It's been almost a year since I last posted to my HASTAC blog. I cannot believe that so much time has passed. In the last six months, i have been installed in a new position at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi. The school is located in Marshall County, whereI have deep roots going back to a time when my father's family were slaves in this part of the state.
I made the move to Mississippi for several reasons, one of them being that I desired to reconnect to my family's past. I had an urge to walk where my ancestors walked and toiled. I also wanted to see other places in northwest Mississippi and Southwest, Tennessee, from whence other African Americans included in the Civil War document I've been working on for two years now, The Register of Freedmen, came. Living here has allowed me this. I have regular occasion to travel the area's backroads and, in so doing, I cross many of the same paths the Union Army did and African American freedmen did during the war.
Though I live in Mississippi, I, for no reason worth mentioning, do my banking across the state line in Tennessee, in a no longer sleepy town by the name of Collierville. When the need arises, I go there, sometimes by one road--Hwy 311 through Mt. Pleasant--and sometimes by another--Hwy 178 to the Byhalia Rd. Less often, I travel to Olive Branch, which has an old side, a mixed income and I suspect mixed race neighborhood south of the highway and a quaint shopping district with florists, antique stores, and independent restaurants to the north. I do not tend to venture beyond Pigeon Roost Rd. since doing so would put me out on the main thoroughfare to compete with drivers aiming for Home Depot and Walmart. I have no issue with such stores, (well, okay, I do but not to the point of protest), yet jetting down America's highways defeats my attempts to enjoy the scenery. I like to drive slowly enough both to see the passing landscape and, just as importantly, to remember what I've seen. It is a goal that I fail to achieve most of the time, and an example would be with Pigeon Roost Rd.
Just the other day, I was looking through my notes on Gen. U.S. Grant's papers, jottings I had scribbled a couple of years ago, when I had no idea I would come to live in Mississippi. I was consulting the notes in order to get a clear picture of which roads federal forces had traveled. I had highlighted all of the state's roads and towns in red, so when I came across Pigeon Roost it jumped off the page, yet, I still had to sit down a while to remember which grown up-overnight town, now suburb, this particular road bordered. Once the answer came to me, I was up and running. I think I realized for the first time, as strange as it may seem, that I was indeed traveling the same roads as fugitives seeking freedom 150 years ago. Where the troops went, black freedom seekers followed. On January 3, 1863, two days after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and less than two weeks after Confederate Gen. Earl Van Dorn's raid on Holly Springs, Brig. Gen. Isaac Quinby informed Grant that he had given notice to whites along "the road to Memphis" that they would be removed from their homes if it were required to secure the railroad. The cotton that they were taking with them as they were fleeing the area would be confiscated and redistributed to others in the area who had taken The Loyalty Oath. This is what Quinby claimed he would do, with his leader's approval. And what of their slaves? The answer is that those who were not "refugeed," who were not, that is, spirited away by their masters to "safer" places, indeed were on that road to Memphis.
My own ancestors were among the masses of blacks traveling roads whose names, in many cases, have not changed. Recently, I took a weekend and intentionally traveled their likely paths. I went as far as Saulsbury, to where ancestors of genealogist Angela Walton-Raji's family probably walked. The 32-mile drive took me just under an hour (though I somewhat lost my sense of time as I stopped to take pictures along the way). Travelling Highway 7, mostly north but also somewhat easterly, I tried my best to take in the landscape, in some areas February-gray kudzo draped over century-old trees still standing and in other areas mile-long wetlands. I couldn't help but to think of Mary Paralee, Walton's great aunt, who spoke of losing some of the original travelers who had aimed for Saulsbury from Tippah County.
To the east of the road north I spotted an elevated section of rail, atop a structure built of wood that had withstood the test of time. The railroad, barely visible from the highway nevertheless paralleled it all the way into Tennessee, into Grand Junction where Grant ordered then Col. John Eaton to open the first contraband camp. I took lots of photos there and was pleased to find two railroads, The Mississippi Central (in the 19th century) and The Memphis and Charleston, coming together in this important Union stronghold. There are few intentional signs in this historic town left of its important past. Like most of these old haunts, progress has grown up not within but around. Yet, the town is still built around the railroad. It remains the center.
It has taken me months to come to terms with the fact that I have at least begun the task of reconnecting my present life to this really not-so-distant past. It certainly felt more distant before my move. In these past months, I suppose I have been collecting information, not just data, historic facts, documents and such. As I've traveled backroads, at a slower, humane pace, I have been collecting images and storing them in my brain for later use. I have trusted myself that I would in fact soon retrieve them as I look to synthesize what I know, what I've seen, the past with the present. For me, the sharing hasn't come soon enough really. I've been anxious about the task before me, making the past not to mention its relationship to the present, intelligible and, yes, interesting. I started with my students, just sharing bits and pieces, trying not to overwhelm them. Perhaps I devoted three classes to African American emancipation in northwest Mississippi (and southwest Tennessee). Our Millennials have seemed mildly interested; they've been polite anyway. They ask relatively few questions, most of them do, and I get a definite message that they are really, really encapsulated within their present constructions. I do not judge them for that; it's certainly a condition I share with them. I'm only consciously, or as consciously as I know how to be, in recovery from similar constructions and reconstructions. This is a fact that was I think confirmed one day when, after some of my sharing, one very bright political science major, taking me for advanced writing, remarked, "You're a...history hoarder." "A what?" I asked her. "You hoard history." I sat for a minute attempting to take in what she had said. Was this a judgment of me? She'd offered her view of me with a smile. But I must have looked hurt or at least shocked by her description of my doings, because, she chuckled, then apologized. "I'm just kidding," she said. I didn't know if I should accept her apology, because, well, I didn't believe that she had been kidding. What she had said had been too original, born of the moment, apt. Yet the thing was I had never thought of myself as any kind of hoarder, I who was so interested in sharing I was at any given time bursting at the seams. It is why I teach! So, of course, I wanted to figure out this painful judgment. Initially, I appeased myself with this: to the present generation all historians, if not all professors, are hoarders of knowledge. We are thought to hoard not because we do not pass on what we know; we are thought to hoard because we know--too much, it seems. Anyone who is living in the present and who has at his or her fingertips endless entertainments, real pleasures that theoretically can allow one to sail pretty smoothly through the modern plane of existence--if one is so inclined--and yet chooses for some strange reason to become occupied with the past, is, according to my student, a hoarder of history. And this, her smile seemed to suggest, is not a desirable condition, when one has the option to do and to be otherwise.
Who are America's other history hoarders? Are they elders who don't pass on family history, professors who never manage to give to their students all that they know, archivists whose work--as important as it is--involves collecting and cataloging, filing away and preserving artifacts that will only be viewed by a relative few, or digital humanists, who well know how The Web widens access but who may not have yet found a way to reach a really large swath of the public? How can we make our students interested? Just as importantly, how can we discover and practice a new ethics of information and knowledge, one that will be welcomed rather than rejected?
You may view images of my recent travels here.