Wednesday, June 24, 2020
Just a few months ago, I found myself in rural northwest Louisiana near Haynesville crawling through barbed-wire fences to see the remains of an old mill my great-great-great grandma Piety Sansing Adkins had run successfully for decades after her husband died. In fact, she was known as quite the businesswoman in those parts as she worked with her sons—one was my great-great grandfather Jefferson Adkins on my Ladd side—with her sister's help. They also had assistance from a small number of enslaved Black people they had inherited from her father Charles Sansing, who at one time had owned a decent-sized plantation in South Carolina, powered by slave labor.
She was the second grandma, in fact, that I had discovered who had become a successful businesswoman for decades after her husband died. My great-great-great grandmother (on both sides; it's complicated) Elizabeth Steen Earnest had herself descended from slave owners (likely the ones who founded Florence, Miss., then called Steen's Creek). She managed slaves running a Neshoba County farm for decades after her husband Isham died in Jackson at the old Insane Asylum—on the site of the University of Mississippi Medical Center—and was buried there in an unmarked grave.
This woman-powered slaveholding phenomenon, which historian Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers documented in her 2019 book "They Were Her Property: White Women Slave Owners in the American South," was the just the latest jolting revelation for this white woman who grew up the child of illiterate parents in Neshoba County who picked up metal at the county dump to sell for groceries. Like probably most white people in Mississippi, it was drilled into me that "we were too poor to own slaves," but it turns out that the "we" back then often owned at least one or two.
The JFP’s archives of historically factual stories about slavery, secession and the Civil War in Mississippi, with lots of links to primary documents.
I come from plenty of folks who did own some people and who probably aspired to purchase more. Enabling white people such upward mobility was a stated goal of the Confederacy, which built into its constitution that the horrific, inhumane, evil practice would never end. I am a bona fide daughter of the Confederacy: my list of rebel-soldier grandpas and uncles grows the more I look.
Let me be clear: I am not proud. Descending from people who knew they were fighting to own and extend slavery ad infinitum is not an honor.
Last night, I watched an aging, successful white man inform the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors that the Civil War wasn't fought over slavery; it was about economics because Mississippi was the richest then, and the North was jealous. There's a little truth there: We were wealthy as hell due to free labor, and the New York Stock Exchange still benefited from the slave trade as did northern investors. Union men initially fought for the U.S. for various reasons, not always to free slaves, as historian Chandra Manning explains in her book "What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery and the Civil War."
It took a war to get to where the U.S. made that decision, but it did.
The South did not decide to emancipate. Ever. It fought against it with every excuse and weapon, then against Reconstruction, with Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, KKK terrorism, poll taxes and tests into my own childhood—and with a vigorous campaign to rewrite history to convince descendants like me that those soldiers fought for an honorable cause and that Reconstruction was just another cruel Yankee attack on white southerners. They did not, and it was not.
I'll also hear that "well, our family treated slaves well." Huh. I have no idea how grannies I never knew treated the humans they owned, but it does not matter one whit. They still owned them. It was that "way of life" that Mississippi's perennial "Confederate Heritage Month" celebrates.
In the midst of coronavirus spiking in Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves proclaimed April 2020 as Confederate Heritage Month. He later indicated, falsely, that a state statute required it.
The former Confederacy has had numerous chances to turn this corner, confront and decidedly leave the ugly history of white supremacy and apartheid behind. But powerful forces who benefit from ongoing racism erect blockades that caused Reconstruction to fail, eventually making many white southerners richer as they morphed their plantations into vicious sharecropping, keeping families of former slaves mired in poverty even until now. Then in the "progressive" early 20th century, lost-causers blanketed us with ugly statues, dictated what our history books could say about the Confederacy and doubled down on fake white-supremacist "science" as an excuse for ongoing racism.
Then, of course, as the Civil Rights Movement ended, conniving neo-Republican southern strategists lured angry Dixiecrats into the GOP to ensure that it was OK to hate again just like in the old Confederacy, as long as you talked about crime, welfare and single moms rather than openly use the n-word or wear a pointy hood.
That time makes me the angriest; I was alive and watched how the trickery devastated this state and nation, eventually leading to President Trump's open racism. I'm convinced that real, inclusive, non-race-baiting leadership then by men like Nixon, Reagan and the Bushes would have helped white southerners turn the corner. Instead, they were fed more decades of a dog-whistling diet of Lee Atwater's Willie Horton ads and Haley Barbour taking a break from corporate lobbying long enough to quip about Head Start kids sitting on piano benches in whorehouses as he ran for governor here.
We unpack more than 50 years of toxic race politics in Mississippi and the U.S.
Then Mississippi hosted a messy effort to change the Mississippi flag in 2001 where Black people put themselves on the line in public meetings, and white racists ripped them apart, and then the electorate voted to keep it, along race lines. That, we're told now even by the governor, means The People spoke, so he can't override that.
That is utter bullshit. The Legislature put up this flag as a stated symbol of white supremacy in 1894 as all those hideous soldier statues were popping up with their sappy remembrances, and it can take this putridly racist flag down in 2020.
The problem, of course, is that the brilliant 1990s strategists built a house of race cards that means that too many politicians (and strategists) of both parties have crawled after the white vote like a starving hound dog gobbling down table scraps. One of the sickest moves in U.S. history was turning white supremacy into a partisan wedge issue to benefit corporations and lobbying clients, and now legislators believe they won't be re-elected if they act right and bring down that flag as a first and vital anti-racism step.
Why be in public service in the first place if all you're doing is prolonging a heritage of cruelty? Changing the flag is merely a symbol, but an urgent one. Then maybe we can start turning the corner into a transformed place we can all proudly call home. There is tremendous honor in that—not in glamorizing the cruelty of our ancestors.
UPDATE: The Mississippi Legislature has since voted in favor of House Bill 1796, which would call for a new state flag. Gov. Tate Reeves signed the bill on Tuesday, June 30, officially retiring the Confederate-themed flag.