Earlier this month I took a memorable trip from Memphis, Tennessee, down to the Mississippi Delta with a group of preservation and history enthusiasts. Dr. Bill Ferris, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and one of the nation’s leading scholars on the American South, joined us and helped set the context for what we were seeing in Mississippi towns such as Oxford, Sumner, Indianola, and Dockery Farms. He spoke knowledgeably and passionately about the connections of place with memory, history, food, drink, literature, race, and gender.
At one point, Bill noted that a relative of his liked to say that “he was raised on cornbread and recollections.” As someone who has eaten my fair share of cornbread, often quotes my grandmother, and tells stories passed down from my father, I understood completely.
We launched our journey into the Delta from Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home in Oxford. Both the site and writer remind us of the importance of recollections and history to life today. You cannot have been in the preservation field very long without hearing the famous William Faulkner quote from Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That’s very true at a place like Rowan Oak, where communities of people who write and love literature, admire architecture, and enjoy good liquor and good company all visit for remembrance and inspiration. (Faulkner has another famous line that suggests that “pouring out liquor is like burning books.” He certainly enjoyed his whiskey.) I often suggest that “the period of significance is now” because historic sites at their best are dynamic places where past, present, and future meet in a variety of ways.
Perhaps the most meaningful and moving part of our Delta journey was the 90 minutes we spent at the courthouse in Sumner, where the murderers of young Emmett Till were tried and acquitted in 1955—which was among the major events that led to the modern Civil Rights movement. Several years ago, the National Trust gave a small but catalytic grant to help restore this place and keep the story alive. Now visitors to this working courthouse—restored to its 1955 appearance—are invited to “engage in the story of Emmett Till, explore your own story, and create a new emerging story with us.”
It is important to bring this past into the present, where we are still grappling with the racism that led to Till’s murder and the murder through lynching of at least 4,000 African Americans from 1877 to 1950. In that restored courthouse, we read aloud an apology from citizens of Tallahatchie County to the family of Emmett Till. One of our Council members spontaneously used that venue to speak from the heart about his mother’s recollections of being a young African American woman in the Delta, only five years older than Till. This historic site exists to tell the story of Emmett Till in order to move people forward. As poet Marie Howe reminds us, “memory is a poet and not a historian.” But not all recollections are correct, and some are purposefully misleading, including the “Lost Cause” memories told by my beloved grandmother.
You don’t have to be a historian to play a role in the telling of the full American story. I happened to be with attorney Bryan Stevenson—the dynamic founder and head of the Equal Justice Institute—last week and was reminded of the work we all must do when he said, “injustice prevails where hopelessness persists.” Stevenson spoke to the power of place when he gave a moving TrustLive address at PastForward 2016. His most recent work—opening the National Memorial for Peace and Justice—has pushed the nation to recognize that we have not had a reconciliation with lynching, one of our worst atrocities, or the lives and places scarred by those actions.
If we want to build communities and a nation full of hope, it is important that we set forth a new narrative about the injustices in our lives, past and present. I was reminded, yet again, on my trip through the Mississippi Delta that historic sites, monuments, and recollections are good places to begin.
David J. Brown is the executive vice president and chief preservation officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.