Imagine if you will a young, black woman driving a shiny, new BMW. Her windows are down and her trite, monotonous tunes are up. Her nails are long and manicured, complete with sparkling bling. Her hair is perfectly straightened and her false eyelashes are bordering on absurd. She is wearing multiple gold chains and enormous hoop earrings along with perfectly matched designer lounge-wear. Beside her is an over-sized Louis Vuitton bag with a rhinestone encrusted I-phone laying across the zipper. We’ve all seen this woman; she’s ubiquitous. We’ll call her Miss Average.
Imagine another figure, a white woman walking to the store because she does not have a car. Imagine her in discounted work-out wear and worn out shoes. She has no bag, no bling, no manicure. We’ll call her Miss Privilege.
Imagine Miss Privilege about to step into the crosswalk because it is her turn, but here comes Miss Average in her BMW, chatting into an earpiece, not looking, pulling into the crosswalk and turning without a care. Imagine Miss Privilege stepping back, out of the way. What did she hear through Miss Average’s opened windows? “Bitch better get me my reparations.”
Reparations, you say? What, pray tell, does Miss Privilege have to give to Miss Average, or to anyone else? Precious little. Still, the demand is made again and again as this, the Phoenix City, grows ever more divided along race lines. Surely it wasn’t like this when Atlanta rose from the ashes of war and rebuilt itself from the ruins. What do those with boots on the ground have to say about it? We have their words still.
It was 1865 and the reconstruction period was brutal. In fact, when one reads the primary sources, one is left asking, reparations from what? There was nothing left. One survivor reports,
Desolation met our gaze…abandoned and burned homes, uncultivated land overgrown with bushes; half starved women and children; gaunt, ragged men, stumbling along the road…trying to find their families and wondering if they had a home left.
Do these stumbling, gaunt men owe Miss Average anything? Let’s look further. The former planters “went to work doing not what they would but what they could, in the bitter struggle for want with their daily bread.” Another Southerner remembered how peculiar it was to see the formerly wealthy “working as a deck-hand on a dirty little river steamer hardly fit to ship cotton on,” or “struggling as a porter at a dry good store.”
The wealthy planter quite simply had nothing left. And the roughly ninety-five percent of the white population who hadn’t been cotton kings? Starving while mourning, barely getting by on “greens, slippery elm bark, and roots.” Do they owe Miss Average reparations as well?
Still, places like Atlanta rose from the ashes. What did visitors see in late 1865? A reporter from Boston writes,
Every horse and mule and wagon is in active use. The four railroads centering here groan with the freight and passenger traffic, and yet are unable to meet the demand of the nervous and palpitating city. Men rush about the streets with little regard for comfort or pleasure, and yet find the days all too short and too few for the work in hand.
Such were the goings-on of the vanquished. What about the newly freed? What do our witnesses have to say about them? I warn you, some of you may be offended, but the witness was there on the streets in 1865 and we were not. What did he say about the freed blacks?
They are the most worthless, lazy, thieving set of vagabonds that you can conceive of. They have been turned loose upon us without any idea of making a living for themselves. Their idea of freedom is to have plenty to eat and nothing to do. They flock to the cities, where they get some protection and assistance in stealing from Yankee soldiers.
Such are the contemporaneous accounts of Atlanta immediately after the War. Do not get angry with the writer over the above; it’s a quote. Get mad about this: Atlanta has not changed very much.
*All quotes taken from Thomas Goodrich’s The Day Dixie Died, a collection of first-hand accounts from the aftermath of the Civil War. This work also includes positive stories, one about a particularly chivalrous freedman named Aleck. I’ll tell his story soon. He deserves to be remembered, for there are precious few Alecks out there.