Monthly Archives: October 2021

The Meaning of Memory

When we pulled out of the parking lot of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library in Biloxi, MS Ellen and I were confused. We looked at each other and asked, “What was that all about?” There are the many things about southern Mississippi that I don’t understand. The sparkling warm water and dazzling white beaches here on the Gulf Coast are world class. But I didn’t understand why after two humungous hurricanes smashed into this coast in the last few decades it seemed that every destroyed home, hotel and casino along the coast had been rebuilt. As we drove north from Biloxi, we admired the wall of tall Southern pines that grew on both sides of the road. But as I looked through the trees, I could make out vast tracts of land that had been completely clear cut. The dense wall of trees by the side of the highway was simply an illusion to hide the large ecological disaster to the place beyond the pines. As we drove, we listened to the song The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band. Somehow, it seemed appropriate.

The Jefferson Davis Library is located on the large estate called Beauvoir which is where Davis spent his last years writing his memoir of leading the Confederacy during the Civil War. After the South lost the war, he escaped the advancing Union Army from the last Confederate Capitol in Danville, VA. He was eventually captured and incarcerated for many years in Federal Prison. He was also stripped of his US citizenship. These punishments were justified by the scale of his crimes and in his later years an impoverished Davis survived with the help of his many supporters including the woman that gave Beauvoir to Davis after she died. There was no remorse in Davis and his memoir helped create the myth of the Southern Lost Cause that cast the war as as a noble endeavor by the Confederacy to defend states’ rights and not about slavery. Beauvoir became Davis’ Monticello and after he died, the largest funeral in the history of the South occurred in Davis’ honor.

We came to the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library with curiosity and an interest in understanding what it represented. We entered through the gift shop and I immediately saw bumper stickers and t-shirts with snarky conservative, pro-Confederacy sayings. I remembered the gift shop that we had visited earlier in the trip at Gettysburg and I was struck at how sensitive and balanced our National Park Service is in all of the areas it runs.

Monument, Gettysburg National Military Park, Gettysburg, PA

The Davis Library is housed in an impressive large modern building that has been destroyed twice by those pesky hurricanes but, like the South, it will rise again. It is funded by the Sons of the Confederate Veterans who certainly have an agenda of promoting the Lost Cause and the Davis Library is their crown jewel. It was sad to see how little the Museum informed us of the thinking or context of the Confederacy. Apparently, the Library’s archive of Jefferson Davis’ papers is not even cataloged. The beleaguered curator that we spoke with was trying to do a good job and I wished her well in trying to reconcile the curious mission of this place. Our visit here brought up many questions about what is the responsibility of an archive? What kind of memory should a library, archive, museum or historical place preserve? Who decides which memories are deemed important?

We saw many different examples of this since we left Vermont in mid-October. We showed our Public Library album to the Boston Public Library which is one of only a few urban public libraries with a significant photographic archive. We showed our album to the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress and also to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.

I also began to photograph on a new idea for the Global Library project on the relationship between libraries, education and segregation. We started with the library that had been one of the first “read-ins” in a “whites only” public library in Alexandria, VA in 1939. This was the first use of nonviolent direct action to demand equal rights of African Americans and was the precursor for strategies used throughout the civil rights movement.

Inside the Barrett Branch, Alexandria Library, VA – photo discovered by Jeff Gates

We then stayed overnight in Danville, VA where Jefferson Davis established the last Confederate Capitol. The mansion later became a segregated public library for many years until protesters demanded that if Blacks had to pay taxes to support the library, they should also be able to use it. It is now an Art Center and Museum and we gave a talk to a small audience there after I had photographed this beautiful mansion with a troubled history.

One of the most interesting days of our trip was spent with our friend and fellow photographer from California Lew Watts. We first visited a Gullah inspired public library in St. Helena, SC which is located an hour and half drive south of Charleston. The Gullah/Geechee people were freed from slavery during the Civil War by Union troops and developed their own distinctive language and food based on their African traditions. The island of St. Helena was a center of their culture. We then visited the Reconstruction Era National Historic Park in St. Helena which included a place called the Penn Center. During the war, Quaker missionaries came from the North to help the newly freed slaves with the long process of gaining literacy and education and pride in themselves and their heritage. Penn Center was where their first school operated and the National Historic Park there today was inspirational. Back in Charleston, we enjoyed a glass of wine together as Lew shared with us some of his recent work and we showed him our album.

St. Helena Library, SC

After spending the night in vibrant Atlanta, GA, we drove on to Montgomery AL by way of Anniston, AL and Birmingham. In Anniston in 1963, two African Americans asked for library cards at the public library and were viciously beaten by a white mob but managed to escape. The next day they returned and successfully got their cards. Imagine being beaten up for wanting a library card! Anniston was also the place where a Greyhound bus full of Freedom Riders was attacked and firebombed. Fortunately, the Freedom Riders were spared lynching from the white mob by the action of the local police. This violence was in the back of my mind as I photographed the memories contained in this library.

 During the time when protesters were being attacked by water hoses and four little girls lost their lives in the bombing of a Black church, the Birmingham public library quietly desegregated. This action by a government agency contributed greatly to calming the waters during a very violent and difficult time in the history of Birmingham. Public libraries were often the first, and sometimes the only government institutions that did the right thing and desegregated in the South during the Jim Crow era.  

