Father and son share teaching moments and hard lessons in Southern history
One day last April, my son and I went to lunch at Home Grown on Memorial Drive. It’s a popular meat-and-three near our shotgun cottage in Cabbagetown. The little restaurant has the best local produce around, and the place was packed. Blue-collar black folk from Reynoldstown. Tattooed twenty-somethings from East Atlanta. Government pols from the state capitol a few miles west.
We queued up on the wait-list in the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd and the host told us to expect a half hour wait — no big deal for me, but alarming to Henry. He’s a curious 5-year-old who is most at peace with the universe when he has something to occupy his thoughts. I’d fallen down on the job and forgotten to bring some of “the guys” with me — the small blocky plastic figures from his collection of Lego “Star Wars” kits that usually accompany us in our travels around town. Stormtroopers, Rebels, Clones, Battle Droids, all locked in their never-ending struggle between the dark and the light.
I asked him if he wanted to go for a walk to kill the time, so we navigated our way back through the crowd and out toward the big blue sky. Spring was on the way. We hiked east along the sidewalk as gentrification did its thing beside us. Nail guns popped. Circular saws buzzed. The skeleton of a mid-rise had appeared overnight, I’m pretty sure.
A few blocks from Moreland, we came upon the old Hubert Elementary School, now vacant once again. On the corner in front of the building, a historic marker stood watch, an iron square of state sanctioned information on a crumbling concrete post, one of many scattered throughout the surrounding neighborhoods that detailed the Battle of Atlanta in 1864. As anyone who has seen “Gone With the Wind” can tell you, the war was all downhill for the Confederate States of America after Atlanta fell.
I stopped in front of the marker and scanned the rusting metal plate shouting at me in uppercase letters: “ATTACK FROM THE WEST.” It must have been a replacement because the bottom corner was stamped “1984.” Henry and I would soon discover that most of the markers spread through the footprint of the battle were dated 1956 — the same year the state legislature changed the state flag to include the “stars and bars” to flip off the federal government after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.
I usually pay about as much attention to historic markers as I do fire hydrants. The details about troop movements and battalion placements make as much sense to me as Henry does when he educates me about the Clone Wars a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Was there actually a time when Atlantans read these things and were able to follow along? July 22, 1864. Gen. George Maney’s div. (Hardee’s A.C.) attacked the front of Giles Smith’s div. 17th A.C. posted on Flat Shoals Road (Leggett’s Hill to Glenwood). Whatever that was supposed to mean. Clone troops (Skywalker’s div.) advanced against battle droids and Droidekas (Destroyers) at the Second Battle of Geonosis.
Henry stood beside me, towhead back, bangs in his eyes, looking up at the words on the marker. He was getting pretty good at reading but was no better than me at following along. It seemed written in a code that we didn’t know. Then he asked me what it said and opened up a can of worms that I hadn’t prepared for.
“Well, it’s about the Civil War.”
“What’s the Civil War?”
“It was a war a long time ago. Some of it was fought around here.”
“How long ago?”
“A long time, 150 years,” I rounded down.
“Older than you?”
“Yes. Older than me.”
I’m a third generation white Atlantan from an in-town Atlanta family, which makes Henry a fourth generation in-town white Atlantan. We’re the only Stewarts left who still live inside the Perimeter. If you know the intersection of Ponce and Highland, you know where the family house was before a great-uncle burned it down.
I was about Henry’s age when I first learned about the Civil War, too. My grandmother Lil, the matriarch of the family, and I were at Stone Mountain park to see the carillon, which had recently been donated by the Coca-Cola Company, where she worked as a secretary for 40 years. If my parents were there, I don’t remember them, and I don’t remember the Confederate memorial carving on the granite mountain.
What I do remember is standing beside her in Confederate Hall at the base of the walkup trail. We were in a large, dark space with a low ceiling, viewing an exhibit about the War Between the States. Most of the room was filled by a large diorama of the state of Georgia. The thing was about 50 feet long from top to bottom and was dotted with tiny soldiers in blue and gray that clashed in various military engagements around the plaster terrain. A voice recording narrated the high points of the war in Georgia from a southern point-of-view while miniature figures in blue and gray fought it out from Ringgold to Savannah, each clash lit up in-turn by a small spotlight to match the accompanying narration with cannon fire and explosion.
