When I started this blog, I promised myself I’d tell the truth to the best of my ability. I did this knowing there would be times it would not be easy, like when I had to admit serious doubt and fear during the first days as a full-time RVer. Like today’s post about racism in Middle Tennessee. And next week’s post about more racism in Middle Tennessee.
I spent six weeks in Middle Tennessee in the spring 2018. And, first, I must say that nearly all of my experiences and interactions with people were lovely. Positive and friendly. The area is beautiful. And if given the chance, I recommend you visit. I would gladly return.
The most surprising thing, for me, was meeting people who seem to still be angry the south lost the Civil War. No one actually said they were still angry but it was definitely the vibe they exuded. Like the First 72 Hours post, it’s taken me a while to process a few of the experiences during my time there. I needed to process it, so I could write about it. Then as I wrote, it turned out, I had a lot to say. Therefore, I had to break up this topic into two posts. Be sure to come back next week for Part II.
Racism in Middle Tennessee
Considering what plays out on the nightly news on a regular basis, you would think, I would’ve been prepared to come face-to-face with racism. I wasn’t. Not even close.
Remember, before my RV life, I hadn’t spent time in any formerly-Union states. Though certainly I had friends who had and who talked about it. Still, I wasn’t prepared.
In fact, before my RV life, I worked 15 years for an organization whose mission is, in part, to eliminate racism. In my retirement speech, I even talked about the many cultures and colors and languages I’d been exposed to since we pro-actively hired diverse employees.
And I loved it.
In Tennessee, there were small things—like seeing a large Confederate flag flying on private property along a section of a major highway—but this post is about the bigger things. Specifically, two incidents that left me shaken and another one that didn’t quite rise to that level but that still left me unsettled for days afterward.
Today I share background about the area and one of the bigger incidents. Then I’ll continue the story next week with the other two.
The Confederate Flag
I previously shared other adventures in Columbia, Tennessee. Most notably, in Columbia you’ll find the only surviving residence of President James K. Polk. Besides the White House, of course. But I visited another place on the day I went to Columbia.
To me, the most fascinating part of this story is that Sons of the Confederate Veterans never would’ve made my adventure list if not for the fact I found it on every internet search list of “things to do in Columbia.” In my mind, being on Trip Advisor or promoted by the local community, made the recommendation a legit one.
Hesitant because of the name, I was even more so after looking at their website. I revisited the website several times trying to figure out what kind of museum it was, what kind of organization it was. Again, if not for the fact it was touted as something to do in the area, I would’ve dismissed it out of hand.
However, because it made those lists and because I try to keep an open mind to experiences, I decided to drive to the place. I told myself if it didn’t feel right, I could leave. Keeping an open mind doesn’t mean overriding my gut when it says, “No!”
The huge property, lush with hilly grass, has a driveway that’s probably a quarter mile long. The house is beautiful. But coming up the long drive, the prominently displayed flag pole is the first thing you see. You see it almost before you see the house. A flag similar to the Confederate flag flapped in the breeze.
But it wasn’t the Confederate flag. I didn’t recognize the flag.
The feeling in my stomach was the same as when I looked at their website. Serious doubt filled me as to whether this was a legitimate place for a tourist. As unsettled as I felt, I didn’t feel unsafe. It wasn’t that kind of feeling.
Open mind, I told myself. So, I parked and went inside. Had the Confederate flag been flying, I would not have gotten out of my van. Of that, I am certain.
During the tour, I learned they rotate flags among the various Civil War battle flags. So, it turns out, they regularly fly the Confederate flag. Just not the day I visited.
Step inside and you are in the small gift shop. There, however, the Confederate flag draped over a banister. It, along with the three other battle flags, are displayed because they are also for sale.
Why I didn’t leave then? I don’t know. Curiosity, maybe. I continue to wonder how and why a place could be listed as a top thing to do in Columbia. Maybe computer algorithms only read the word “museum.” I don’t know. I do like old house tours. And that’s what I went for. Also, the flag, along with others, draped over a second floor banister didn’t seem nearly as aggressive as if it had been flying at the top of a flag pole.
The tour guide repeated several times that the Confederate flag wasn’t the National flag of the states that seceded. She said, it was just a battle flag. I felt like an attempt to minimize or dismiss the negative connotations most of us feel when we see that flag. Implying that those who are offended by that flag are just oversensitive because it’s only a battle flag and not the National flag.
