What Do We Do With This History?
Confession, I think, is good for the soul
I read Gone with the Wind the summer after fifth grade. I wanted to be like Scarlett O’Hara, but not because she was beautiful, flirtatious and rich. For me, a skinny 11-year-old, Scarlett was a symbol of endurance and a worthy role model. She was a courageous, pragmatic fighter who would not, could not, be defeated. I needed her in my life.
This isn’t a statement on Gone with the Wind. That’s been done before. This is a statement on amnesia. White amnesia, I call it.
This magnificent, sprawling novel resurrected a lost world for me. I remember dashing Rhett, saintly Melanie, and the dreamer Ashley Wilkes (whose appeal to Scarlett always escaped me). Their characters were complex and interesting. By contrast, plump Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) and skinny Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), the two main Black characters, were quickly sketched stereotypes. I never gave that fact a thought.
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The stereotyping isn’t the point, either. That criticism has been made, too. My point is that I never realized what I didn’t know and didn’t notice. I did not realize the depth of this white amnesia until I read about Elaine, Arkansas. And Tulsa, Oklahoma. And Rosewood, Florida.
1919 Elaine, Ark. Black farmers met to form a union to fight for better pay and higher cotton prices. A white mob shot at them, and the farmers returned fire in self-defense. A massacre ensued. More than 100 Blacks are confirmed to have been slaughtered, but estimates range up to 800. Sixty-seven individuals were indicted for “inciting violence,” and 12 Black sharecroppers were sentenced to death.
1921 Tulsa, Okla. A white mob attacked residents and looted and burned homes and businesses in Tulsa’s Greenwood District. At that time, Greenwood was known as the Black Wall Street, the wealthiest Black community in the U.S. Thirty-five square blocks were ravaged, more than 800 people were hospitalized, and some 6,000 Black residents were “interned,” or detained. A 2001 state commission confirmed 39 dead (26 Black and 13 white), but estimated the true total could have been as high as 300.
1923 Rosewood, Fla. At least six Blacks and two white people were killed, although eyewitness reports of casualties ranged up to 150. Rosewood, a quiet, primarily Black and self-sufficient village, was completely destroyed. A mob of several hundred whites combed the countryside hunting for Blacks and burned almost every structure in the town. Survivors hid for days in nearby swamps until they were evacuated by train and car to larger towns. No arrests were ever made, and the town was abandoned.
I wish these were isolated examples, but they aren’t. Chicago. Knoxville. Omaha. Washington, DC. Ocoee and Perry, Fla. Look back to 1887 and Thibodeaux, Louisiana. Some 10,000 sugar-cane workers had the audacity to go on strike for better working conditions. Nobody is really sure how many were killed. Or Atlanta, 1906. According to the Atlanta History Center, some Blacks were hanged from lampposts. Others were shot, beaten, or stabbed to death. They were pulled from street cars and attacked on the street. Homes and businesses were destroyed. It is estimated that up to 15,000 white men and boys roamed the streets, attacking random targets.
I could go on. In 1912, Willa and Charles Bruce built a California beach resort run for Black residents. White neighbors and the Ku Klux Klan harassed them, and in 1924, city officials condemned the neighborhood and seized the property. The local council said the plot was needed for a park, but the prime real estate stayed vacant for decades.
The incident that really gets me occurred in Coffeyville, Kan., in 1927. A white lynch mob stormed the city jail in response to rumors that three “Negroes” had raped two white high school girls. This incident was different, because the mob was driven back, first by Black deputies and then by armed African Americans who saved their neighborhood from burning. The National Guard occupied the city for five days.
In the 1920s, Coffeyville was an hour up a dirt road from Tulsa. Residents almost certainly knew the stories. They probably knew the people. They were ready.
I lived in Coffeyville after I graduated from college, working for the local newspaper. I never knew this history. How could this be?
The white men who perpetrated these atrocities claimed different reasons, often having to do with protecting a white woman’s virtue. Tensions were exacerbated by the exodus of Blacks out of the South. Those are different subjects, meriting a whole book. What fascinates me here is the amnesia. White amnesia.
I learned about the Coffeyville riot from a master’s thesis written by Geoffrey Newman. His work is the only time I have seen mention of this white amnesia. In its collective form, as public memory, certain events are endorsed and memorialized while others are forgotten, he wrote.
“This is particularly true of public history, where the erecting of a memorial — or a museum exhibit — gives sanction to a particular view of the past,” he said. “Certain events fit the endorser’s accepted frame of reference. Others are consigned to the dustbin of history. Sometimes there is actual suppression of the memory of painful events.”
He notes that the subject of slavery certainly was affected by this process, as evidenced by its omission from the public tours of the great plantation houses of the Old South. But In the case of Coffeyville — where African Americans fought back — the event simply did not comport with our understanding of the past.
“Selection becomes the great filter, and the event is omitted,” he said.
Never once did the harsh reality of slavery penetrate my summer-fogged mind. Scarlett’s family enslaved other human beings. Maybe I can be forgiven; I was an 11-year-old kid in Wichita, Kan., who took pride in tackling such a tome. But the film made from the book — a technicolor extravaganza released in 1939 — paid tribute to “a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields,” a “pretty world where Gallantry took its last bow,” embracing and promoting the Lost Cause mythology. Why? Can we not admit who we are?
No one was ever compensated for their loss of land in any of these incidents, and the psychological harm cannot be dismissed. A psychologist at the University of Florida testified in state hearings about the Rosewood massacre that survivors showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, made worse by the secrecy. Many years later, they showed fear, denial, and hypervigilance about socializing with whites.
I notice that people are quick to discount their own connection to slavery. Their family was too poor, or came to this country too late, or didn’t live in the South, they say. “I must admit I don’t dwell on the slave issue,” said an Alabama-born friend of mine. “I didn’t own slaves, and neither did my parents or grandparents and probably only one of my great-grandparents.”
One by one, she counted off the reasons why most people in this country want to believe the issue of slavery and its aftermath are no longer relevant. She said she knew enslaving other human beings was wrong and she had sympathy, but after all, that was generations ago. Slavery was legal then and had existed all over the world, she said. “There are too many real problems today to dwell on what can’t be changed,” she added.
She’s wrong. Confession is good for the soul. How do we deal with a history like this?
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