Before there was Memorial Day, there was Decoration Day. Decoration Day is the American Day of the Dead, a ritual of consecration originating in the action of African-Americans who walked toward freedom, in gratitude. Decoration Day is an African American holiday dedicated to building acts of memory, justice and repair. It is the annual commemoration of a complex relationship we hold with the history of this land.
The Washington Race Course and Jockey Club was the place Decoration Day began in 1865. Today, the course remains as a one mile track surrounding Hampton Park in Charleston, South Carolina. In February of every year since 1792, the Club turned that park into a festival: thoroughbred horses flat raced and leapt hurdles on the course while South Carolina planters wives in the grandstand were served by the gentlemen who escorted them. A public exhibition of the social connections that maintained the antebellum south, the Race Course was a stage for many purposes. It was a parade ground for review of Confederate martial brigades; its perimeter sheltered duels fought over matters of honor; and it served as the auction site for property of value to the landed class: eight thoroughbred horses imported from England, or a field wench with her two children, one a boy about 10 years old, and the other a girl about 8 years old.
During the Civil War, Charleston’s Confederate planters were forced to turn their beloved racetrack into a prison camp for Union Soldiers. Two hundred fifty seven men died from the deplorable conditions in this outdoor prison camp, and were buried in a mass grave behind the bandstand. In the spring of 1865, the City of Charleston fell to Union soldiers. One of the first actions of the newly emancipated African-American residents of Charleston was to exhume each of these 257 Martyrs of the Race Course and give them a proper burial.
After the burial, there was a remarkable and somber parade. Ten thousand Charlestonians, most of them black, marched in cadence to the Race Course turned burial ground, led by 3,000 children carrying flowers to decorate the new laid graves. This reclaiming of land once used by the white aristocracy for leisure, and consecrating it as a burying ground for those they once held captive, was a powerful symbol of liberation and justice. It marked the end of enslavement with an act of collective self-determination: providing honor and respectful burial of Union soldiers who fought to end the bondage of African-Americans. Following the parade, there were family gatherings and picnic meals held on blankets on the lawn, marking the day as a celebration of collective independence and family ingathering. This first Decoration Day marked of the conclusion of the War Between the States and the beginning of a new era of Freedmen.
Many African American families we have interviewed continue to celebrate Decoration Day traditions, even if we do not know this history or name. We return to the places of our great-grandparents’ origin to clean the graves of our ancestors each year on what we now call Memorial Day weekend. This annual ritual is not merely symbolic. In the deep South, entire graveyards become overgrown with lush southern brush; a headstone can disappear beneath it in just a few years without care.
As generations of African-Americans dispersed northward during the Great Migration of the 20th century, this ritual of returning South to clear and decorate the tombs of ancestors created an annual family reunion. Because the births and deaths of black people were not regularly inscribed in official government records until the mid 20th century, these clusters of headstones and grave sites provide some African-Americans with their only reliable genealogical records. Multi-generational pilgrimages to tend ancient graveyards were occasions for sharing family histories, and opportunities to pass on cultural rituals and lore.
While the Decoration Day tradition fades among those who are a few generations away from Southern roots, fragments of observation remain intact as a cornerstone of African-American culture. Some continue to celebrate Memorial Day as the holiday to convene gatherings of extended family; the tradition of the African-American family reunion as a picnic is linked to those pot luck meals shared on blankets on the lawn at the Charleston Race Course. Others African-Americans maintain the tradition of gathering far-flung family members to tend their ancestors’ burial grounds, passing family stories and family names to new generations.
In 1868 Memorial Day was named a federal holiday to commemorate all who lost their lives in any act of war. Today, most Americans mark it with a flag-waving parade, and plans for the first three-day weekend of summer.
But for African-Americans, Memorial Day has a different significance, even if we no longer remember why. It is not just a day when we remember our dead. It is the memory of freedom and responsibility to claim land in the names of those who defended and protected us. It is the day when we remember freedom brings responsibility, and loyalty is celebrated in the rituals that connect us to all our kin.