Our most action-packed day was when we photographed three different sites in two different states in one day. We drove to the Gulf Coast city of Mobile, AL and photographed the National African American Archives in a formerly segregated library. The site was closed for renovation, but I was told by a woman there that the new archive would contain, among other things a digital archive of all the local Black newspapers when the building re-opens.

From there we headed off to the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library in Biloxi, MS. At the end of the day, we arrived at the Eudora Welty Public Library in Jackson, MS.  Here, in 1961, nine African American students from nearby Tougaloo College requested books in the “whites only” library and were arrested. For the next two days on the steps of the courthouse where they were to be sentenced a group of protesters were savagely attacked by police using clubs and dogs. Among the victims were women, children and the elderly, including an 81-year-old man suffering a broken arm when police beat him with a club. Although one of the first, the Tougaloo Nine protesters are not as well-known historically as other early sit-in groups. Geraldine Edwards Hollis was one of the Nine. I photographed her in 2013 at the Cesar Chavez Library in Stockton, CA after she had given an emotional lecture about her experiences in this early Civil Rights action.

Since we left Washington, DC nearly a week ago, we have been traveling through the former Confederacy of the South. For many people here, memory of the past is important. For me, coming from California, the Civil War was long ago and far away. But here, memory urgently informs the present producing transformative social movements such as the ongoing fight for civil rights and Black empowerment. But it also fuels the fear, racism and anger that continues to plague Southern politics. For us, the meaning of libraries, archives, places of history and memory were expanded on this part of the trip in important ways. It will take us a while to fully absorb and understand those lessons. As we turn our car and our attention to the American West, we will let you know our new discoveries. Until next time…

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Sweet New England

10/12/21

The title of this blog comes from the lyrics of a Paul Simon song and it somehow seems to fit our one-month stay in Vermont. There are many things to love about this small corner of the country. The woods are now filled with “leaf peepers” that come from all over enjoying the incredible display of the Fall colors. Vermont is mostly a rural state. But it is unusual in the United States because its’ rural population is mostly liberal or progressive. It is one of the whitest states in the country, but I’ve seen more Black Lives Matter signs here than even my liberal home of San Francisco. Even the notorious grumpy weather provided us with mostly cool but crisp Autumn days interrupted with a little rain and a few warm days. What’s not to like?

Apples are big here this time of year. Hearing one land with a loud “thunk” near our cabin is almost as thrilling as the endless cries of the nearby birds. Most of the apple trees are very old and gnarly and speak to the early agricultural Europeans that settled in this region. The history of settlement and conflict here is endlessly fascinating and I spent most of the month reading an amazing book called “Emigration: Why the English Sailed to the New World”. It examines the reasons why there was such a large migration of people from England here in the 17th Century. Basically, things were really bad back in merry old England, especially for the poor. Of course, the consequences for the Native people throughout the New World were devastating.

Every time I come back to New England I am blown away by the mushrooms in the woods. They are everywhere and endlessly fascinating. I almost try to photograph every mushroom that I see and vow to look them up later when we have internet reception (Yep, no cell phone or wifi at our cabin). We have seen films and read recent books on our evolving understanding of life in the forest. Mushrooms seem like an alien life form that will one day take over the world. Come to think of it, that might be a good thing.

We share this cabin called “The Farm” with other members of Ellen’s family. Over the decades it has turned out to be a real refuge in this crazy world for all of us.  For me, it has also become a real education about the beauty of the New England forests, countryside and culture.

One of the great joys of our lives is, of course, our son Walker. It is interesting to see this guy who was raised in a Waldorf education in the liberal, urban environment of San Francisco take so much to the country environment of Vermont. His great pleasure is creating new hiking trails in the forests and zooming around to all different parts of this area in a Gator. After spending the last two years as a journalist for CBS News covering a lot of Covid stories throughout the American West, I think this is a good way for him to blow off steam and do something very different from his normal life.

Ellen grew up in nearby New Hampshire and has a brother and sister that live in New England. Her brother John manages the Farm and knows the land like the back of his hand. I’ve never met anyone so deeply rooted to a place.

Our one trip into the world of libraries during our month in New England was a trip to the Boston Public Library. This is the world’s oldest large tax supported public library and one of the great libraries of the world. It is also one of the few public libraries in the US that has an extensive photography collection. We showed one of their photography curators our Public Library photographic album and several prints from our Global Library portfolio.  They seemed to really like the work. It’s definitely nice to be appreciated.

We spent a large amount of time planning the next phase of the trip. Our return drive across the country will first take us to Washington, DC and then plunge south through the Deep South and eventually west arriving back to San Francisco in early November. We will visit archives to show our work; libraries that represent Black culture and formerly segregated libraries; places of Native American language, education and oppression; long lost friends in exotic places and finally complete our look at America in these frightening and troubled times. As the Emigration book was the perfect one to read during our stay in New England. For our return journey, I am bringing along the wonderful New York Times journalist Ezra Klein’s book Whey We’re Polarized. I can’t think of a better book to guide us through this dark moment in American history. And, of course, we will be listening to the historical context provided by the incomparable podcast “American Elections: Wicked Game”. I’ll keep you posted as the journey continues. Stay tuned…

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized