Last week, I started the conversation about racism with a post about a museum I visited during my time in Middle Tennessee. Today, I share my other two experiences that fall into the same category.
I said it last week but I think it’s worth repeating. My three stories of racism represent a very small percentage of the interactions and experiences I had in Middle Tennessee. In no way do I think all Tennesseans or all southerners are racists. Nor do I let these isolated experiences dampen the enjoyment and enthusiasm I have for Tennessee.
At the same time, it’s important to not sweep these experiences aside. It would be so easy—much easier than writing about it—to dismiss my experiences and feelings. But pretending the problem doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Racism must be talked about. We must keep talking and sharing. We must.
So, today, I finish my story in hopes of adding to the conversation.
Pulaski, a small town in Middle Tennessee founded in 1809, was named for Revolutionary War hero Count Casimir Pulaski. The vicinity of Pulaski was the site of a number of skirmishes during the Franklin-Nashville Campaign which I previously described as it’s less than 60 miles south of Franklin.
During the early days of the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, on Christmas day 1865, Pulaski became the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), an organization founded by six Middle Tennessee veterans.
Obviously, the KKK is part of America’s history and it had to start somewhere. That, in and of itself, does not make Pulaski a racist town today more than 150 years later. But I discovered something that falls under the heading of “let’s pretend it doesn’t exist” during my visit. It wasn’t the same icky feeling I got as when I visited the Sons of the Confederate museum.
But it did make me sad. And still does.
Giles County Courthouse
Giles County was actually named after a Virginia Senator because he supported Tennessee’s entrance into the union in 1796. The Giles County Courthouse is in town center in Pulaski. I find it fairly common for towns to have at its heart a town square and the courthouse the center of the town square.
The Giles County Courthouse was built in 1909 after 4 of its last 5 predecessors burned. It’s made with lots of steal and marble, a common practice at that time to help prevent structures from being demolished by fires. The rotunda rises to the third floor where it’s topped with stained glass windows and a copper roof. The building, inside and out, is gorgeous.
One of the visitor’s books called the Courthouse the “jewel of the county.” It said the Courthouse is often the first place locals will bring their out of town visitors. It’s an interesting statement since, once I got there, it was like pulling teeth to find someone to talk to me about this jewel.
I wandered around trying to be my own tour guide based on the brochure. I started up a set of stairs but found them gated at the top. Coming back down and looking lost, that’s when I met the African-American cleaning woman, Sonya. She’d only been working there six weeks so she wasn’t sure about the brochure in my hand.
But she stopped what she was doing to walk me upstairs to meet the person who could help me. Or, should have helped me. Instead, he handed a set of keys to Sonya and asked her to do it.
Before we left the second floor, Sonya showed me the upper tier of the courtroom. We started talking and that’s when the guy finally got off his behind and joined us. He did have a lot knowledge of the building so I’m glad he decided to do his job instead of having a new employee to do it.
It’s a beautiful courtroom. The jurors’ chairs, the judge’s bench and the chandelier are all original from 1909. So, too, are the wooden chairs in the balcony where we stood. It remains a working courtroom. The jury sits at the front, below the judge and facing the courtroom. I’d never seen a setup like it. Most of the time, just like on television, the jury box is over to one side. It would be weird to be on a jury and face the defendant the entire trial.
The guy pointed out hooks on the bottom side of the balcony chairs. He asked if I had any guesses as to what they were for? I didn’t, so he gave me a hint. He said it for things people don’t use much today.
Hooks on the bottom of a chair. Hmm. Do you have any guesses? (Sorry, it was dark and the wooden chairs were darker still, so the photos I took didn’t turn out.)
Hats. The hooks were so that men didn’t have to hold their hats.
I marveled at how big the courtroom was for a such a small community. That’s when I learned the courthouse also served as a meeting place when the people from the outlying countryside would come to town. So, it was a social place.
And the court proceedings were entertainment. This was before modern entertainment of television and radio.
I thanked the man, and Sonya and I continued on to find the baby cradle highlighted in the brochure. You might wonder what a baby cradle has to do with a courthouse. I certainly did. But when he explained the courthouse as a gathering place, he said one room was set aside, called The Women’s Room. It was the place women could gather, often with their young children in tow.
Once we were out of hearing range from the guy, Sonya asked if I realized the true purpose of the balcony. Honestly, I didn’t. I took everything at face value. I thought if so many people converged at once, the balcony was extra seating.
But, in a different time, the balcony level was the only place blacks were allowed to sit. Of course, I thought. It became obvious the moment she said it. And an image of the courtroom scenes in To Kill a Mocking Bird popped into my mind.
I think because I was interested or because I was open to the conversation, she felt comfortable asking if I saw the water fountain in the middle of the rotunda when I came in. I did. It stands out because it stands dead center in the middle of open space. You know, most water fountains are against a wall, near a restroom. But theirs has a prominent, yet odd, place.
Turns out, that’s because it served as the “whites only” water fountain. She said the “blacks only” fountain is hidden behind one of the statues along the edge of the rotunda.
We found the baby cradle up a narrow set of stairs, behind a locked gate and in an area where the lights are kept off and “displayed” on the ledge at the top of the stairs. Not really sure why it’s in the brochure when it takes a set of keys to be able to see it.
Since we were on the third floor, Sonya asked if I wanted to see her favorite thing in the building. She loves dusting the women who overlook the rotunda. It was neat to see them up close and personal, not just from three floors below looking up. I snapped a photo that most people probably never get the chance to take. It’s the feature image for this article.
I thanked Sonya for her help and time. I gave her one of my cards and hope she sees this post. She left me to return the keys to the guy. And I went to the first floor to get a photo of the water fountain in the middle of the rotunda.