My grandmother explained it all to me, just as I was trying to do for my son now. She pointed at the tiny toy soldiers with rifles and bayonets, and told me that the “good guys” were the soldiers wearing gray and the “bad guys” were wearing blue.
Fast forward to 2017. While my childhood was spent primarily surrounded by people just like me, diversity is the soup that Henry swims in. He’s well-traveled for a kindergartner, having visited relatives and national parks all around the U.S. with his two moms, with whom I share custody. He’s been a city kid since he was in his mother’s belly, absorbing the sounds of rushing traffic and sirens. He attends public school where a majority of the students are African-American, although it’s becoming more diverse as young white professionals move into the neighborhood and have children. His classmates tend to separate by gender, not ethnicity.
All this is to say that Henry has always been part of a diverse and widely integrated community, unlike me when I was his age and understood the barriers between black and white Atlantans, even if no one pointed them out.
Still, we’d never spoken about racial conflict and whatever he had picked up about it, if anything, came naturally through his day-to-day interactions with his peers. I wasn’t prepared to explain my grandmother’s “Lost Cause” and the South’s ugly history of chattel slavery. The only thing I’d come for on that sunny afternoon was lunch, so I tried to whistle past that graveyard by telling him that people in the northern part of the country, where his aunt lived, fought with people who lived in the southern part of the country, and I left it at that. My thin answer opened the door to predictable follow up questions.
“Why were they fighting?
“Well … uh. You know how some people are black and some are white?” I stuck my toe in the water.
“Sure you do.” I was thrown. I settled on telling him that states in the South left the United States to make their own country so they could be mean to black people, and people in the North fought the South because of it.
‘Stars Wars’ assist
Memorial Drive stretches from the gold-domed state Capitol, past Oakland Cemetery with its Confederate dead, through the historic marker-dotted battle zone and all the way to Stone Mountain. Henry and I have been driving around the footprint of the battlefield since he was born, me in the driver’s seat, he strapped into the car seat in the back of the Jeep. “The guys” often tag along.
We began stopping the Jeep whenever we came upon a historic marker so we could look it over. Most of them were just as confusing as the first. He’d try to read the words while I gave him an assist. Like poetry, I have to read them a few times to get the gist. That was when we made the connection between the historic markers and the Cyclorama painting of the Battle of Atlanta. Occasionally, a marker would mention a specific section of the painting; they go hand in hand.
But the painting came first, having been commissioned by Illinois senator John Logan, a general during the battle with a prominent spot on the canvas. Logan died before it was finished, however. Completed in 1886, the canvas went on tour and eventually wound up in Atlanta. It spent the better part of a century on display in Grant Park. Recently it was moved to the Atlanta History Center campus in Buckhead, where it is slated to reopen in fall 2018.
One day, as we drove the Jeep past the two historic markers at Moreland and I-20, Henry brought it up again. I hadn’t yet gotten around to giving it all the thought it deserved. He had apparently been mulling over what I’d told him about the war. Strapped into his car seat in the back with some of “the guys,” he asked if he could ask a question — a peculiar tick that he has.
“Dad, can I ask you a question?”
“What’s a ‘black person’?”
I was stumped.
“A black person? You know what a black person is.”
“No. I’ve never seen one.”
Kids are literal thinkers, sure. I have to be careful when putting him to bed to not tell him that I’ll return to check on him “in a minute” because he’s going to count out 60 seconds and then chastise me when I drop back by 10 minutes later. Still, it surprised me that he hadn’t picked up the meaning of it through context of the everyday conversation that goes on around him in a large city. At first, I didn’t know what he meant, and I told him so.
“You said that the Civil War was about the North trying to make people stop being mean to black people. I’ve never seen any,” he said.
“Well, uh. When I said ‘black people,’ I didn’t mean people who were the color black. What I meant to say was people with dark skin. The people in the South wanted to be mean to people with dark skin.”
“Why didn’t you say that?”
“Well, good point. Sorry for the confusion, pal.”
