Civil Rights History Tour: The Worst and the Best

chris-smReflections by Chris Davila, UMD staff member.

The Worst: Reflections on the Davis Plantation

One of the first stops on our Civil Rights trip was the Jefferson Davis Plantation museum. Davis was the elected president of the confederacy and had a vacation home on the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico in Biloxi, Mississippi. As a matter of fact, prior to arriving I didn’t really know what we were visiting and who Jefferson Davis was.

As we arrived, all of the students filed out of the bus and into the lobby of the museum. I was helping a group member with an email so by the time we got out of the bus the large group had moved on. We walked into the lobby together next to the small gift shop and as we walked by we heard a stern voice from an old white woman in the store say, “Ya’ll come back here!” There was no polite greeting just the order to come.

As we joined the group we walked into the Davis home. The guide was pleasant knew all the interesting facts about the painting of the crown moldings, why the doors were placed directly opposite of each other to cool the house, everything about the Davis’s, but one thing that he could not do was name ANY of the black folks that he mentioned in his talk. I’m sure that it was rare that black people come to visit this museum. Why would they? This is a place that celebrates the leaders of the confederacy. The guide was quick to play up that Davis wasn’t racist and even had an adopted black son. Mary Cameron asked, “are you sure that he was adopted and not his actual son?” The guide was adamant that he was adopted and there was documentation to prove it. I thought any white person during that time, especially one as rich and powerful as Davis could have papers drawn up.

When Davis was arrested and jailed, his family was relocated and his black son was taken elsewhere. There is no history of what happened to him. I find that strange and found everything about this visit unnerving and I was suspicious and cautious of everything I was hearing and seeing.

The guide also pointed out that Davis empowered some of his slaves to manage parts of the plantation such as the lumber yard and farming. The man that built the home was black too and the guide credited his workmanship for the reason the house was only one of a few on the Mississippi coast that were able to withstand hurricane Katrina. He said that the house servants were like family and were even included in some of the photos and paintings. BUT, the one thing the guide couldn’t tell us was the names of any of these people! The reason the home is even standing is because of a black slave and he doesn’t even know his name. But he can tell you about every little luxurious detail in this decadent house.

All of these experiences left a bad taste in my mouth, but I was glad that we started the trip out here. It was a good reminder of the continued racism and bigotry that exists. I found out later that there was a statue of Davis with his white son and his adopted black son on the grounds somewhere. Again, the guide was proud to point this out. I did some reading and found out that the statue was commissioned by the Sons of the Confederacy and it was believed that it was created to play up that Davis was more of a humanitarian than might have been believed. I think it’s a bunch of bull and a shoddy attempt.

Before we left we stopped in the bookstore where there were confederate flags and buckles and other gifts. A group of our girls, all black girls, waited by the entrance and I watched as six older white people walked in, the men wearing veteran hats. They paused and stood curiously at the group of girls. I can’t say I knew what they were thinking but they didn’t smile and they didn’t greet them.

The Best: National Civil Rights Museum

The beginning and end of the trip marked the worst and best of my experiences. The Davis plantation was a stark reminder and visual representation of the inequality and injustice that existed while the personal experience I had there reminded me of how much more work there still needs to be done.

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee however was the highlight of this trip for me. We were fortunate to be the first group to enter through the new exhibits and renovations and it was absolutely amazing and moving. The museum takes you on a journey as you walk alongside others that have fought for their basic human rights beginning with the slave trade through present day.

One of the first exhibits that you see in the museum shows how people were packed into slave ships and stripped from their families and of their culture, identity and spirit. It was difficult not to come to tears as I saw a bill of sale for a 10 month old baby. The previous day we had been through the Underground Railroad Museum and our guide told us how children were used as heaters to keep their masters warm, by having them sleep in the bed around them. I don’t understand why, but it’s somehow easier to see or know of the injustices that adults go through, but when it comes to children it gives us a completely different perspective. Children were sold to poorer whites because they would have to pay to raise them into workers.

In a conversation I had with Jerry Wiley, a civil rights veteran who attended the get together at Zelpha’s home in Holmes County, we talked about how many of the UMD students on this trip are recent immigrants from Africa or their parents are recent immigrants. He expressed that he would never know where his family came from in Africa. All of those ties were severed by the slave trade. He may only be able to track his ancestry back to the bill of sale during the slave trade just like the one that I saw at the National Civil Rights Museum.

While conditions have improved for many African Americans and Jim Crow laws have been done away with, there are so many more examples of modern day slavery and racial inequality. Minnesota has one of the largest achievement gaps in the country for students of color compared to their white counterparts. Black men are incarcerated at a rate which is alarming higher than any other ethnic group. The examples go on and on and it is by learning about OUR history that we can identify those injustices and work towards rectifying them. You can’t know what you don’t know, so we all have to make a conscious decision to learn what policies, laws and other strategies were used to systematically deny the rights of others, so that way we are able to know whether we are ourselves are part of the problem!

So many students on this trip have expressed that they wish they had learned more about this history in their own schools. This knowledge is powerful and I am looking forward to seeing it work through them and myself as we return to UMD and our communities.

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