There is a forlorn spectre wandering the streets of Decatur, Georgia. She strays from her still preserved home in disbelief, horrified that the war never truly ended. Her name is Miss Mary A. H. Gay and she has a story to tell. Let us walk with her through Decatur where Miss Mary lived and wrote her famous memoir, the basis for Gone With the Wind. Let her tell you how she treated her slaves and how they treated her – with love and kindness all around. Listen to her stories about her brother’s battles and the tears shed by brown and white alike when he died. Take a walk with her through the Decatur Cemetery where a slave is buried against all protocol with her white family. Why? Because they loved her.
This, too, is Decatur but the NAACP does not tell those tales. No, its protestors want to talk about hate, and that is all they talk about. That is all they know. There is a small obelisk in the town square, you see, and it was erected to honor those who fell in the War of Northern Aggression, as many still call it. After one hundred years of silent tribute, the granite shaft is suddenly offensive and oppressive.
Griggs, vice president of the Atlanta NAACP, said the Atlanta, DeKalb County, Beacon Hill and Georgia chapters of the NAACP have passed a resolution that all Confederate monuments should be removed from public spaces. ‘There needs to be no plaques,’ Griggs told Decatur commissioners, ‘until there’s complete removal of hate in Decatur Square which is the monument.’
Hate is now embodied in a monument and according to some, this inanimate object is a “blatant mockery of [their] ancestors.” I hereby declare that historical ignorance is by far more of a mockery of one’s ancestors than any piece of granite, as is the foolish behavior of those proposing the obelisk’s removal. The protesters have stated that the city is “reinforcing white supremacy” with their plan to put up a plaque commemorating the African American community alongside the monument. Further it was said, “You are planning to spend $40,000 to pay white people to tell our community about the history of our African-American community members. We’ll do that for free.” Note the future tense, as if to confess, we have not yet bothered to learn history; we are here armed with emotions and opinions about the past but we will actually learn it later.
What would Miss Mary, a woman who barely lived through the war, think of this? She might want to tell the protesters a thing or two, but I doubt any have bothered to read her book. Will they eventually learn their history? Will the protesters take a walk in Decatur Cemetery, the largest and oldest in the area, and stop a moment at the grave of the slave buried alongside her white family? There are good stories in Decatur and reminders are all around, but will those reminders still be standing in another generation?
Another reminder is Miss Mary’s house. While I was on a tour of that cemetery, the guide told me something I hadn’t heard before. Miss Mary’s house, a simple white cottage, was the scene of much drama. The barely visible basement windows, for instance, were the safest place for Miss Mary and her family (slaves included) as they nervously watched General Sherman and his troops pass through. Mary relates that she never saw the General himself, just his shiny boots stomping past her home. Her slaves stood behind her as the Union Army passed through – they were as scared as anyone else but Miss Mary was a formidable character; she was the inspiration for Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlet O’Hara, a feisty Southern Belle if ever there was one.
Incidentally, Margaret Mitchell’s house is also still standing and open for tours. One can also visit her grave in the historic Oakland Cemetery. It’s just a few squares away from the spot where my uncle, General John Bell Hood stood and watched Atlanta burn. Will the protesters bother to visit any of these places? Will it all be Gone with the Whim too soon?
A refusal to learn the past of your own back yard is a refusal to understand the present and an invitation for others to manipulate your future. Learn the stories that have unfolded around you or hold out your hands for a new pair of shackles, but do not expect the rest of us to join you in a fit of false guilt. Dear protesters, the choice is always yours.
*Gay, Mary A.H. Life in Dixie During the War, 1861-1865. Mercer University Press, 2000.