Ocmulgee National Monument historian presents Black History
Riding back from a July Fourth family visit to Montgomery, Alabama, I thought about Macon’s virtues and deficiencies, just the sort of things that the recent meetings about Macon’s cultural plan had asked citizens to consider. Perhaps it was a strange choice, but we had made the three-hour trip to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, open only since last year.
What with the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park, an abundance of historic 19th century treasures in the Historic District and numerous sites appealing to music lovers of various stripes, our community is already an attractive destination for visitors. Yet there’s more that we could be doing, especially in the realm of heritage and history. I was reminded of this truth on the way back from Montgomery. The memorial honors the thousands of African Americans who were savagely lynched in the Jim Crow period, a portion of American history that often receives scant attention. I know this because I frequently quiz first-year college students on their exposure to history in high school.
In spite of the divisions that have hampered our community’s progress since the 1960s, very few people under the age of, say, 50 have a grasp of how some of these divisions came into being. Back in 2004, Andrew Manis, a history professor at Middle Georgia State University, wrote “Macon Black and White: An Unutterable Separation in the American Century,” an admittedly scholarly work, but one whose contents are likely to disturb the sleep of many.
While it is totally unrealistic to think that Macon residents are going to rush out and grab a copy of the Manis book, or even visit the extensive archives at the Washington Memorial Library or in the special collections of Mercer University’s Tarver Library, it is undeniable that a better understanding of local history would resolve many current problems.
The recent film “Green Book” reminds us that Macon was a party to the rampant racial discrimination in that era. The history of the Douglass Theatre (scheduled for demolition back in the 1970s) also reminds us daily of the political contempt for black history in that era. Going further back, we find the history of the peaceful desegregation of Mercer University and the varying receptions of black students at Macon’s Baptist churches, chronicled in “Ashes for Breakfast.” Also dramatic were the arrival of the Poor People’s March, the struggle to desegregate Macon’s public schools and the subsequent creation of over a dozen private academies. When we read these gut-wrenching tales and their vitriolic language, we can’t help but realize that our spiritual work is not done.
Could Macon could benefit from Montgomery’s example and create a memorial, perhaps even a museum, a documentary or an outdoor drama that would capture local history – warts and all – and preserve the names of those courageous enough to bring us to where we are today? Now there’s an idea for a community-based grant.
In the epilogue to Manis’ book, he predicts that “if Macon can bridge this chasm (of racial division), perhaps there is hope for the rest of the nation.” While we wait, we can seek comfort in the knowledge that in Montgomery waiting to be picked up, there are duplicate stone blocks bearing the names of the lynching victims from counties all over the South. Yes, including Bibb.
The 12-step programs that have spread around the world remind us that we will never escape the wrongdoings of our past until we admit our faults and offer to make amends.
Larry Fennelly is a local educator.