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You got people here? is often the first question I heard when The Black Land Project spent last week in Macon County, Alabama. Our interviews focused on a region just south of Tuskegee called The Ridge, a series of small communities (Creek Stand, Warrior Stand, Roba, Hurtsboro) along a geological elevation of soil too poor for commercial farming, but rich in game and pine timber. The Ridge is a place where having people – knowing who you are in the lineage of this place — is how people define themselves.
Many Ridge families are descended from white planters and enslaved African-Americans who arrived during the early 1800s “Alabama Fever” land rush. Surnames like Pace and Swanson abound. Some of these family surnames mark people who are related by blood or marriage. Others share a surname because their ancestors were from different families who worked side by side for generations as enslaved labor on a cotton plantation. After Emancipation, it was common practice for freedmen to be assigned their former owner’s surname. Even when unrelated by law, these families with shared surnames still consider themselves as family, bound to each other by hundreds of years of caring for this land and telling the stories of this place.
When people ask a newcomer Where are your people from? they can often help you to pinpoint “where” as a specific parcel of land on the Ridge. Some black families on the Ridge live on 40- to 100-acre plots that are held as intergenerational heirs property, or land protected in family trusts. Others are part of the return migration: northern-born descendants of people from the Ridge returning home to find – and sometimes repurchase- parcels of land that were owned or worked by their 19th century ancestors.
Our host Shari Williams recently acquired a single acre of land once held by her Pace family ancestors in 1890. She describes the act of reacquiring land through ownership as the power of connections to ancestry: “My relationship to land is not really just about ownership. It’s spiritual.”
When someone asks you ” Where are your people from?” what do you say? How far back can you trace where your ancestors lived?
Everybody across America now knows what many health and political figures have known since 2014: adults and children in Flint, Michigan are quickly being poisoned by water filled with lead. Many people are looking for someone to convict, to hold responsible or to blame.
What most people do not understand is how this disaster has happened. Many of the people of Flint do not themselves understand why their taps are spewing murky, unpotable water, or why the cost bringing that poisonous water to their taps is so high. Print journalists interview experts and political leaders. Late arriving national news shows images of bottles filled with rust-colored water. Rarely do either focus on the lived experience of people in Flint.
In 2012 and 2013, I spent a lot of time in Flint, interviewing residents about their relationships to land and place. I learned that the majority of Flintonians are African-Americans whose families were part of the Great Migration from the rural Deep South. They know a lot, and care a lot, about water and land. Others had been Michiganders for generations. They shared stories of grandparents who fished in the Flint River, or grew their kitchen gardens on its banks.
These people expressed more resignation than anger when I asked how it felt to learn that their river is still poisoned by chemicals from CSX rail lines and heavy metal by-products from GM’s Buick City plant that thrived there in the 20th century. They shrugged as if to say “We didn’t have a say in those decisions. How could anything have been different?” It seemed to be the price of those good-paying industrial jobs, jobs that are now mostly gone.
What they were actually angry about was their water bills.
The high cost of water and sewer service in Flint is such a frequent topic of conversation that, as a stranger, I could use it to engage even the most reticent person in an exchange. Hey, how much was you water bill last month? I’d ask. And I would hear an earful. I heard stories from people who borrowed to pay a water bill that was greater than a mortgage payment. I heard tales of hauling bottles and buckets of water from a neighbor’s house until the shutoff bill got paid.
Yet when I asked people *why* their water bills were so high, they looked at me dumbfounded. Many of them had never considered that there was any reason beyond government malfeasance for the cost of water and sewer service in their city to be so high. The average monthly water bill for a household in Flint is $140, although residents in neighboring suburbs pay less than half that.
Here’s a truth about Flint and its poisonous water that no one wants to talk about. The problem in Flint is not just children with damaged brains and bones from drinking lead; it did not start with brownfield runoff into a river that is now so toxic it corrodes the pipes that deliver water to homes, leaching rust and lead. Flint’s water crisis is the aftermath of decades of urban sprawl, followed by decades of population loss. The problem in Flint is that every solution to this problem inflicts greater suffering upon people already in pain.
Urban sprawl is not sexy. Its results rarely makes headlines anymore. It was last a hot public health issue at the end of the 20th century, as we began to understand the environmental consequences of unfettered expansion of infrastructure for cities that spread across more and more rural land. As we have accepted increasing urbanism as inevitable, something we did not imagine has emerged: great, sprawled cities were left vacant when the people who once lived there moved away.
