Leave or Die: The Language of White Supremacy and the Absence of Memory

From the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education:

A mention of slavery in an Arkansas county that by the mid-1990s was devoid of blacks set a specialist in computer-assisted reporting on a journey that lasted more than 10 years and resulted on Sunday in the first of a four-part series on an American “racial cleansing.”

“Beginning in 1864 and continuing for approximately 60 years, whites across the United States conducted a series of racial expulsions. They drove thousands of blacks from their homes to make communities lily-white,” read the first installment of the series by Elliot Jaspin of the Washington bureau of Cox News Service.

“In at least a dozen of the most extreme cases, blacks were purged from entire counties that remain almost exclusively white, according to the most recent census.

“The expulsions were violent and swift, and they stretched beyond the South. But they remain largely unacknowledged in standard histories of America.

“The computer analysis of thousands of U.S. census records dating back to the Civil War identified about 200 counties, most in states along the Mason-Dixon Line, where black populations of 75 people or more seemed to vanish from one decade to the next. . . . in 103 cases, the data indicated that there might have been a conscious effort by whites to drive blacks out.”

From the New York Times:

There are ghosts haunting Marco Williams’s quietly sorrowful documentary “Banished,” about the forced expulsion of black Southerners from their homes in the troubled and violent decades after the Civil War. Dressed in what looks like their Sunday best, in dark suits and high-collar dresses, they stare solemnly into an unwelcoming world. A couple ride in a cart along a pretty country road, and others stand awkwardly before houses with peeling paint. There are few smiles. Photography was then a serious business, though being a black landowner, part of a fragile, nascent Southern middle class, was more serious still.

It’s stunning how loudly the dead can speak, and with such eloquence. I couldn’t help comparing these images with those in one of my own photo albums of a large family of stern-looking Midwesterners dressed in what looks like their Sunday best. The rough, ill-fitting suits and somber dresses look similar to those in the documentary, and the simple clapboard house looming behind this family recalls comparable homes in “Banished.” There are, once again, few smiles, though in one photo my grandfather, then around 12, looks as if he’s trying to keep one in check.

Unlike the young men in Mr. Williams’s documentary, my grandfather raised a family and ran a business not far from where his photographs were taken — an upstanding white citizen in a nearly all-white land. The young black men in “Banished” never had the chance to take root. Some were falsely accused of molesting white women and were lynched. We see a few of these dead in other photographs, hanging from trees and lampposts, their bodies sometimes surrounded by a visibly excited white crowd. (A crude sign under one corpse warns not to wake him.) As Mr. Williams explains, his measured voice-over calm as ever, lynching was an instrument of terror, used against blacks as a means of control and “racial cleansing.”

From the Austin American Statesman:

The black lawn jockeys of Pierce City, Mo. are small monuments to profound misunderstanding.

Long ago dismissed by most of society as racist and insulting, the statues still stand in several planting beds of the crumbling farm town. In Pierce City, there are almost no blacks to take offense. All its black citizens were driven out in 1901 and few have lived there for more than a century. It would be easy simply to dismiss the statues as offensive holdovers from an ugly past. But they speak to a larger truth: There are two histories of America — one black, the other white — and they are radically different. For blacks, such statues are a taunting reminder of a very real slave past.

But for those who favor them, the lawn jockeys have been wrapped in historical fiction that makes them seem benign — even noble — to those who want to believe the myths.

One of the most common stories is that the first such statue was commissioned by George Washington for the grounds of Mount Vernon to honor a Negro groom who helped him cross the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War.

Another story holds that lawn jockeys were used to mark station stops on the underground railroad, helping runaway slaves escape the south.

But there are no historical records to support the Washington story. And Paul Bernish, a spokesman for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati says the station stories are phony. “Anyone who knows the history of the underground railroad would understand how ridiculous the claim about lawn jockeys is,” Bernish says.

But the myths have their uses, allowing whites to see an amusing decoration where blacks see a racist slur.

7 comments

  1. T3, i am a documentary nerd in my spare time and I saw “Banished” this past summer at a doc festival. It should be required watching for all. What was also an interesting subplot were attempts by descendants to sue to get their old property back… which didn’t go over so successfully…

    there is also a book called Sundown Towns on the topic… but I haven’t read it..

  2. Interesting stuff. I haven’t seen it yet. I’d be very interested to learn more about those attempts to regain property.

    There is an interesting clip if you go to the Austin American-Statesman where a family returned to the county of expulsion in order to exhume a relative. This was very, very serious business.

    It demonstrates that contrary to propaganda and public opinion, Americans have not always been law-abiding practitioners of democratic ideals.

  3. This is my first visit to your blog.

    Excellent post, Temple3.

    I have spoken often of this “hidden aspect” of America’s racist history on my blog many times, and ethnic cleansing is something that black Americans are very knowledgeable about.

    I agree with the above reader who referenced the book, “Sundown Towns”.

    Like I said in a comment over at Rachel’s, America’s sundown towns still exist—-they are now called gated communities.

    As for the descendants suing to reclaim property.

    Won’t happen.

    America will give this country away before she will own up to all of her atrocities against her black citizens.

    And that crap about the black lawn jockeys…..

    ……no way would slaves escaping have any landmarks for directions. It would be both foolish and suicidal, not to mention giving leads to the masters as to where slaves were going, stops the slaves would make, and houses/people who helped the slaves to escape.

    Boy.

    The lies white America tells itself to run from its history.

    I definately will checkout that video.

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