That was that. For a while. We continued to stop occasionally and look at a historic marker and imagine what had gone on around us, way back in 1864. Unbeknownst to me, Henry was broadening his research on the matter by discussing it with his kindergarten peers. One day, as the Jeep trucked east on Atlanta Avenue alongside Grant Park next to Fort Walker, me explaining how there had been miles of fortifications surrounding the city as Sherman closed in, Henry asked for clarification.
“Hey Dad, Jack says that the Civil War was about blue guys and red guys fighting and both were good guys.”
I’d met Jack’s parents on the birthday party circuit a few months before. Apparently, they were dealing with the same questions.
“Well, kinda, but not really. It’s complicated. And they weren’t red. They were gray.”
“Who were the bad guys?”
“Well, the Confederates. But like I said, it’s complicated.”
“Why were they bad?”
I was better prepared for the question this time, having been given a recent assist from the “Star Wars” franchise. We had watched the animated series “The Clone Wars” on Netflix, and, conveniently for this conversation, Anakin Skywalker (aka Darth Vader) had been born a slave.
“You know how Anakin was a slave when he was your age and he really hated slavery? Well, white people in the South wanted to make people with dark skin be slaves.
“That was mean!”
“Were the Confederates from the North or the South?”
He paused for a few beats, quiet in his car seat. Then he asked, “So I’m a Confederate?”
For better or worse, my son’s identity as a white Southerner had just begun.
The hard truth
I don’t own a television, so Henry doesn’t have one either when he’s with me. We watch “The Clone Wars” on my laptop, both of us sitting on the couch in the big room of my little house, leaning toward my MacBook on the coffee table in front of us. As of this writing, we’ve watched almost all of the 120 episodes — an undertaking entirely by his request. His mother chastises me from time-to-time for exposing him to film and video inappropriate for his age, and I am guilty of that charge, but hey, this was “Star Wars.” He loves the movies. And it’s Disney.
As we watched, the episodes of the series became darker over time, which both pulled me in and pushed him out during frightening scenes. At those moments, he would leave the couch and go over to the comfy chair on the other side of the coffee table until the animated threat had passed. I don’t think of him as sheltered, but he hasn’t been exposed to the ugliness that appears in the daily news cycle or as click bait online. But it’s only a matter of time.
While Henry and I were having our gradual history lesson, cities around the South began removing statues honoring Confederate icons. I felt I’d finally gotten a handle on my explanation to him about the war and the ugly weight of history in the South until Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klanners, and assorted minor league white supremacists converged on Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12, ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E Lee.
The day after the riot, I was news surfing on the couch and clicked a link that took me to footage of the march. Henry, hearing video, quickly joined me likely hoping to hear the rousing intro music of “The Clone Wars.” Instead we found ourselves watching a nighttime march of angry young white men chanting what, I’m not sure. “You will not replace us!” or “Jews will not replace us!” All of them holding tiki torches and marching in a haze of Citronella smoke. How to make sense of this? What was going on? Not all of them had blond hair and blue eyes like my son, but some of them did. Henry moved away from the screen and over to the comfy chair.
“Who are they?”
“Well, they’re like Stormtroopers.”
I was at another loss. Overnight, the events in Charlottesville brought the white nationalist movement (or whatever it is) home. Until then our rolling conversation about the Civil War and slavery had been rooted comfortably in the past. We had been talking about historical events far removed in time, not having a direct and clear-eyed discussion about everyday evil. I’d still like to kick that can down the road until another day, if possible. I don’t spend my time thinking about my Southern identity any more than most people dwell on their regional affiliation. Generally, I’m just trying to get from one day to the next while keeping my sense of humor. Our conversations about the war and its causes, combined with the summer’s headlines about the removal of Confederate statues and all the accompanying violence, have caused me to mull over the history I’ve lived through and what it means.
In this age, being Southern is largely a performance. Most Southerners know this. We cater to the preconceived notions of outsiders, many who follow a long tradition of infantilizing the people of the Deep South in the same way that white folks have been doing to African-Americans since the beginning. There’s an irony there, somewhere. Still, there is a unique history that I have to contend with from time-to-time. My son will have to, as well. When it comes to the statue removal, I don’t feel strongly about it one way or the other. Perhaps I would feel differently if Atlanta had a number of them, but it doesn’t. But over the past few months, I have gained an affection for the historic markers around us, even though I’ve ignored them for most of my life. If there was a movement to take them down that came from outside the region, I’m not sure how I’d respond.
