Confederate History Month is not an ancient tradition. The practice of declaring April, the month of surrender at Appomattox, to be a month set aside to remember this sorry war appears to have caught on only in the 1990s. Why would such a thing take off as recently as it did?
I think that the answer lies in the way I learned a lot about the Old South. His name was MacMullen, and by the time he settled into a lawn chair in front of the Perrine Ace Hardware store nearly every day he was a very old man. It was the early 1970s, and old MacMullen had seen a lot of changes take place. He eagerly told to a young white boy who was willing to listen to what he had to say.
The day was hot and sticky, as summers always were at the bottom end of Florida. The sun had boiled up over the bay and settled into its routine. Time doesn’t pass as much as happen under this kind of sun. A routine errand to the hardware store on my bike brought me to the pointed nose and strong chin that stuck out from under the grey hair perched with purpose in the shade of the store’s awning. A thin cigar moved towards the wrinkles and spots and a long drag was exhaled with the smell of old and tired.
“You live around here, boy?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“Your kin from here?”
“No sir, we’re from up North.”
Another long drag on the cigar curled into the loneliness of the New South, a place apart from everything the old guy knew. There had been a moment when he thought I might be one of his people, but that passed. Yet somehow I had caught him.
“At least your folks taught you to be respectful.”
“Well, yes sir.”
“You ever want to know about where you live?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“You see that coral rock building over there?” A long finger crooked over the small cigar just beyond me. “That was the Perrine City Hall and jail. Down here where US1 divided, the town made its money as a speed trap for folks on their way to the Keys. Everyone came to hate Perrine and the Chief of Police for that. When a young man got drunk one night he was locked up in the only cell they had along with a black woman who was picked up for something or the other, I think it was a family dispute.”
“Well, they picked on the wrong boy. He came from a rich family up in Miami, and when he was let out they sued for what they called ‘Forced Integration’. Apparently there was a state law against black and white people sharing a jail cell. A big fuss was made over it, likely ‘cuz no one like Perrine in the first place. The Governor himself stepped in and revoked the town charter, and there hasn’t been a Perrine ever since.”
I listened to his story intently for one simple reason – no one had ever told me this stuff before. There was something before the big Metro-Dade sprawl of continuous suburb and new houses full of Yankee ex-pats sprouting like Florida Holly. The old guy knew things that made sense of the world around me, things that none of my people seemed to know.
I wound up allowing many of my days to happen alongside this simple lawn chair full of stories. I leaned about Black Caesar, an escaped slave turned pirate who became the Founding Father of this corner of the world. I heard about Henry Perrine and David Fairchild, the pioneers in raising tropical crops on the thin soil on the top of the Cutler Ridge, a solid coral reef made land. It was land that produced more than sunny escape for Yankees.
Old MacMullen also told me what it was like when black folks lived on one side of US1 and white folks on the other, never meeting except in the two blocks between that made up the heart of Perrine where the highway divided. He spoke fondly of all the good people he knew who worked hard, black or white, and then went home to their respective sides of Dixie Highway when the sun settled down. I didn’t understand most of what he was saying, so I asked.
“Why was it like that, sir?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why was it separated? Why didn’t people just live where they wanted?”
Another long drag and a curl of smoke had to pass before there was an answer. This old guy with so many memories in his head owed one simple truth to the Yankee boy who had taken an interest in what he had to say. Eventually, it came out.
“I don’t rightly know. It’s just the way it was. I can’t say it was right or wrong, it’s just the way it was.”
Old MacMullen is long gone now. The store he sat in front of was swept away in Hurricane Andrew. The rest of Perrine has become a way station on the way to the Keys with miles of suburbs full of people from everywhere in the world just beyond the 7-11s and big box stores. I can’t call the time that old MacMullen described as “antebellum”, or “before the war”, but it was clearly ante-something.
The kids who grew up in this New South alongside me have many reactions to whatever happened around us. Some of them started declaring April to be Confederate History Month in what they called a “Remembrance of our Heritage”. But our more recent heritage wasn’t particularly glorious or purposeful, it just happened. If it’s worth remembering at all, it’s worth remembering for what was true about the moment. Racism happened simply because that was how it was.
The supposed glory of war can be told in bright colors and great flourishes. The stories told by old MacMullen in the hot sun don’t seem to have as much meaning or purpose. It’s just the way it was. That apparently still troubles a lot of the kids I grew up with, but not me. Old MacMullen was the guy who told me the truth, and for that I will forever keep his memories alive.
Confederate History Month? It’s honoring the wrong war, the wrong before. It’s wrong in as many ways as a long summer day has hours to pass.