As factory jobs moved to Mexico, thousands of adult children of Flint’s auto workers followed opportunity to megacities like Chicago and Atlanta and the suburbs of D.C. They left behind housing developments without young families to purchase them; aging parents living on fixed incomes; entire neighborhoods blighted by vacancy and arson after the home mortgage bubble collapsed. By the early 1970s, 196,000 people lived in Flint; General Motors alone had 88,000 employees. After 25 years of recession, only 99,000 people live in the entire city today.
Yet Flint still has a water supply network that was built for almost 200,000 people spread out over 34 square miles. The problem in Flint is that there is nobody left to pay to their upkeep. The two years of cover ups are indefensible, but the search for a cheaper water supply was not born of a desire to do intentional harm. No Mayor or emergency manager can pay to maintain this level of infrastructure with a tax base that has fled.
So, the problem in Flint is that everyone who wanted to leave has already packed and gone. That leaves behind to deal with the current crisis only the people who’ve paid off their homes and deeply love their city, a group that strongly overlaps with those too poor to flee.
If you talk to people in Flint, you know that the people who are living with un-filterable levels of lead in their water are the same folks who refused a plan to “right-size” the city in 2010 by reducing the boundaries of municipal services. Urban planners saw them as short sighted and stubborn. Flintonians say they recognized a redlining scheme when they saw one. They have already lost police protection. Half of the city’s fire stations are closed and boarded up. They are unsurprised to lose their municipal water service, too.
When I asked the scores of people with outrageous water bills what they though should be done about the mismatch between the size of the city’s infrastructure and the number of taxpayers left to support it, they answered that Flint is a good place. The seemed naïve when they told me that they are “just waiting for people realize that, and come back.” They are looking for a silver bullet, and praying for a corporate savior. And when I listened a little while longer, they told me about how their parents came to Michigan because they were cheated and threatened and forced off their land in the South. They won’t be forced out of the place they call home ever again.
Were I Governor of Michigan, I would not want to be the one who had to tell those 99,000 people that the place they live is dying, poisoned by water from the river that gives the city its name. I’m sure he’s anxious about what will happen to the few jobs left in Michigan if the local Nestlé Pure Life bottling plant feels endangered by the public image of Michigan’s water as something other than live giving and pure.
The problem in Flint is that people from across the country are now watching, and they want simple answers and quick political fixes to complex long-term environmental problems. They offer no insight to Flint’s struggle to integrate the politics of race and environmental place into sustainable tax policy, urban planning, and financing public works. And they don’t help the people of Flint understand why this has happened to them, and what they can do about it.
There are post-industrial cities all over America testing their tap water while you’re reading this essay. The leaders of those cities are worried. They are worried about many things, but one of them is that we still haven’t learned how to think about the problem in Flint.
This week, the Black/Land Project will be conducting interviews and writing in Macon County, Alabama.
Macon County is home to many black land stories: enslaved African-Americans brought to clear and settle colonial Alabama, and their freedmen descendants (of which this writer is one); the HBCU Tuskegee University; and the black churches where people were rounded up for the infamous U.S. Public Health Syphilis study. Those stories exist at a crossroads, intersecting with homeland of the Mvskokie (Muscogee) Creek peoples. A classic novel of the Harlem Renaissance, Ollie Miss, is set in rural Macon County, where the Black/Land Project will be working.
We will be the guests of The Ridge, a Macon County Archaeology Project. The Ridge literally unearths the long and layered history of indigenous people, colonial planters and traders, and African-American people who have lived on this land. Tucked into the tiny hamlet of Warrior Stand, they are documenting the complex history of this section of the Black Belt south. We are so very grateful to Shari Williams and The Ridge for hosting our Macon County work.
Allison Guess is one of the faces and voices of the Black/Land Project. She was recently interviewed by Jennifer Bryant, a community organizer with ONE DC and a co-host of the DC-based radio show, “Voices with Vision” on WPFW 89.3 FM. Allison shares her views on land, migration, Black folks’ relationship with the earth in the urgent context of #BlackLivesMatter, revolution and Black optimism.
Allison is a PhD Student in Geography at The Graduate Center at the City University of New York,