This past week I received approximately 20 people sending me a YouTube web show called “Ask a Slave” by Azie Dungey who portrayed an enslaved maid at Mount Vernon. Through this medium of YouTube she shares some insensitive and not very thoughtful questions asked by people at Mount Vernon (and at a host of other sites that deal with slavery). Like others I appreciate the explanation and intent behind the project. My friends want to know “What do you think?”
The problem I have with this show is that interpreting enslavement in eighteenth and nineteenth century contexts must be taken seriously by the presenter and also by the receiver. Poking fun at visitor inquiries is not the best method of interpreting (to be fair this web show is not claiming to interpret). However, the questions posed by visitors are their (albeit often poorly worded) way to find some information…
Visitors who travel to Natchez, Mississippi, by way of Highway 61 will be able to see an interesting relic of roadside architecture known as Mammy’s Cupboard. While some visitors just want to stop and photograph the building, locals go there because it’s a great place to get a meat and three and a slice of banana caramel pie that by itself is worth the five-mile drive from town. For others, the building’s association with a “southern mammy” is enough for them to keep on driving.
Built in 1940, Mammy’s Cupboard originally operated as a family-owned Shell Gas station and convenience store. It was a good investment at the time. The Natchez Pilgrimage, the spring tour of the town’s antebellum mansions, had grown exponentially since it began in 1932. Tourism to the town exploded following the enormous success of Gone with the Wind, which premiered in 1939. Many Americans who saw the film later went in search of houses like Tara;Natchez offered them that and more.
Today, the gas pumps at Mammy’s have been closed off, but it remains a family-owned restaurant that is primarily open for lunch.
White tourists, of course, were drawn to the Natchez mammy from the beginning. By 1940, Aunt Jemima–a marketing figure based on a southern mammy–was already the most recognizable advertising icon in the country. She reminded whites that this kind of happy servitude was still within reach. For African Americans, mammy icons were a reminder of their second-class status.
Former Howard University Professor Sterling Brown wrote about the figure while traveling through the region in the early 1940s. In A Negro Looks at the South, he observed:
“Outside of Natchez, as a come-on for tourists, is the Mammy Gas Station and Barbecue Stand. With clean-cut features, a trim waist, and an elegant hoopskirt, a tall erect statue of a Mammy stands there, fronting the highway so proudly that her bandana seems out of place. My host explained why: the yarn goes that she was intended to be a Southern belle, but when the bodice was poured, the bust filled past all planning. Natchez objected to the breasts being so pendulous, and the statue’s complexion was colored to a deep chocolate. Hoopskirt and waist and features still belong to the belle, but it is a colored girl, Egyptian-like, who welcomes the tourists to Natchez and invites the white natives to barbecue.”
In the more than seventy years that Mammy’s has been open, her skin tone has grown lighter in appearance–more white than black. She was still rather dark in the early 1990s, but has since become very fair–perhaps a tacit acknowledgement by the owners that the dark skin was at best inappropriate, and worse, an offensive reminder of the not-too-distant past.
Yet if you were to stop by Mammy’s Cupboard today, you’d still be able to get a postcard of the restaurant from the days when she was still dark. It’s a small reminder of William Faulkner‘s oft-quoted line from Requiem for a Nun. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
I’m pleased to announce that my book Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture is coming out in paperback. You can pre-order now through UNC Press for the book’s release in August. Fun reading and great for classes!
I’m pleased to be able to participate in the annual Historic Natchez Conference this week from Wednesday, April 17 through Saturday, April 20th. The focus of the meeting is “Civil War to Civil Rights.” I’ll be speaking about my new project about a murder case that made national headlines in 1932. It’s known locally in Natchez as the “Goat Castle Murder.”
I had the pleasure of joining numerous historians at Gettysburg College this past weekend for The Future of Civil War History: Looking Beyond the 150th conference–a meeting that considered how we can better interpret the American Civil War to gain a fuller, more complex, and multilayered understanding of its impact on the nation and its people. During this, the sesquicentennial of the war, the conference sought to set a far different tone than the celebratory centennial (1961-1965), which many scholars have noted was swathed in the rhetoric of the Lost Cause.
This gathering at Gettysburg certainly set a different tone as it brought together public historians and academic historians to tackle issues of memory and history, of slavery and gender, of trauma and even the smells and sounds of the battlefield. I participated in the session “Interpreting Issues of Civil War memory for the Classroom and Museum Audiences,” alongside Kevin Levin, who maintains the very successful blog Civil War Memory, Jonathan Noyalas, an instructor at Lord Fairfax Community College, John Hennessey of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, and Leonard Lanier, assistant curator at the Museum of the Albemarle (NC). Our moderator was David Blight of Yale University and author of the very important and influential book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.
One audience member asked us if we were doing a better job of interpreting the Civil War during the sesquicentennial. Time will tell, but I’d like to think that given the vast array of subjects covered at this conference that we’ve more than improved on the discussions held during the centennial.
