Wissot: Southern exposure
Grits are one of the great food staples on the planet; polenta transformed into magical cuisine combinations. I like grits with cheddar, Gouda, goat cheese, shrimp, crawfish, scallops, ham, bacon, sausage, onions, tomatoes, corn, strawberries, blueberries, honey, and, last but not least, eggs. Putting maple syrup on grits is tempting but considered gauche.
I have been eating a lot of grits in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Louisiana and Tennessee over the past eight months. I will turn 75 in January and felt the pressure of getting to the remaining items on my travel bucket list before I kick over the bucket. Seeing parts of the South that I had only read about or seen on television was at the top of that list.
Raised in New York City during the height of the civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 1960s, I was not an objective, impartial observer of what I was about to witness on my journey. I had seen too much television footage of scenes like the bombed wreckage of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where four little girls lost their lives, the fire hoses and attack dogs unleashed on black teenage protestors by Bull Connor’s police force in Kelly Ingram Park across from the desecrated church, the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, now part of a civil rights museum, where Martin Luther King Jr. was felled by an assassin’s bullets, to not have a prejudiced view of how cruelly and violently parts of the South fought against integration.
I visited all three sites. Attending a Sunday service at and being warmly welcomed by the congregation of the 16th Street Baptist Church moved me the most.
One place I knew nothing about beforehand was the year-and-a-half-old National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, the first museum in the country created to graphically document the lynchings between 1877 and 1950 of 4,400 black men and women.
Eight hundred steel plates hang like coffins from the museum’s open-air ceiling. Each plate represents a county in the country where a black person was lynched. That’s right, 800 counties. The lynched person’s name, the date of the lynching, and the town or city where it took place, appear on the surface of the plate.
It is easy for a voyeuristic tourist raised in the North like myself to go off on a sanctimonious tangent and rant about the horrors of Southern racism. But I know better. I was 15 in 1960 when I went to use the restroom on a ferry crossing the Chesapeake Bay from Delaware to Maryland and had to choose between bathrooms marked white and colored.
It would also be an inaccurate picture of the actual mistreatment of African-Americans in this country because it leaves out the fact that among those 800 plates designed to hang like human coffins were the following places: Duluth, Minnesota, Urbana, Ohio, Kearney, Nebraska, Marion, Indiana, and Helena, Montana.
I was saddened to see my home for the last 42 years, Colorado, represented by three lynchings that took place in Pueblo, Otero and Lincoln counties. Stephen Leonard, a Metro State University professor, found evidence of three more black lynchings in the state as well as many more involving immigrants of Latino, Italian and Chinese ancestry.
I didn’t spend all my time revisiting the seamier side of Southern history. I did go to juke joints in Memphis (Wild Bill’s is way cool) and Clarksdale, Mississippi (Red’s is the go-to place).
A juke joint is a hole-in-the-wall bar, the size of a modest living room, with no name on the front, Christmas lights up all year round, the only alcohol served is beer in 40-ounce bottles, and gutbucket blues is on tap from 10-2 on Friday and Saturday nights.
I also visited the hometown of my favorite Southern author, Pat Conroy. He spent his high school years in Beaufort, South Carolina, in the scenic marshland that is part of the low country between Savannah and Charleston. Beaufort was the setting for two of Conroy’s best-known books and subsequent movies, “The Great Santini “ and “ The Prince of Tides.”
If there is a place on the planet more picturesque than Beaufort please e-mail me its location.
Immediately. I want to go there.
I visited his gravesite on St. Helena Island, a stone’s throw across the water from Beaufort. It’s in a Gullah cemetery, reserved for the descendants of West African slaves. He is the only white person buried there. His resting place is a tribute to the Gullah children he taught for a year on nearby Daufuskie Island in the1960’s. The book, “The Water is Wide,” and the movie “Conrack” are based on that year.
Conroy represented the best of the South. He loved its magnolia blossomed beauty and he hated its slavery stigmatized, segregated past.
When I reflect on my eight-month road trip through the South, my favorite memories will be of Pat Conroy, Beaufort and cheddar cheese grits.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.