Even more fascinating, to me, when it came to the battle flags and their history is the context. When I visited the Old Jail Museum in Lawrenceburg, in the military room, my tour guide, Doyce, picked up a miniature set of the exact same four flags. He gave me the same explanation about the four flags. One, for example, had too much white on it and if it wasn’t billowing it might appear as a flag of surrender.
But the feeling I got when Doyce explained it was one of interest and learning and history. The same explanation at the Sons of the Confederate elicited feelings of racism, hatred and general ickyness. Interesting, right? In both situations, I saw four flags and heard the progression from one to the next. So why did I feel fine about it one time and the opposite the next time?
Back to the Tour
The irony is that Sons of the Confederate claim their non-profit purpose is history not hatred. But that was not at all the vibe I got from the website, the museum or the employees. Throughout the tour, I kept telling myself to withhold judgement. But then, the proverbial straw. At one point in the tour I just couldn’t make excuses anymore for the kind of place I was visiting.
The tour is about the house and its history. Like other old houses-turned-museums, the home displays furnishings and decorations of the period.
Until we arrived in one of the bedrooms.
The quilted spread covered the bed. Bright red and blue. A giant-sized Confederate flag quilt. My first thought was one of amazement. How could a quilt that’s 150+ years old be so vibrant? Neither the dark blue or dark red showed the least bit of fading.
If you’ve ever been on an old house tour, you’ll know the tour guides don’t discuss every item in every room. If they did, the tour would take days. Generally, guides highlight the most unique items. Or the ones with the most interesting histories.
In the bedroom, my tour guide walked right to the bed and rested her hand on it. She said she wasn’t going to talk about what was on the quilt because she knew people had strong feelings about it. But that, on her tours, she liked to point out the quilt because it was handmade by one of their members. Hand stitching and all. (I took a photo of it, but simply cannot bring myself to include it with this post.)
That’s when the low hum in my head, the one that started with my first visit to their website—turned into a fire station four-alarm ear-piercing scream.
That’s when I knew. This place really was about the Confederate flag and what it represents to most of us. If it were about history and about a period home, then a quilt made by a current member would have no place on a bed highlighting the 1860s. And no tour guide would highlight it on a tour.
After that, the tour couldn’t end fast enough. I wanted away from the negativity and ugliness I felt by being there.
It still bothers me that I gave $5 to the Sons of the Confederate. No matter what their public mission statement, the tour guide acknowledged that many of the members have strong racist ideations. And, even more horrifying, they likely have racist actions. While $5 may not be much in the scheme of their organization with its members (“including blacks,” I was told several times), it’s still $5.
I tell myself I paid $5 to see the lovely antebellum house but it doesn’t help. Not one single bit.
I hope you will come back next week when I share two more stories that left me sad and angry. Both at the same time. Hint: I titled next week’s post, “On Being Called a Nazi in Middle Tennessee.”
Yep, that happened.
I find your post interesting because as someone who has lived in the South the past 15+ years, not counting my decade in Miami, which is one of the most integrated cities in the US, I forget sometimes that the rest of America has no clue what the South is about.
I started a long response, but then decided it’s not the place and it’s not my place to explain the South to you or anyone. I will say this: it both is and isn’t what you think it is, or what the mythology of it is, and what most Northerners like to simplify it as being. Consider, anyway, that many Southerners trace relatively recent bloodlines to Confederate soldiers, officers, etc. and to a lot of them, history was written by the victors.
As for the South being a racist place, well, yes, but it’s not that different than other places I lived in, to be honest.
I would recommend any liberal, ANY liberal who is interested in politics to spend some time here. The issues that we’re seeing, the great divide between the right and the left has much of its roots in that Civil War and how those who lost it perceive it.
Thanks for the thought-provoking comment, Laura. You know I said it seemed like people were still mad about losing the Civil War. Your reply got me thinking that maybe a more apt description is that they are still grieving that loss. On the one hand it was 150 years ago but on the other, you’re right, it is just a handful of generations. I started thinking about my grandfather talking about his grandfather–that’s real and tangible to me–and the grandfather of my grandfather also fought in that war. It definitely made it seem not so long ago and not so far removed.
After reading this post I Goggled “confederate flag”. I had never really been offended by the flag, but I have also never really thought about it either. There are many opinions out there about the flag and what it stands for. I do believe it is an important part of the history in America, and I also believe that we can learn a lot from history. The comment that I found that made me think the most was someone who said yes the flag is a part of history, but it’s the history of people who didn’t want to be part of the United States. Very thought provoking stuff…excited to continue reading next week’s post.
