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…


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5 responses to “The Meaning of Memory

  1. Fantastic post! Thanks so much!

  2. Hey, Bob & Ellen, Hope you caught the documentary, Civil War (Who Do You Think You Are) on MSNBC or on Peacock. It’s by Rachel Boynton. It was just out this week. It’s terrific and right up your alley now. I highly recommend that you get to see how she deals with this touchy subject. Straight on.

    Rachel is the daughter of a close (former) Peace Corps friend of mine. She’s made 2 other films, Our Brand Is Crisis and Big Men. Maybe you’ve seen those.

    Best to you both as you keep on trucking!


    Sent from my iPhone


  3. dgeigersf

    Bob – a fantastic piece – thank you!

    Dan Geiger 415-828-9977

    Sent from my iPad


  4. Thanks for the perceptive views of what seems to have happened in the
    deep South during the Civil War. This may be a half baked idea, but my
    thought was: just as none of us feel responsible for, or capable of doing anything for the present day “homeless”, White Southerners did not believe that they were the people perpetuating slavery. They may have even felt ambivalent or outraged at the plight of the slaves. But they didn’t feel they were responsible in any way for slavery, nor did they feel empowered to do anything about it.

  5. Thanks for the wonderful blog

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