Old Times There Are Not Forgotten!

The lyrics from the title song above were written by Daniel Decatur Emmett.  One well known verse is:

I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray!  Hooray!

In Dixie’s Land I’ll take my stand

to live and die in Dixie.

Away, away, away down south in Dixie.

Away, away, away down south in Dixie.

Ironically this song was written by a Northerner and first sung in New York City in 1859.  The first shot was not fired in the Civil War until April 12, 1861 when the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter.  I often heard this song when I was growing up since my mother and I were both born in Alabama.

farm roadsI was born in Fairfield, Alabama and my grandparents had a farm in Ensley, Alabama.  Years later and the farm is now ancient history and Ensley is a bunch of suburban homes adjacent to Birmingham.  The cow paths, chicken barn, pig sties and goat pens are long gone.  The rolling dirt road that once led to the Farmers Grain and Feed store is now a paved two lane highway leading to Walmart and CVS.  I remember feed millmany trips down this road beside my grandfather who always had a large quart canning jar full of ice and water and wrapped in a towel.  When we arrived at the feed store, he would go in to purchase his feed and buy me an RC Cola from the metal soda box on the front dock.  I would sit on the side of the feed store loading dock while the workers would pack his pickup truck with bags of grain and other assorted farm essentials.   My grandfather would have a brief chat with the workers and we would be on our way back to his farm.

Old Farm

My grandfather and grandmother lived in a Quonset hut that they purchased after the end of WW II.  The hut was all metal and “rooms” were defined by hanging blankets.  I do not remember any doors in the hut except the single door leading outside.  Beyond this door was the path that would take you directly to the outhouse.  Other paths branched off this main path to the barn and various animal areas.  My grandfather and grandmother always lived frugally but they did not scrimp on the food.  Breakfast would be grits, brains, bacon and eggs.  Lunch would be fried chicken with collard greens and large baking powder biscuits.  Supper would be fried potatoes, green beans and either roast pork or perhaps barbecued goat.  Fridays we would eat catfish and okra.  I never tired of my grandmother’s southern cooking.

blast-furnaces-of-a-steel-mill-light-j-baylor-robertsMy grandfather supplemented his meager income by working at the Birmingham Steel mill.  I remember when we would go to Birmingham at night.  The sky would be full of smoke and sparks from the various steel mills in the city.  The steel mills dominated ingot of steelthe city architecture and they owned the night.  As we came closer to one of the mills, we would soon see the large red hot ingots lying on their side cooling off in the mill yard.  Occasionally, we could see the huge ladles of red hot ore pouring out their contents into the casting molds.  Sparks would fly everywhere and cauldron of steelthe night sky would be lit up with flames streaking hundreds of feet into the heavens.  It was almost like a fireworks show that went on night after night.  I left the mills and Alabama when I left home in 1964 thinking that I would probably never see either of them again.  I was wrong though.

One after another each of the five major steel mills in Birmingham shut down, unable to compete with more modern methods of making steel.  Soon there were only large rusted metal cities looming ominously over the landscape but devoid of soul and spirit.  The smoke and flames were gone from the night sky.  Each of the mills were torn down and replaced by shopping centers or parking lots until finally only one of the old mills

Steel Mills Birmingham

Steel Mills Birmingham

remained.  Civic minded leaders in a spirit of trying to capture history decided to turn this last steel mill into a museum.  Later on in my life, I toured this museum and visited the various plant areas but it was not the same anymore.  The plant that had killed hundreds of men and took my grandfather’s left foot was now lifeless.  In my imagination, I could see shadows of the dead men who had sweated in the heat of the blast furnaces and stoked coal to feed the hunger of the ovens for fuel and a growing nation for automobiles.  A steel mill that had once been a dangerous fiery roaring tiger was now simply a large cavernous rusty building that echoed in my mind with the mute sounds of the past.

Years after my first marriage was over, I took my second wife Karen down to Alabama to visit the remnants of the clan that my mother had belonged to.  By this time, my grandparents were dead and most of my aunts and uncles were also deceased.  I had never gone south with my first wife and so it had been years since I had visited Alabama.  Karen and I had taken trips together to several different countries.  We had been to England, Scotland, France, Germany and China.  I warned her that going down South would be a culture shock.  I was not surprised when she later told me that the “culture shock” she experienced in the South and with my relatives was greater than any she had experienced on our overseas trips including China.