I’m so pleased you went to the internet for more information. I love that the post got you curious to learn more. Thank you for the comment. We can learn from our history.
This most recent post of yours makes me more interested in ever in who you are. I so appreciate that you think and obviously care deeply about these issues. I find it inspiring.
I live in South Eastern Idaho and so have little experience of the south or the Confederate flag. But I am absolutely in agreement with you that it’s not something to be proud of nor should it be displayed as such.
I so appreciate that you are discussing and bringing up greater issues. Of course I love everything about your RV life also! That’s what first drew me to your blog. But this is the sort of thing that will keep me coming back.
Warm and best wishes for your travels, J
Thank you so much, Jody. It was so nice to read your words, especially from a reader who hasn’t commented before. Racism is so hard to talk about, but we must if we ever hope to eradicate it. I’m glad you are enjoying the blog. I haven’t ever been to Idaho (except driving through) even though I grew up just one state over in Wyoming. I have seen some amazing photos from other RVers visiting the state and I hope to get there soon. Thanks again for your kind and thoughtful comment. It is appreciated more than you can know.
Wow, I have to give you credit for your willingness to address anything in your RV/Travel blog. So cool that we had the chance to meet a few months ago at the Oliver Rally. I am impressed with your story, your experiences, your values, and your willingness to address issues like this. In fact, I am breaking one of my RV values by even typing this. In 2014 when I first got the RV bug, I decided quickly to avoid the issues that divide us: politics, religion, etc. Even after joining Facebook in 2017, I vowed to stay away from these topics. Just too divisive. I am a social work educator and university professor at a comprehensive university in the mid south. After being born in NY and growing up in IN (with its own racist history), my adult life has been spent in northern FL (South), TN, SC, and KY. I also did my dissertation research on students at a small school in Jackson, MS.
Social Justice, Social Class, and Race are issues that I deal with on a daily basis in my professional life. I also continue to believe that race and social class continue to be issues that affect our society whether consciously or subconsciously.
Because of your genuineness and integrity, I am chiming in our your post to let you know how much I appreciate your observations and that I look forward to reading your next blog post.
Thank you for being you!!!
Thank you, Dean. I cannot even begin to express how much your comment means to me. It’s funny because we both very deliberately went to RVing and social media with the same idea. Because I only got on social media as part of trying to promote my blog (of course, the awesome side effect has been connecting with people I meet on the road), I vowed to stay away from anything divisive because I never wanted to alienate a reader. I didn’t want politics or religion or any of the hot button topics to get in the way of someone enjoying the blog or the idea of RV life or finding inspiration and encouragement in the idea of Supersizing their own life.
I admit that I truly struggled about whether or not to write the post (and next week’s). Well, not write it but share it. After it went up on Monday, I was so fearful of negative reactions that I avoided the internet that day. But in the end, even though racism is very much a social and even political issue, I felt that what I was doing–or trying to do–was simply to tell my story and how I felt. With all my heart, I hope the post doesn’t imply sweeping generalizations about southern states or southerners. It was never my intent. And you are so right, it is not just the former Union states that have a history of racism.
Thanks again and when we run into each other on the road, I’d love to hear more about your dissertation.
You are welcome! I like the fresh and genuine energy associated with your blog. This energy even came through on this blog entry dealing with the weighty issue of racism. Great job being sensitive regarding the subject while maintaining your genuineness.
Once again I am amazed with your honesty. I have never thought much about the Confederate flag other than it is part of American history. Racism and slavery have unfortunately been around since the beginning of time in all populations. You did not waste your $5. You paid for all the facts you needed to write this blog. Love, Marie
So true. Thank you.
I do not doubt that there is racism in Tennessee but racism is in the north, as well. Some of the most racist people I know are from Boston and NYC and Maine and Phoenix. I could go on and on. I will say this. If you go looking for something hard enough you will find at least a hint of what you want to see. You sure did. I would not use Google as my history source. I read your blog to read about your RV experience. It is your blog. You can write anything you want.
No doubt, Susan, racism and prejudice is everywhere. Sad, but true. I’m glad you are enjoying the blog and the RV experiences I share. When you are traveling, there are many possibilities about what to write about. I have a list of about 50 topic ideas because there is so much I want to tell readers about. It’s been eye-opening to me getting to visit so many different states. Makes me look forward to adding more to the list. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I certainly do appreciate it.