The states of the Confederacy have long intrigued me. As the rest of the country morphed into standardized American culture, my thinking went, the Deep South was different.
I didn’t mean different in a good way. I wondered how much racism persists in the states that went to war over slavery.
Every time I traveled somewhere that might present an answer, however, I returned home still unsure.
In Richmond, the balanced presentation in the Museum of the Confederacy impressed me, and I said that to an employee.
“You Northerners think we’re still fighting the Civil War down here,” she said. “We put that behind us long ago.” (Then why were statues of Confederate generals lining a boulevard median?)
If her defensiveness was telling, it didn’t tell me much.
In Little Rock, where I visited a liberal friend who migrated from Illinois, the differences I observed were trappings like Southern food and frequent use of y’all.
I was in Charleston not long after Dylann Roof’s race-motivated shootings and still didn’t resolve the issue. Charleston doesn’t hide its historical racism. I toured a former slave market and homes and plantations with slave quarters. Present-day attitudes were hard to get a handle on, however, amid Charleston’s hip, sophisticated exterior.
Charleston, Richmond, and Little Rock are sizable cities. Maybe urban areas have changed, and I needed to get out into the rural areas.
I returned Monday night from visiting an old friend who moved to Greenville, South Carolina, from the North. Greenville has only 65,000 people and votes reliably Republican, and it is home to ultraconservative Bob Jones University. Those facts were on my mind more than that John and his husband, Philip, are able to live in Greenville as an openly gay couple.
How wrong my expectations turned out to be. Greenville is anything but a sleepy town left behind by the modern world. Its economy is strong, and Philip said 600,000 people commute into Greenville to work. Judging by the traffic, I believed him.
In recent years, the forward-thinking local government has invested hugely in Greenville’s downtown, which Forbes now rates one of the 10 best downtowns in the country. Scenically located on a river, the city center thrives with a river walk, gardens and parks, gourmet restaurants, trendy boutiques, art galleries, and condominium construction. We had drinks on a roof deck that reminded me of LondonHouse Chicago’s but not as high up. We went to an art fair that attracted 140 artists and tens of thousands of people.
When we drove around, it seemed that every turn brought us to another historic district with fine houses.
John and Philip’s friends include a pediatrician, an emergency room physician, a dentist, a yoga teacher, a couple retired from hospital administration, and a retired CIA employee. It didn’t take long to conclude that none of them voted for Trump.
Then one day we drove out of town, and in the countryside I got at least a partial answer to the long-standing question. Along a state highway the Confederate flag flying on a tall pole signaled the location of a Dixie heritage store. I wanted to go into the store out of curiosity. What we saw inside was sickening.
Everywhere we looked we were assaulted by the Stars and Bars. You can even buy underpants with the banner. The items with slogans are the most repulsive. A license plate with a Confederate soldier asserts “Forget, hell!” A bumper sticker with the rebel flag appropriates Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” phrase. T-shirts and sweatshirts proclaim “If this [Confederate] flag offends you, I don’t care,” “Never apologize for being white,” “Don’t blame me. I voted for Jeff Davis,” “Proud descendant of a Confederate soldier,” “Confederate lives matter,” and “If secession is good for Britain, why not Dixie?” There are books whose titles announce their revisionist history of slavery and the war.
If the man behind the counter is the owner of the store, this ugliness is being disseminated by someone who looks like an ordinary, middle-aged guy. I later found out that the owner is the great-great-grandson of 16 Confederate soldiers and involved with the League of the South, which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. When Roof’s actions led to calls to take down the Stars and Bars, the store did such a brisk business it had to temporarily shut down its Internet site to restock merchandise.
I sympathize with Southerners who resent Northerners acting like we’re innocent of racism. Of course there are Southerners who don’t subscribe to racist ideology. But now I have evidence that an indeterminate but substantial number of Southerners are still locked into the mentality of the Civil War.
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John, the friend I visited, worked with me in Rochester, New York, more than 40 years ago. The only time we had seen each other since was when he and his former partner visited Chicago at least 25 years ago. Our communication has been mostly exchange of Christmas cards.
It was risky to spend five days with someone who could have changed greatly in that time, but the after-Christmas phone call in which the visit was proposed made me feel that John was still the John I knew once upon a time. That was one expectation that turned out to be spot on. It was remarkable that there was no need to get reacquainted, no lags in the conversation. It was likewise comfortable with Philip.
We always hear about friends who don’t see one another often but pick up where they left off as if it were just yesterday. I have other friendships like that, but this was the first experience where the years apart amounted to half a lifetime.
* * * * *
It’s a small world. I asked the friend of John’s who is a CIA retiree where she was from originally. “I was born in Joliet,” she said. I was stunned. What is the possibility that I’d meet someone from my hometown on a porch in Greenville, South Carolina?