Oh, the joys of a summer road trip! In 1893, William Frank Fonvielle, a student at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, waved goodbye to his friends who worked with him on the college newspaper. At the tail end of the giddy post-slavery years when young men and women like William with no first hand memory of slavery and with all the enthusiasm and confidence in the future that many college students once had (before colleges became soul-deadening reeducation camps) Fonvielle set out on a journey south armed with knowledge of the ancient languages and the stories of humanity captured in classic novels and histories.
The struggle for human freedom was an epic one tracing its beginnings further back than the African slave trade, further back into the dark recesses of human memory and written language.
It’s fair to say that William Frank Fonveille, his classmates and the many white men and women who helped educate the children of slaves saw this thrilling time as one of advance and victory. Yes, there were ominous signs in the Mississippi where a new constitution prepared the way for disenfranchisement, and in many places the newly won right to keep weapons for self defense against marauding gangs and local government tyrants was under assault, but hope remained.
The dark signs were obscured in the Upper South by the promising property gains and improving literacy rates of the generation of black people who came after the war. When William, confident in his own future, journeyed on a train discussing Dickens with a white passenger beside him he had no idea how Atlanta with its colored restaurants, train cars and bathrooms would disturb him.
Yet I wonder if when he returned to North Carolina he really believed the doors would be shut upon another generation of blacks in the South.
Freedom is not a thing only once won. As the rights of man diminish across the globe in a dizzying number of ways we take our road trips nowadays not to investigate the course of freedom but to indulge in fantastical thinking. We take pictures of ourselves. We turn inward–but only superficially.
We let our emotions, not reality be the judge. We attend anti-gun rallies by day and massive drink-ups by night never realizing that more deaths occur each year due to alcohol (abuse and drunk driving). Factor in the crazy things we do when drunk or the suffering caused by an alcoholic parent or spouse! CLICK HERE FOR INTERESTING REAL TIME DEATH STATS.
We care more about how someone addresses us than the innocent men, women and children killed in our name. We care more about body shaming than female genital mutilation by groups of people our taxes fund.
As young William Fonveille fretted over sitting in a sooty rail car could he be expected to imagine that one day Margaret Sanger would push for an abortion program to exterminate black people all together? When he crossed the border into North Carolina at the end of his eye-opening trip he breathed a sigh of relief. Never would his home state go the way of the Deep South. Never would freedom once fought for by whites and blacks alike be trampled over by small-minded and hateful humans seeking to destroy what they could not control: the desire of humanity to be free . . .
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This essay was inspired by “Somewhere” in the Nadir of
African American History, 1890-1920
9 responses to ““[and when I saw] the Smoky Mountains . . . I thought of heaven.” A Black College Student’s Trip South”
I’ve just been reading Howard Zinn, “History is a weapon”. What an eye-opener.
My problem with Howard Zinn is his tendency to see the making of American as a massive conspiracy of evil doers messing with the “little” people. I think US history is more dynamic.
The US was exceptional in that the debate was always about human freedom–it was a long and grueling debate (and still is). Not maany places can say that. Howard Zinn seems to see the US as exceptionally bad. I think that’s a narrow version of human history since most of the people who came to America were fleeing poverty, disease and different forms of slavery. Slavery–America’s one great crime–still exists in many parts of the world, as does poverty and tyranny.
My fear is that Americans spend their time worrying about who gets to use certain bathrooms as our rights are trampled and our government kills innocents. The idea that treaties are made with China about the internet and the environment without our vote scares me.
Thank you for this post. A french philosopher once wrote a book called “Memory, History and Oblivion”. The title is self-explanatory. I don’t think many young people can fully understand or visualize what pre-civil rights South was. I went to grad school at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. Yes, that one. At the time it was fully desegragated, yet, when I was there the university celebrated the 15th anniversary of UofA’s opening. (Do the math) Gov’n’r Wallace’s stand in the school room door to prevent the entry of the first two black to students to enroll at the university. I believe he only stepped down because of the National Guard and a personal message from the President. (JFK or Johnson?) When I was there, i was shocked to realize that had happened only “yesterday”. 🙂 Now it is the day before yesterday. 🙂
It’s a fine line. If we spend too much time obsessing over the wrongs of history we turn bitter and never heal, yet we need to look back and look around the globe (not just at the US) to see that there is something exceptional about a country in constant debate over human freedom.
I think we’ve lost our way on that–or should I say the multinational corporations and political shills have taken over. Oops–here comes the IRS!!
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Fully agree with you Adrienne. I love History (amongst other things) because it tells us what happened. And if we forget what happened we are condemned to the same errors over and over again. Now History also teaches something: freedom is relatively new. Women got the right to vote in the US in the 20’s? In France in 1946! My daughters cannot imagine what my grandmother’s life has been in terms of restraints. So there is progress. Too slow sometimes. The only that never changes is, indeed, the IRS. (Thank you for that laugh)
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PS. Roll Tide, nevertheless. 🙂
An excellent essay
You are very kind.
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A terrific post — intelligent and moving.