I’m lucky to have my grandmother, Alice O’Shea, who is 94 years old. She was born in 1925 and grew up in Eufaula, Alabama, on the border with Georgia. Today she lives in a nursing home in Florida.
She told me that one of her great-great grandparents, James Monroe Culpepper, was among the largest slaveholders in Georgia before the Civil War. She grew up privileged, on a small town scale: her father owned the local lumberyard. She told me that she was closer to her “mammy”– the black servant who raised her, whose own grandparents had been slaves– than she was to her own mother.
When my grandmother was young, in the 30’s, a few Confederate veterans were still living. She remembers shaking the old mens’ hands as they passed through town in Memorial Day parades. I’ve often told my students: the Civil War seems so long ago, but my grandmother’s lifetime overlapped with Confederate veterans’ lives, and she’s still living today. Those battles in the Ken Burns documentary aren’t so far back as the old photographs make them appear.
My grandmother, Alice O’Shea, with my daughter Augusta, 2004.
My grandmother grew up attending all-white schools during the Great Depression. She told me her father was well-liked by the black families in town because he kept his house servants and his workers at the lumberyard even when times were tough.
There were eighteen officially recorded lynchings in Alabama in my grandmother’s first eighteen years. (There had been 340 recorded lynchings in the state since the end of Reconstruction, in 1877, mostly mob killings of black men accused of making advances toward white women). She left Alabama around the same time as the state’s “last” lynching of that era, the lynching of Willie Lee Cooper, a mechanic beaten to death for quitting his job without notice, in Monroe County in 1943. Of course racial violence continued. The KKK lynched Michael Donald in Mobile in 1981.
She went to college in Washington, D.C. She remembers being 19, standing along the railroad tracks, sobbing as FDR’s funeral train passed by in 1945, in the last months of World War Two. Soon after, she fell in love with my grandfather, who was Irish Catholic, from Utica, New York. This was a big deal for my grandmother’s parents in Alabama. They lived with the Gone With the Wind version of history, with the South as the victim of “Northern Aggression.” Now their daughter was marrying a Yankee.
At the wedding the newlyweds received a strange gift: a framed display of a Confederate battle flag and an American flag, crossing each other. Several years ago when my grandmother moved out of her house we all took a few things, and she laughed hard, giving me the framed flags. She said the friend who gave them to her was making a joke, like the wedding was finally making peace between North and South. She said her friend was trying to make light of tension that was actually real, at least for some of the older people in the two families. Their grandparents had fought one another.
I put the framed flags in my classroom, up on a shelf, and took them down whenever I taught about Reconstruction, to tell about my grandmother and make a point about the war’s legacy, how it wasn’t so long ago as we think. The flags were there on display for five or six years, on a shelf cluttered with other artifacts and teaching props.
But a couple years ago, as U-32 debated the Black Lives Matter flag, I started seeing my grandmother’s flags differently. Except for that one day of the year when I used them in a lesson, they just sat on the shelf without explanation. What message did the flags send to a student of color, or anyone else who came into my room, on the days when I wasn’t using them to teach?
Our culture is always changing, one mind at a time. My grandmother grew up in the Jim Crow south, raised her own children in Upstate New York during the Civil Rights Movement, and lived to vote twice for Barack Obama. She still carries some racist ideas, I’m sure, but she’s come a long way.
And yet in some ways the world around her hasn’t changed much at all. Just as it was when she was a child, almost all of the women who care for her today in the nursing home are black, from the working-class black neighborhoods in Vero, Florida. Driving around Vero I’ve also seen Confederate flags pinned up in the windows of houses.
A few years ago on a road trip I passed through my grandmother’s hometown of Eufaula, Alabama. In the morning in the hotel’s breakfast room, with the news on TV in the background, an older white lady working for the hotel struck up a conversation with me while she restocked the continental breakfast. She was super friendly, classic southern hospitality, and we shared a few laughs. Then, gesturing toward President Obama on the TV, she said something like “you know things have really gone to shit when you get one of them in office.”
There were black families eating on the other side of the room, and she said it in a low, confiding tone. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and was horrified that she assumed I was open to hearing it. I couldn’t reply– I just took my coffee back to my room.
My grandmother wouldn’t have been surprised, but as a white Vermonter I’ve mostly been oblivious to the weight and complexity of race and racism in America. People of color in Vermont, of course, are keenly aware of race every day.
This year my school, U-32, has been debating a ban on hate symbols, prompted in large part by issues surrounding students displaying the Confederate flag, mostly on clothing, at school. I don’t like the idea of a ban. I believe strongly in free speech, and I worry a ban could further alienate students we need to work harder to include. But teaching has helped me see other points of view, and I understand that my own perspective might not be the most important.
My grandmother’s flags are still in the same place on the shelf in my classroom, but for the past couple years they’ve been turned to face the wall, displaying the brown paper on the backside of the frame. They can wait there for the next time I tell their story.