From 3/25-3/31, 2016 I traveled approximately the route pictured above. Many of the places I visited I had never visited before. I’m from Michigan – a very northern state, however it has a large number of transplanted southerners who came to work at the auto plants in the mid-20th century. The nickname for the town down the road from where I grew up, Ypsilanti, was "Ypsi-tucky." And no, we didn’t mean it in a good way.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that if I’m going to convince others to shed their biases that I have to shed my own. I think the first step to ridding yourself of bias is admitting that you have one. So here it goes – I think of the south as a scary place. It’s almost impossible for me to think of the south without seeing white hoods, fire hoses and dogs attacking black people, and people proudly displaying the confederate flag.
However, we did meet some people who changed the way we looked at the south. Most prominently was the local running store owner, Mark Stickley. He is an incredibly generous man. He helped me with an emergency before he even knew me and most importantly he hooked me into the running community right away. He also happens to have very deep roots in the area. His direct ancestors farmed land in the area before the Civil War. He had direct ancestors who fought for the confederacy. I’ll never forget when he invited my wife and I to his memorial day picnic that he held on his family’s property along a river. The picnic was being held a few miles from the entrance to the property. He had to lead us with his vehicle so that we wouldn’t get lost. We traveled first on a dirt road – then we were driving through a field – the grass slapping the bottom of our Volvo. We came upon a family cemetery where there were dozens of gravestones - about 4-5 had confederate flags. I’ll be honest – my immediate reaction was – “oh, good lord – what did we get ourselves into?”
He proudly pointed out the graves on the freshly cut cemetery lawn – explaining that his elderly mother made him promise to keep up the cemetery – especially on memorial day. She felt that memorial day was for American veterans of all wars – including those who had rebelled against the US government. It was kind of confusing for me. I know this man. I know he is an incredibly kind man. As someone from the north it just didn’t make sense. Sure, I could say “you shouldn’t celebrate your ancestors. They stood for the subjugation of another race for their economic gain. The principles they fought for were reprehensible – and by not only lacking shame – but actually seeming to be proud of them – you do a great disservice to humanity.” But I didn’t. I decided that maybe this was a good lesson for me. That my reflexive disdain was probably not helpful and that if we truly are going to be unified as a country – a place where everyone is respected we have to acknowledge that things are more complicated that we would like.
I’m not saying that I changed my mind on the fact that I don’t think it’s right to celebrate the confederacy – but I realized that before I ride on my high horse I need to admit that my understanding of the south is pretty limited. So, I would say that this trip was in part to come to terms with my biases. But it was also to visit places that were the birthplace of much of the greatest contributions of America to the culture of the world. The blending of people from all over the world occurred here in a much more intimate way than any other place in our country – it’s the place where we found our voice as a country. As northerners we might see our cultural centers as Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Philadelphia. But if you peal back what things happened in the northern cities you typically don’t have to go too far to see that it was really a transplanted southerner who planted the seed.
I thought of various ways to organize my experiences in the south. I decided that a day by day account wasn’t going to work. Many times sites that were close together geographically were separated by time – and there were several sites that were tightly bound thematically but were on opposite ends of my trip. So, the main organization is going to be chronologically and then by a specific theme – if it makes sense.
My first post will be about one of only 23 US world heritage sites. A place that had as many as 20,000 residents in the 12th century – at the time it was larger than London or Paris.