I like to drive. My dad taught me how when I was seven or eight years old and turned me loose with his old one-ton flatbed truck. With the tattered bench seat pushed all the way forward, I toured the back roads around our South Georgia farm with my trusty co-pilot, a chihuahua named Scooter, perched on the seat next to me. When I was older (and legal), I ventured farther, this time with a stack of maps by my side. My best memories are from those road trips—my first solo long-distance drive to college; a cross-country journey with an old boyfriend; and speeding across the Tappan Zee Bridge at 4:00 AM on the 1000-mile trip home during grad school.
I got to know the South from behind the wheel of an automobile, just like the farmers and tourists I write about. But the South they encountered looked very different. At the turn of the twentieth century, a jumble of muddy roads covered the South like a bed of briars. Roads were not long-distance routes, but rather short paths that fed local traffic to the nearest railroad depot. Main roads branched outward from railroad towns, and thousands of miles of secondary roads linked them to farms. There were no road signs or mile markers to guide you. If you weren’t from around these parts, you’d have a hard time navigating the roads that linked isolated farms to nearby market towns but not much else.
These problems became the focus of a grassroots campaign called the Good Roads Movement. Though it began among urban bicyclists in the 1880s, by the 1910s the automobile craze had transformed it into a nationwide crusade to improve rural roads.
Between 1915 and 1927, the Dixie Highway served as the centerpiece the Good Roads Movement in the South. Made up of hundreds of local roads stitched together, the Dixie Highway looped 6000 miles from Lake Michigan to Miami Beach and back up again. It was originally planned as a tourist route to steer wealthy motorists from the Midwest to fancy vacation resorts in South Florida, but within a few years the Dixie Highway became a full-fledged interstate highway system—the first in the nation—and served tourists, businessmen, and farmers, alike.
The highway that helped to transform and modernize the South, however, reflected profoundly conservative ideas about the region’s place in the nation.
The Dixie Highway was the brainchild of Carl Fisher, an eccentric Indianapolis millionaire, and his wealthy friends in the auto industry. With the support of others in the Good Roads Movement, they used the highway to lobby for state and federal highway aid. Southern support was critical to this process. Yet in the Hoosiers’ imagining of the Dixie Highway route, the South was little more than an unavoidable place on the way to vacation paradise in South Florida.
In order to promote the highway to northern tourists, they had to market the South as a destination in and of itself, not just an obstacle separating Chicago snowbirds from the warm Florida sunshine. And in order to persuade southern voters and taxpayers to fund long-distance highways, which they derided as “peacock alleys” that served only wealthy motorists, they had to convince them that tourism in the South would pay.
They started with the name. Originally called the Cotton Belt Route, by early 1915 they had adopted a snappier sounding name that, as this blog’s author Karen L. Cox has argued, was not just a geographic reference but a brand that evoked popular nostalgia for the Old South. The Dixie Highway sounded like a road to the past as much as a road to a place. It presented the South as an exotic locale, and idea, to explore and exploit.
Although traffic would flow both ways along the Dixie Highway, its Hoosier boosters envisioned it as a path “leading down into the South,” where there existed “wonderful scenery that is most unusual and attractive” to Midwestern motorists. Some even believed the Dixie Highway could ease lingering sectional tensions. The New York Times dubbed it the “Dixie Peaceway” and mawkishly described it as “a memorial . . . symbolical of the accord between brethren which shall never again be broken.” In Illinois and Indiana, “Dixie” gas stations, restaurants, and hotels conjured up images of an unfamiliar but pleasant destination. Oil and gas companies capitalized on the interest in southern tourism, as well, by distributing road maps to guide tourists through the South.
But Yankee entrepreneurs were not the only ones who drew on stereotypes about the South. In Georgia, Dixie Highway boosters promoted Old South and Civil War tourism.
Looking backward, however, proved incongruous with the challenges of building a modern highway system. Even while southern supporters of the Dixie Highway joined the campaign for state and federal aid, they clung to old social and political institutions that preserved local control.
The most ruinous was the county chain gang. Chain gangs were not unique to the South, but by the 1920s, when state- and federal-aid highways were beginning to take shape, most states outside the region had turned to contract labor. But not southerners. Chain gangs allowed local authorities to control black labor, so southerners preserved them long after other states had abandoned them.
As soon as modern highway building challenged their sacred institutions, southerners retreated. By the time state and federal highway markers began to replace Dixie Highway markers in the late 1920s, the Good Roads Movement was dead. The backlash against the emerging highway bureaucracy did not forestall road work altogether, but it delayed the development of a modern, integrated highway system in the South for decades. The construction of the Eisenhower system in the 1950s and 1960s transformed large parts of the South, but it had little impact on the quality of local roads and state highways miles away from the interstates. In the 1980s, when I was growing up in rural Georgia, a hard rain could wash out half of the county’s dirt roads.
A few years ago, I drove one of the few remaining sections of the original Dixie Highway, a narrow road that winds through peach country near Macon, Georgia. In some spots, you can see in your rearview mirror a stretch of Interstate 75, the modern, multi-lane, limited-access freeway that replaced the Dixie Highway. You won’t see much of the South driving eighty-five miles an hour along the latter route, but the former won’t take you where you need to go. If ever there was a fitting memorial to the Good Roads Movement, this might just be it.