The road goes home and ahead

Published 11:09 am Saturday, December 2, 2017

by John Railey

Last week was hellaciously unsettling, with President Trump ramping up his war on the free press, rattling his saber against the North Korean leader and re-tweeting anti-Muslim images from a British bigot, a move that brought praise from a top American white supremacist and condemnation from the British prime minister.

Trying to make sense of it all, I thought about the road back to my Tidewater, Va., homeland, a road and place of false heroes and hopes that would fit in today and real heroes and hopes that are needed today. The road leads to the bedrock, fact-based values on which I was raised by fine parents, even amidst dangerous myths of white supremacy that persist today despite the efforts of good people in my homeland and nationwide.

My road home goes up U.S. 29 North to Danville, that last capital of the Confederacy. I roll across the beautiful Dan River, past the exit for the museum of world war tanks. When I ride that road in my old pickup truck, I think about my late father’s Naval service in World War II and the rights for which he and his fellow troops fought.

I think about my father studying at the University of North Carolina before World War II under its legendary leader, Frank Porter Graham, buying into Graham’s vision of a progressive state government that would, eventually, lift up all, including African-Americans, and reject the Old South.

As I get on U.S. 58 East in Danville, a few Confederate flags still tiredly flap in front of modest houses, and at least one business. One of those houses has also sported a Trump sign.

It’s a haunted slice of the world you don’t see from Interstate 85. My thoughts keep going back to the Civil War that has never really ended.

Just east of Danville, I drive through rich river bottomland that will take your breath away. I cut off the political news on my radio and talk to old Virginia friends on my cell phone. We agree on some political things. On other things, not so much. We shift our chats to people, gossip about old-time friends.

The talks end and I roll on, stopping at the Sheetz in South Boston where I shoot the breeze with people hanging outside the store, happy to hear them talk in the Southside accent, the gentle drawl I have known as long as I can remember, blacks and whites sounding the same. Some locals pumping gas beside my truck sport Trump bumper stickers. A down-on-his-luck man with a good dog beside him plays his guitar, his case open for tips. I drop in a dollar.

I ride on, considering a myth of my region, that President Lincoln and General Grant were bad and CSA President Jeff Davis and General Lee were good. The more I read, most lately the phenomenal new biography of Grant by Ron Chernow, the more I realize the reverse was true, that slave-owners like Davis and Lee dragged legions of poor whites who didn’t own slaves into a war to keep slavery. Lincoln and his friend Grant came to realize that ending slavery was indeed their righteous mission. Grant, for all his failings when he became president, fought hard for the rights of the freed slaves.

I keep rolling down 58, finally reaching my home county, which this fall had beautiful cotton crops, like the crops that were only a few long generations ago harvested by slaves forced into labor, pain and heartbreak.

As I’ve written here before, “my Southampton County is ground zero for many of the racial issues with which our country still wrestles. Dred Scott, of the infamous Supreme Court case of 1857 that ruled blacks could not claim citizenship, spent his early years in our county. Nat Turner, a local slave and preacher, started the country’s only sustained slave insurrection, leading in the killings of the ancestors of whites in our county that caused the revenge killings of the ancestors of blacks in our county. Gen. George Henry Thomas, who grew up in our county, joined the Union in the Civil War. His courage earned him the nickname of ‘The Rock of Chickamauga,’ even though his disgraced sisters back home reportedly turned his portrait around so that his visage faced the wall. Another general rooted in our county, Billy Mahone, gained fame as a Confederate general, only to years later renounce the Southern cause on the floor of the U.S. Senate in which he served.”

We could use a few honest heroes today like Mahone, a former slave-owner who worked toward racial reconciliation and said in that Senate speech that “I never learned my wretched error, the awful blunder of the South, the curse of her institution of slavery and her traditions, until I sat in the United States Senate, and day by day had borne in upon me the amazing significance of our form of government, what it meant, on what basis it was founded, how great and grand it was above any previous human effort, what it meant for humanity, and how much greater was the nation than any state.”

That’s how real courage and patriotism sound, words that make my heart sing. I carry them and other words from my homeland with me. They sing louder now than ever before.

JOHN RAILEY,  who grew up in Courtland, is the editorial page editor of The Winston-Salem Journal, which published this column.