipping from a Bud tall boy tells us that he was on his way home from the foot doctor and detoured this way to the see the second line. Turns out the parade won’t be happening here, we learn from someone else, but we keep talking.
The man—he tells us his name, Tony Anderson—is a Mardi Gras Indian, aka Big Chief Cool. He points to the massive elevated interstate above North Claiborne Avenue, behind us. Indians used to parade up and down the neutral ground, the median, beneath a canopy formed by giant live oaks. Five hundred homes were torn down and rows of trees ripped out to build the expressway, devastating the community. A lot of businesses were destroyed, Anderson tells us.
Not long before that, though, a similarly grand transportation project, cutting a highway through another part of the city, was defeated. "The French Quarter Expressway was stopped by preservationists who battled fiercely and persuaded the federal government to withhold funding,” John L. Renne of the University of New Orleans wrote in a 2011 study. “However, residents of the North Claiborne Avenue area—which included some of the oldest African-American neighborhoods in the country—did not have the funds or political clout to stop construction of the Interstate 10 Claiborne Expressway.”
It’s a familiar story. Just pick a city. Robert Moses, who proposed the highway through the French Quarter, blew up New York City communities of color with the Cross Bronx Expressway—and fought less destructive public transportation projects.
In the 1950s, white men with power drove the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, now part of I-95, through Richmond’s Jackson Ward, one of the nation’s most prosperous black communities into the mid-20th century.
Interstate 85 was carved through a Montgomery, Alabama, community of African -American strivers [PDF]. The racist roots of this project are plain as day: The state highway director at the time was Sam Engelhardt, a cotton-plantation owner, leader of the White Citizens’ Council and Klansman. Even as it was tracking MLK, the FBI monitored Engelhardt’s activities in its investigations of “Klan infiltration into the Citizens’ Councils of Alabama” [PDF]. This wasn’t just a state-level thing, writes University of Alabama historian Raymond A. Mohl: “Federal Highway Administrator Rex M. Whitton told Englehardt to ‘let the dust settle for about six months and then proceed with construction of the project.’”
New Orleans is a city of wonders and of vivid extremes. Prosperity butts up against destitution in this majority-black city, here in Tremé and in other neighborhoods. African-American communities that were poor before Hurricane Katrina are no better off now. More than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. Figures reported in a February study by the New Orleans-based Data Center are arresting. Thirty-nine percent of the city’s children live in poverty, 17 percentage points higher than the national average. “[L]ess than half of all working age, African[-] American men have employment.” As Erin and I examine the history and symbolism of the Confederacy and its remnants, we wrestle with this awful reality here in the Crescent City.
July 9. Selma, Alabama
We wrestled hard with the realities of Selma, Alabama, too. Once a Civil-Rights mecca, it that now seems more like a shell than a town. On our way to Brown A.M.E. Chapel, headquarters for the Selma to Montgomery march, we walked past boarded-up downtown stores and through the threadbare George Washington Carver Homes, federal projects built in the 1950s.
We shadowed a tour group of African-American youth from Alabama State University’s Aspire program. The kids listened to Evelyn Babcock, a member of the tourism ministry and a former TV news broadcaster, describe the church’s history, which includes a visit from the little-known Illinois senator who now sits in the White House. There is pride and power within these walls. But the streets of Selma, 80 percent African-American, according to the last census, look beaten.
The question arises—not just in our heads but in national conversations—why focus on symbols and history when the material situation of black folks in the 21st century is so dire? The Confederate flag is a distraction from this brutal, enduring reality, we have heard and read.
Versions of the argument come from all directions. White conservatives deploy it to deflect attention from meaningful discussion of their hallowed symbols. But liberals, African-Americans among them, have grown angry and frustrated, too. For one thing, they ask, how did the news media shift so quickly to flag talk after the murder of nine black men and women at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E.? Where was the deep examination of the individual victims’ lives?
Other critics go further. “We’re still finding way too many African-Americans no better off economically than they were in 1970. That’s what politicians don’t want to discuss or find policy solutions for, especially Republican politicians who can walk, chew gum and racially dog-whistle at the same time,” pundit Charles D. Ellison wrote on TheRoot.com. “The more we talk about a symbol, the less time we spend on a plan to eliminate the racism that motivated [Dylann] Roof and has kept on oppressively ticking since slavery.”
You can’t divorce the symbols of racism from their mechanisms. They are the standards around which movements were built when black people challenged that which subordinated them—white law, white capital, white tradition. They have been deployed to terrorize, and, just as importantly, to erase and obscure truths about the past, truths about African-American resistance and achievement—and yes, suffering. The flag wavers and monument builders have nurtured their symbols, invested them with powerful and fantastic meaning, while simultaneously—and literally—shouting down those of us arguing for equal time, space, and resources.