As I was snapping pictures, I heard someone call to me in a loud whisper. I looked up to the second floor and saw Sonya. She was pointing to one of the statutes at the perimeter of the rotunda. At first, I wasn’t sure what she trying to tell me.
Then I understood. A statue stood in each alcove around the rotunda. She pointed to the particular statue that hid the “blacks only” water fountain. In looking at my photo, you might think it doesn’t look hidden. But if you weren’t looking for it or didn’t know where to look, you’d miss it completely.
And even if you saw it, without someone to tell you, you probably wouldn’t know what it was.
If you get to the Giles County Courthouse in Pulaski, find Sonya. It’s certainly not in her job description but she’s the best tour guide they have.
The Unsettling Part
You might read my Pulaski experience and wonder why I was left conflicted. I got to see what I went in for and much more.
Yes, the lazy guy was white and Sonya was black. But the guy whose job it was to help me and didn’t had nothing to do with his color and everything to do with who he is as a person. And Sonya, whose job wasn’t to help me but did anyway, didn’t have anything to do with her color and everything to do with the person she is.
The unsettling part for me was the water fountains.
I find it reflective of the larger problem. Pulaski has chosen to deal with the water fountains in much the same way we collective often deal with racism. Pretend it doesn’t exist. But it does.
In my opinion, one of two things could/should be done.
The first option, the “blacks only” water fountain could simply be removed from the courthouse. It’s a message that says we are not separatists any longer.
Or, second, it could be highlighted. Why not move the statue in front of the “blacks only” water fountain and create a display for educational and historical purposes?
This is the bolder and more powerful option. It acknowledges the difficult place we’ve come from and the shameful way we have treated fellow human beings. But we cannot change that history. So, let’s open the door to talk about it, especially to generations who didn’t grow up during that period of our history. Let’s not fear the uncomfortableness we might feel when we acknowledge “blacks only” water fountains were once a reality.
That water fountain could be the picture on the brochure. The bonus to this option is that anyone coming into the courthouse could see it, all without a guide and a set of keys.
The Nazi Exchange
You are probably wondering about the title of this post since the incident above and my visit to the Sons of Confederate Veterans museum last week sound (and were) quite civil. You’ll be surprised to know, this last incident, too, was completely civil. It wasn’t confrontational and I never felt threatened.
But it was also subtle. So subtle, in fact, I didn’t realize the man had, essentially, called me a Nazi until I replayed the exchange back in my mind.
The man worked at the RV campground where I stayed during my time in Tennessee. I conversed with him on a regular basis during my time there. He knew I was a tourist and had made several recommendations for things I should see, do and eat in the area.
In my first 3½ weeks, I had no indication he thought of me as “other.”
Then, a few days before I left, I walked up to the main building to shower. I found him feeding the campground cats and stopped to talk, as I had every other time I saw him. I told him that day I was heading to Nashville to visit Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage.
He asked if I made it to the Sons of Confederate Veterans museum. I told him I did and that I felt conflicted by the experience. I told him I was uncomfortable with the prominence of the Confederate flag.
He said it was just a battle flag. And then he went on to say that what most people don’t know is that the Civil War wasn’t about “that other race” (his words, not mine).
He said it was important I be educated as to the real reason this country was divided. The Civil War, he said, was about cotton. The north was jealous that the south was able to grow so much cotton.
He said it with such conviction, it was clear to me this wasn’t a conversation. He had no interest in anything except making sure I knew what was what, and that the museum was a great history museum. So, it wasn’t worth my effort to engage. And I didn’t.
What happened next, I thought, was that he moved on to a new random topic. Like I said, it wasn’t until later that all the pieces of this conversation came together. He asked if I knew that the Nazis, in trying to extinguish the Jews, destroyed their art. I said I did know that.
This is where I lost the thread. I thought he was still talking about what Nazis did to Jewish art when he said, “Others want us to take down our statues and art,” and “Others are stealing our history.”
Later, I understood that he hadn’t changed topics. He was saying that northerners today are to southerners what Nazis were to Jews.
Woah! If I hadn’t been driving to Nashville when I finally figured this out, I would’ve had to sit down and take a moment. Because, go one step further, and he was calling me a Nazi since I am a northerner who admitted to feeling uncomfortable about the Confederate flag.
It was hard to realize what he thought about outsiders like me, about me. But harder still to reconcile the prior 3½ weeks of very friendly interaction. All the while, he considered me “other.”
Maybe you’ll think I personalized this interaction too much. It wasn’t about me, you might say. And maybe you’d be right. Maybe his intent was not to call me a Nazi, not to accuse me of stealing his history. I don’t know. He alone knows his intent. I can only share how I felt once all the threads of our exchange came together. It felt like he called me a Nazi. It felt like he accused me of stealing his flag, his art and his history.
Doubts About Sharing
A friend advised me against writing this post as well as last week’s post. She said if I did, I had to do so knowing I would offend some readers. Maybe even lose readers. It turns out, she was right. Last week, one reader unsubscribed. With the unsubscribe notice, he included a venomous note calling me a string of ugly names.
And while the unsubscribed reader’s note hurt, I kept coming back to the reason for writing the post to begin with. It’s the same reason I write every post, including this one. It was my experience. A different person in my shoes might have a different interpretation of the experiences.
I’ve tried to the best of my ability to maintain a truth to this blog, knowing it is only my truth I’m sharing. It’s all I have. At times that has meant sharing stories that are embarrassing, hard and not very pretty. Truth is a powerful tool.
Even on days when telling truth hurts.
What Are Your Thoughts?
Like last week (and every week), I welcome a healthy discussion in the comments. I’m perfectly fine with people who disagree with me. My only rule is that comments be done with an open and kind heart, and with respect to others.