Karen said she had heard that the South was still fighting the Civil War but she could not believe what she heard and saw during the trip.  Numerous bumper stickers, ain'tfergettintattoos, hats and t-shirts proclaiming:

  • Hell no, we ain’t forgettin
  • The South will raise again
  • Long live the Confederacy
  • Nathan Bedford Forest: American Patriot
  • Confederate American and proud of it

And of course, she saw numerous Confederate flags hanging from houses, pickup trucks and motorcycles.  We even found a roadside stand where they were selling Confederate memorabilia and a large sign over the stand proudly proclaiming “Heritage Not Hate” as though the Civil War was about mint juleps and the right of slaves to sing and dance all night long.

red neck shirtIt became apparent to me why I never took my first wife to visit my relatives.  Deep down inside, I was both appalled and ashamed at their ideas and behavior.  During our visit Karen and I listened to more prejudice and bigotry then I had heard in years.  I retreated to an almost catatonic state.  I did not once broach the subject of racism or discrimination despite the abundant evidence of its pervasiveness.  My normal outspokenness for intolerance was stilled in the onslaught of insults and harangues that I heard towards Blacks, Mexicans and other minorities.  It was like a Gordian knot of discrimination and I did not know where to start unravelling it.  On our way home, Karen and I discussed our mutual inability to speak out or take any action in the face of this prolific bigotry.  I perhaps more than Karen was embarrassed that I had said and did nothing.  I had become the silent person who fails to speak out.

We can talk about moving on but I don’t think many of us realize how long it takes to change a culture and to really let go and move on.  There have been and continue to be many changes in the Old South.  Slavery has of course ended.  The plantations are gone and Jim Crow rule is finally over.  The Confederate Flag has even been taken down from most Southern State Capitals.  The symbols and icons of the Old South are fast disappearing.  Nevertheless, in the hearts and minds of many Southerners, you can still hear the refrains from Dixie repeating: “Old times there are not forgotten, Look Away, Look Away, Look Away, Dixie Land.”  When it comes to the South, old times there are still not forgotten.

Time for Questions:

Have you ever been down South?  What was your experience?  Do you have any roots in the South? If so, what changes have you seen over the years?  What do you think it will take to make the South forget the Civil War and move on?

Life is just beginning.

“In the South, history clings to you like a wet blanket. Outside your door the past awaits in Indian mounds, plantation ruins, heaving sidewalks and homestead graveyards; each slowly reclaimed by the kudzu of time.”  ― Tim HeatonDon’t Be Ugly:

 

 

 

 

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jeanine
    Jun 20, 2016 @ 23:35:29

    Your blog stirred so many emotions in me and was probably the most excited I have ever felt upon reading anything. Mainly because I am your sister and can relate to so many things you described, and at the same time you told me so many things I had not known about. I do remember the steel mills and how magnificently they lit up the night sky. Your imagery was incredible and the pictures made me very nostalgic for the good I remember during our summer visits to, “Bamy”. Now for what I remember most about the bigotry. Dad and I were walking down the street one day. I was very young, as I remember, and the time must have been in the late 50’s. He was holding my hand and showing me water fountains labeled, “Colored”. He showed me the restrooms, also segregating whites and, “Colored”. A black man was walking toward us on the street and started to cross to the other side. I had to admire dad that day, because he shouted out to the man and told him he need not cross and to please continue walking. The black man did not cross and dad wished him a good day as he passed us by. Our father told me how wrong it was what they were doing to the blacks and how I should never discriminate regardless of the color of a person’s skin. The lesson he taught me that day stayed with me my entire life. I will applaud him for that and that alone.

    Reply

  2. johnpersico
    Jun 23, 2016 @ 12:13:29

    Thanks for the comments Jeanine. I also remember dad being very accepting of Black people. I think I learned my disgust for racism somewhat from his lessons. He once threatened to “wash my mouth” out with soap if he ever heard me use the work “nigger” again.

    Reply

  3. Thomas Dierl
    Jun 27, 2016 @ 20:02:35

    Dr. Persico, I found the post thought provoking. A few of my reactions and comments are below and are worth what you paid for them!
    1. The war was in Lincoln’s words primarily to preserve the union. The freedom of slaves was at best secondary (my assessment). This quote from Lincoln in a letter to Horace Greeley fortifies my assessment.
    “I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.”
    2. On an emotional level I can understand your use of the word “embarrassment” over saying or doing nothing to eradicate the rampant racism and bigotry you witnessed. In response to your words “…our mutual inability to speak out or take any action in the face of this prolific bigotry. I perhaps more than Karen was embarrassed that I had said and did nothing. I had become the silent person who fails to speak out.” Life is short, however, and you must economize your efforts. Attempting to engage or educate those who have no interest has proven a waste of time…time and again in my experience. There is nothing of which to be embarrassed in choosing not to engage those who have indicated they are not capable or willing to engage in a learning way.
    3. And lastly to address what it takes to change a culture… In my experience it takes quite a bit of effort. It takes education in the form of persuasion. It takes time. No amount of the use of force (laws) can eliminate it. In fact, in some cases laws only exacerbate the situation. Social pressure is another means that is very strong. I happen to prefer enlightenment over social pressure, however, that does not deny the effectiveness of social pressure.
    I find your writing style creative… and your choice of topics interesting. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

    • johnpersico
      Jul 04, 2016 @ 01:33:18

      Thanks Tom for the comments. I think you can find quotes that show Lincoln put a different and higher priority on ending slavery towards the end of the war. I have posted some in several blogs and used some in debates. Just got back from a trip so no time to write more now. Lots of unpacking do to. I think you are spot on though when it comes to change and dealing with bigotry. There is an economy of effort that one needs to accept or perhaps the word parsimony sums it up as well. Thanks for your comments. John

      Reply

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