African-Americans' heritage set in stone

In the South, monuments and memorials to black history, from slavery to civil rights, are springing up.

Across the South, movements to erect monuments and memorials in recognition of the African-American story from slavery to now are rising in steel and stone.

From Mississippi to South Carolina, Southerners are working to open museums and preserve prominent landmarks of African-American history. This comes despite a tight economy in which many states are cutting the budget for such cultural projects - and even as some states debate an ongoing Confederate flag issue and see a surging interest in "Southern pride."

The trend is driven by a younger generation wanting to face the past, older civil rights activists eager to honor what they fought for, and the economics of tourism in an age when race issues have a high public appeal.

"People are realizing that for years this [African-Americans] is a group of people who have been ignored," says Jim Walsmith, executive director of Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas. "It's time to save these places before they are torn down and recognize that this part of history cannot only be a learning tool but a tourism draw."

The memorials are being pushed in places where some of the most bitter civil rights battles were fought:

* At the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, Miss., school officials will erect a public-art project in 2002 to commemorate equal access to education in the state, while celebrating the 40th anniversary of the college's integration.

* Arkansas legislators decided this spring to honor Daisy Bates, a mentor to the nine black students who integrated Central High School in the 1957 desegregation battle, with a state holiday. It's the only holiday in the nation to honor an African-American woman.

* The Savannah, Ga., city council agreed this year to build a memorial to the slaves brought into port there.

* In March, South Carolina became the first state in the nation with a monument to black history on its capitol grounds - and the first state to officially recognize the African-American experience with a permanent memorial. Schoolchildren saved their pennies and churches took up donations to raise more than $1.1 million for the monument, where visitors can touch four rubbing stones from Congo, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Ghana. The belief is that to rub a stone from "home" can take one back in spirit.

Facing history

Impetus for the monuments comes from a variety of sources. In Mississippi, a state haunted by a violent civil rights past, historians are forcing the state to deal with history and its mistakes. They say ignoring African-American history affects the way people view the rest of the state's past.

In 1995, a group of students and academics, both African-American and white, gathered on the Ole Miss campus to lament the plentifulness of white symbols. Private donations were raised and grants given for the public-art project that will open next year. Now, the college is on its last fundraising effort. A national arts competition seeking the project's designers will be launched this summer.

"We looked [the civil rights era] in the eye," says Susan Glisson, director of the Institute of Racial Reconciliation at the university.

Dr. Glisson adds that Mississippi has been slow to remember the civil rights movement. Other than an eternal flame on James Cheney's grave outside Meridan and a statue to Medgar Evers in Jackson - both activists who were killed while fighting for civil rights - no other memorials exist.

In Arkansas, lawmakers were united in their decision to honor Ms. Bates with a holiday, and a movement is also under way to save Bates's house, often fire-bombed during the 1960s.

"It's important to honor those who risked their lives to make life better for others," says Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. "If we don't, we don't teach the next generation."

But a bill to erect a statue in Bates's honor in Statuary Hall in Washington failed, and projects in other states have also met resistance.

Activists in Savannah, for instance, fought for 10 years before they won approval for an African-American memorial. Even now, there's disagreement over the inscription. Blacks support a quote from poet Maya Angelou describing horrid conditions aboard slave ships. Others say the quote would be divisive. Unlike at the Ole Miss campus, where both blacks and whites pushed for the monument, the movement in Savannah has been sharply divided along color lines.

Good for business, too

While the flood of civil rights memorials may be a sign that the South is finally coming to terms with its past, some also see the monuments as perfect sites for tourists, especially African-Americans from the North who are seeking pieces of their heritage.

Glisson says tourists visit Mississippi each year to search for a history that is deeper than antebellum plantations, pretty scenery, and casino gambling. A small group of people has already started informal walking tours of civil rights attractions for the tourists.

More is in the works. Mississippi's leaders are in the early stages of planning for a civil rights museum. And Glisson, in light of the state's recent decision to keep the Confederate symbol on its flag, is trying to jump-start a statewide coalition for racial reconciliation that could help with monuments and a civil rights trail she sees in the state's future.

"There's a new mood here," she says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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