Death and innocence
In June, Henry and I visited Oakland Cemetery for the Tunes from the Tombs music festival. It’s a favorite annual event, laid-back with a fun line-up of mostly local, B-list musicians up on stage and not so many people attending that it’s a terribly long wait in the beer line. Six feet below, Atlantans across race, gender, and class take their eternal rest and are marked by memorials that reflect their stations in life, from granite mausoleums on the high ground to the unmarked graves in Potter’s Field. My mother’s side of the family has a plot over on the west side. It’s a stone’s throw from Margaret Mitchell’s grave — although I haven’t yet put that to the test. For my money, Oakland is the most interesting burial ground in the Southeast. It is the city’s original cemetery and was established in 1850, a decade before the war.
The Confederate section is in the center, much of it laid out next to a large monument to the Confederate dead, a 65-foot obelisk of Stone Mountain granite that was the tallest structure in Atlanta for a number of years. There are an estimated 6,900 Confederate burials in Oakland, 300 of whom are unknown. Shortly after the war ended, a few thousand fallen Confederate soldiers from the Atlanta Campaign (which was eight battles, not one) were unearthed from shallow battlefield graves and re-interred in the cemetery, so some of them are from the Battle of Atlanta.
But the numbers don’t add up. An estimated 12,150 men fell in the battle, which lasted a single day. In the summer of 1864, there were 10,000 corpses scattered around East Atlanta, Kirkwood, Edgewood and Inman Park, most of them in shallow battlefield graves. Over time, rain, wind, erosion, and wild hogs unearthed the remains and brought them to the surface. The results must have been quite grim.
Henry and I had brought a blanket and some of “the guys.” We set up camp under a magnolia tree at the back of the crowd facing the stage, claiming territory between the food trucks and the Confederate headstones. The Lion of the Confederacy, a massive statue commemorating the unknown Confederate dead, lay dying on the other side of the tree. It’s a clever use of metaphor, really, the defeated Southern Confederacy represented by the dead lion, pierced in the side with a mortal wound and lying on the St. Andrews Cross, the flag draped underneath it.
We listened to the bands perform, and Henry made friends with some of the other kids as they danced, ate corn dogs and ran around the grounds. The music was mellow. The beer cold. The sun started to drop and the hot edge of the day began to cool. All was well with the world, until Henry lost one of the guys somewhere among the Confederate graves, and I found myself walking up and down the ranks of identical markers, looking for the toy. To my surprise, I actually found it, balanced on the granite slant of a headstone.
When I returned triumphantly to our blanket, I realized that, while I’d found the Stormtrooper, I’d lost my son. Calling his name was no use with the music, so I began looking around again, eventually making my way over to the Lion of the Confederacy. All the kids had found their way inside the wrought iron fence around it and were climbing the statue, grabbing the nooks and bends of the sculpture to hoist themselves up. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven scrambling children, plus Henry, his blond hair shining over behind the lion’s mane.
At that moment, I saw the statue the way Henry saw it and thought the same thing he did: I sure would like to climb that.
ABOUT THE STORY
My son was introduced to his Southern heritage inadvertently when he and I came upon a historic marker about the Battle of Atlanta one day, and he began asking questions. Before this, I hadn’t given any thought to explaining the South’s troubled history to him. Meanwhile, statues of Confederate luminaries began to be removed throughout the region. This essay was the result of the lessons we learned.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Gray Stewart is a third generation Atlantan whose fiction explores Atlanta and its environs across the 20th century. He was a medic at Grady Hospital during the Atlanta child murders and was on the English faculty at Morehouse College from 1996-2010. Nowadays, he is on core faculty at the Etowah Valley Writers MFA program at Reinhardt University. His novel “Haylow” won the 2017 Georgia Author of the Year Award.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Steve Schaefer has worked for The Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse and Getty Images. His photographs have been published on the front pages of The Washington Post, USA Today, The New York Times and other national and international publications. He currently provides photography and video content for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other editorial and commercial clients.