Suddenly, President Trump is concerned about preserving history, specifically keeping stiff-backed statues of Confederate generals standing in parks and public squares. As he tweeted last week: “can’t change history, but you can learn from it…who’s next? Washington, Jefferson? So foolish.”
I agree that we can learn from history. In fact, I’d argue that we all could use history lessons, specifically in how the legacy of slavery persists far beyond Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Books and documentaries are good, but in my experience, it’s far more effective to make the history personal.
I was in my 40s and researching a piece of family history when my lessons began. Specifically, I wanted to understand how my immigrant ancestors climbed out of poverty within a generation or two of their arrival. Meanwhile, other families I covered as a journalist – many of them African-American — passed poverty from generation to generation like flat feet.
Was it as conservatives claimed, a moral failure: Mothers didn’t finish school, didn’t marry, had babies too soon and relied on welfare instead of work. Had my family prospered because welfare was rarely available in their time? Because they’d finished school, gotten married and generally shown the virtues we extol in ancestral stories – hard work, education, self-sacrifice? Or was it something harder for me to see?
The up-from-the-ashes nature of my maternal grandmother’s story especially intrigued me. Daisy Mallott was born in 1889 in Kansas City, Mo., to an itinerant gambler and a poor farm girl. When money was tight, my grandmother spent time in an orphanage. There she met a nun who nominated her for a scholarship to an elite Catholic girls’ high school. A decade later, she had changed her name to Margaret and married the college-educated brother of a wealthier classmate. Marriage catapulted her into the middle class. By the late 1920s, she had a fur-trimmed coat and her own car.
Discretion or perhaps shame kept her from talking about the hard times, and she had died by the time I sought details. I was left to piece together a story from the stories relatives knew and whatever records I could find.
Thumbing through old city photos at the public library one day, I came across several black and white photographs of the hillside just below Quality Hill, where my grandmother went to school. They were taken during the same time she was walking through ornate iron gates to study needlework and biology at St. Teresa’s Academy.
The first photo was shot from a distance, and encompassed the whole scene — the grimy tangle of railroads at the bottom, the fine brick houses on top, and the steep, crowded hill in between.
Other photos were close-ups of that hillside – a shantytown of underbrush, unpainted shacks, footpaths and ragamuffin children. All its residents were black.
That’s not unusual. Slums of immigrants from Eastern Europe and southern states larded American cities at the turn of the 20th century. But the proximity in time and space to my grandmother’s big break drew me especially to that crowded hillside. What if she had been one of those barefoot black girls hanging from porches instead of a slender white girl in a stiff, black dress, shyly walking through those hilltop gates, pretending that she belonged?
I’ve learned much in the years since I saw those photographs. From journalists like Isabel Wilkerson and Douglas Blackmon, I’ve learned about the poverty, servitude, lynchings and suppression of hope that led black immigrants to flee the South.
From Michelle Alexander, I’ve learned about racial bigotry in the criminal justice system. From Douglas Massey, Nancy Denton and others, I’ve learned about the deliberate creation of race-based slums.
I’ve learned that during my childhood, eight Kansas City high schools were all-white and one was all-black. Brown v. Topeka Board of Education notwithstanding, the school district redrew school boundaries, sometimes block by block, to maintain that segregation. I’ve learned that until I was in first grade, black children weren’t allowed to swim in the pool at Swope Park, where my grandparents took me to the zoo and Starlight Theater.
I’ve learned that the Kansas City suburbs where I grew up were all-white because the federal loan programs that helped white families buy those homes weren’t available to black families. Deeds on some homes prohibited people “of Negro blood” unless they were domestic servants. Others prohibited sales to people who were more than a quarter Jewish or to “Turks, Persians, Syrians and Arabians.”
President Trump and the angry men chanting “Our streets, our streets” aren’t interested in learning that history. They’re interested in reclaiming a world where white men ruled, women knew their place and no matter how low their social and economic standing, white men could always count on someone being lower.
When I asked my parents about these things, they would answer, “We didn’t know.” I can’t take refuge in ignorance. The question now is, what will I do to change the history we’re making today?