Jessica Ingram: On the Importance of Historical Markers as a Community Acknowledgment of History
Today we welcome a guest post from Jessica Ingram, author of Road Through Midnight: A Civil Rights Memorial, available now from UNC Press.
At first glance, Jessica Ingram’s landscape photographs could have been made nearly anywhere in the American South: a fenced-in backyard, a dirt road lined by overgrowth, a field grooved with muddy tire prints. These seemingly ordinary places, however, were the sites of pivotal events during the civil rights era, though often there is not a plaque with dates and names to mark their importance. Many of these places are where the bodies of activists, mill workers, store owners, sharecroppers, children and teenagers were murdered or found, victims of racist violence. Images of these places are interspersed with oral histories from victims’ families and investigative journalists, as well as pages from newspapers and FBI files and other ephemera.
Next week in New York City, Ingram will be joined by fellow photographer Deborah Willis for a book talk at Strand Books on Tuesday, February 18 at at 7:30PM. More information here.
In this post, Ingram writes about the historical marker that sparked the creation of Road Through Midnight, and the importance of such markers to family members and communities affected by racist violence.
On the Importance of Historical Markers as a Community Acknowledgment of History
I used to approach historical markers to learn something but I rarely felt something. This changed for me when I was in Montgomery, Alabama in 2002, and found myself downtown in Court Square facing a historical marker. The marker, erected in 2001, read:
The city’s slave market was at the Artesian Basin (Court Square). Slaves of all ages were auctioned, along with land and livestock, standing in line to be inspected. Public posters advertised sales and included gender, approximate age, first name (slaves did not have last names), skill, price, complexion and owner’s name. In the 1850s, able field hands brought $1,500; skilled artisans $3,000. In 1859, the city had seven auctioneers and four slave de-pots: one at Market Street (Dexter Avenue) and Lawrence, another at the corner of Perry and Monroe, and two on Market between Lawrence and McDonough.
When I was in front of that Court Square marker, I was struck with the understanding of what it means to erase histories, and curious about what it then means for those histories to reemerge in a collective consciousness through historical markers. This marker was new. Had it not been there I would not have known that I was standing on the site where enslaved people were once sold and traded. This experience began a decade long process of researching lesser known histories from the civil rights era which became my book Road Through Midnight: A Civil Rights Memorial.
Through the oral histories I recorded for Road Through Midnight, I developed a new understanding of the significance of historical markers to family members and communities and how the process of erecting historical markers is a demonstration of community acknowledgment. Language on historical markers can never fully bear witness to what happened there, but the efforts to erect a marker can facilitate healing.
Wharlest Jackson worked with George Metcalf at the Armstrong Tire and Rubber Company in Natchez, Mississippi. On August 25, 1965, Metcalf, the president of the local NAACP, was injured by a bomb placed in his car at the Armstrong Company after receiving a promotion. On February 27, 1967, thirty-six-year-old Jackson, the local NAACP chapter’s treasurer, was murdered when a bomb planted in his truck exploded while he was driving home. He had recently received a seventeen-cent promotion to a position formerly reserved for white employees. His son, Wharlest Jackson Jr., heard the blast from his home nearby and rushed to the scene to find his father dead in the road. It is believed that Jackson was murdered by Raleigh Jackson “Red” Glover, the leader of the Silver Dollar Group, a particularly violent Klan group that used explosives in the Natchez, Mississippi–Ferriday, Louisiana corridor.
No one has been convicted of either crime.
In her 2011 oral history, Denise Jackson Ford describes her father: “He was a man of high stature. He wouldn’t let anybody turn him around from what he saw that was of good. He never said no; he always did his best. I walk on the standards he taught me daily. Do your best at whatever you can do and you will make it in this world. I came to closure, because I gave it to God. I prayed about it and asked the Lord to take the burden and tears out of my eyes. He gave me the strength to move on, because I could see that nothing will ever be done about this case.”
She describes finally accomplishing the goal of getting a marker erected in her father’s honor. The city had pursued erecting a marker, and there was never the money, so Denise wrote an article in the local paper and in response, community members sent money to erect the marker. Denise says, “I accomplished what I wanted to do, and the people of Natchez supported us. I was elated. My closure is to know that I have this marker in his honor.” The marker was erected on Minor Road in Natchez in 2011.
Stanley Dearman, former editor of the Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia, Mississippi, wrote about the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in 1964. Decades later, he and the community confronted their collective responsibility to the past, to remembering the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner during Freedom Summer, on June 21, 1964. Dearman was part of the triracial coalition in Neshoba County that got the case reopened and led to the conviction of Edgar Ray “Preacher” Killen on the fortieth anniversary of the crime. In talking about the community-created marker that was erected near the murder site in the fall of 2009, he speaks of the importance of acknowledgment and remembering in the healing process:
It’s important that the community initiative put it there. People came forward in this community to work toward getting that, and I think it’s a good thing for the community to do—to look at itself and say this happened. People don’t want to be reminded of what happened here. There are people who think that monuments are useless and soon forgotten about. But I don’t agree with that at all. It serves a purpose, you know: don’t forget this. Don’t forget what happened here.
Jessica Ingram is assistant professor of art at Florida State University. Visit her website.
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