This post is among a series from Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill students working in Lowndes County, Alabama with the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise on developing a survey to gauge access to water and sanitation infrastructure. You can find the first post here.
Beside the courthouse in Hayneville, Alabama there is a small town square. Wednesday morning, sitting across from it at a gas station, it seemed typical of the Southern cities I have known. Not wide or imposing, but placed close to the town’s legal building for a simple beauty. Almost perfect square green patches echo from its center, created by walkways that lead out to the road. It cannot be more than a few yards in width and length. It could be easily walked across in less than a minute.
In its center is a white obelisk that reaches to the sky, not making much of a dent. Its protruding point is sculpted to show a cloth of some sort adorning it, creating a textured stone surface. It is regal and simple, like colonnades. There are words on the side, words we have all read in the South, words I have walked past many days without investigating or forgetting, words made part of living memory many times in the late 19th and early 20th century. The same message as many others, this one says,
“No men died there with more glory. Yet many died and there was much glory. To Devotion and Valor. From Hearts Faithful to Hearts Faithful.”
Valor, glory, and honor are often the words of the Old South, but for me they do little to define it. Around the corner from this monument of the Confederacy is a memorial for Jonathon Daniels, under an old oak tree. Daniels is among a large group of young men and women who were killed in the struggle for equality in Lowndes County. After his release from jail in Hayneville in 1965, he and a few others headed to a store to buy a soda. On the steps he met an off-duty police official holding a shotgun. The man went to shoot a young woman who was with Daniels, Ruby Sales, when he stepped in front of the blast. It killed him. He is remembered a stone’s throw away from that obelisk. And we were just a stone’s throw away too, across the street, preparing for our first day of survey work on sanitation conditions.
For some people those can seem disconnected, raw sewage and those monuments, but as a Southerner it is hard to ignore their origins. We are a mixed up place at times, beautiful, but disastrous. We can proudly claim among our fellow Southerners those who did some of the best work in dismantling racism while also knowing we were the seat of power for those who created it.
A few hours earlier, in an auditorium at Alabama State University, we had heard activists speak on past and current efforts in the fight against racist structures in Lowndes County. Ms. Sales was among them. She spoke of things in terms of terrorism. The Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, has used similar language and gained prominence for a report that was featured in a lengthy article in The New York Times on lynching throughout the South. Catherine Flowers, the leader of the movement against raw sewage and a member of EJI, spoke too. She has continually framed her fight in similar terms. There was terror here and it is a part of the raw sewage that backs up in lagoons in people’s yards as much as anything else. From the poor government response to the affordability of septic tanks, the history of this region plays a role.
It is a terror that certainly hurts all Southerners, but especially African Americans in the Black Belt. It would be foolish to underestimate the physical, emotional, mental, and monetary damage done and still carried out by racist structures here and across the South to African Americans. As we embark to further our work on surveying water sanitation, we see both South’s. We see the South of hope in our community partners who have graciously allowed us to help them in their work, and we see the terror, still evident in the problems that members of this community have been striving to fix for years. The history of the South has given us so many things to change and so many great examples of how to begin changing it.
As we drove away from the gas station to begin, I did not think about much about the town square or about downtown Hayneville, but mainly about my choices. As a Southerner you can choose everyday where you stand, by which monument, and with which cause.