In 1991, I drove to Charleston, South Carolina, my first foray into the deep south. I was struck by how friendly and superficially polite everyone was, but racial issues were never far away. I recall entering a gas station just off the interstate and being told, in a this is for your own good kind of way by the black attendant that I should get my white ass out of there (which I did). On one tour of a former plantation, the white tour guide asked if anyone on the tour had negro blood – none of us did – so she told us she would give the white version of the tour. I have no idea what the black version sounded like.
Fast forward to 2018 and I was curious to see if my nearly 30 year old impressions were still valid – that is of a group of white people tolerating the racial equality mandated by the government and the courts- but secretly harboring a desire to return to the good old days before the civil war; a world of slavery and Scarlett O’Hara, of plantations and debutante balls. Sadly, a week in Mississippi and Alabama reinforced my opinion that racial equality was tolerated, but deep down, the old white aristocracy has never come to grips with their defeat in the Civil War.
The Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Museum of Civil Rights both opened in December, 2017, next to each other. The first thing that struck me was the odd warnings about the water, probably sponsored by Evian:
I started in the Museum of Mississippi History, which did an adequate job of explaining the original native inhabitants and their forced exile to lands west of the Mississippi River by President Andrew Jackson. Slaves were brought to the area by “white settlers” where some of them worked in “difficult conditions.” From there, the museum went downhill quickly. The Civil War happened when the south ceded from the Union and Jefferson Davis was reluctantly (their words) elected as the first president of the Confederacy. Davis was mentioned a number of times, Lincoln not so much.
The Museum pointed out that over 70,000 Mississippians (white) joined the Confederacy army and as many as 20,000 Mississippians (black) joined the Union army. As for the civil war, two messages came through loud and clear: the Confederacy went through a number of different flags and the Union General Tecumseh Sherman destroyed all the railroads and bridges in Mississippi. That the latter might have been a good military tactic is not mentioned, nor is the Confederacy loss. After the Civil War, according to the Museum, Mississippi had trouble recovering because Union General Sherman had destroyed their railroads and bridges (this fact was repeated at least 3 times). The fact that Mississippi’s economy had been based on slavery is not mentioned as a reason in its economic decline; that is attributed solely to the North’s policies during and following the Civil War and (again) the destruction of the railroads and bridges by the north.
Following the Civil War, the museum focuses on Mississippi’s recovery, gives mention to the reconstructionist period, then proceeds through the ups and downs of the late 1800’s to the present day. If you want to learn anything more about the non-white struggles, you are sent next door to the Civil Rights Museum, which is the biggest issue I have with the dual museum approach. The Civil Rights Museum is excellent, but why is it incorporated in a separate building? The two museums are connected, both physically and by admission, but the very fact that there are two separate museums reeks of a separate but equal approach, as if the struggle by African Americans for equality is somehow not intrinsically wrapped up in the history of Mississippi.
Unbeknownst to me until I arrive in Mobile, it has the oldest Mardi Gras in North America, started by the French in 1703 when New Orleans was still a swamp, as my tour guide in the Mobile Carnival Museum relished in pointing out (twice). Mobile’s Mardi Gras parade is also a family affair-if I wanted something other than family entertainment (she didn’t say exactly what), I should head to New Orleans.
Hoping for something that didn’t involve balls and debutantes, I walked to the History Museum of Mobile. On the plus side, it has an impressive collection of stagecoaches. On the not so great side, it too waxed poetic about Jefferson Davis, the Confederate flags and the single sinking by the Confederate Army of the Union ironclad ship Tecumseh despite the war cry “Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead” by the Union general. The museum also lauded Mobile’s role as the Paris of the Civil War, but there was scant mention of the causes of the Civil War or the Confederacy’s loss.
Tired of the lopsided perspective of the Civil War in the Museum, I indulged in some down home southern cooking. The fried catfish was heavy and greasy, fried green tomatoes smothered in a very rich crawfish sauce, grits with cheese and garlic (tasted like cheese and garlic) pralines, pecan pie and lots of fried chicken. Not a single salad.
Next, finally heading north after 10 weeks on the road.