marked, unmarked, remembered
A GEOGRAPHY OF AMERICAN MEMORY
Some moments in history have been forgotten by most Americans or were never learned in the first place. Such as stories of the nation’s first concentration camp in Massachusetts, and sites of strikes and massacres that took place decades or hundreds of years ago. In some places there are markers, but in others, you would never know walking through the woods or city streets what had happened there.
West Virginia University Press is publishing a photography collection of significant U.S. historic sites in the book “Marked, Unmarked, Remembered: A Geography of American Memory,” by award-winning photojournalist Andrew Lichtenstein with accompanying descriptions by Alex Lichtenstein, a professor of history at Indiana University. The photos and captions are used here with permission from WVU Press.
The collected photographs give a sense of a land that we think we know but which we have often lost touch with through glossing over painful chapters.
“As a society, Americans are generally speaking ahistorical,” Andrew Lichtenstein told The New York Times Lens blog regarding the book. “We tend to look to the future and we are not as rooted in the past as other places. I was interested in Americans’ own relationship to history.”
- Diana Mazzella
On the morning after Christmas in 2012, Dakota Sioux riders enter the town of Mankato, Minnesota, to mark the 150th anniversary of the execution of thirty-eight warriors who were hanged by the U.S. government in the center of town in 1862. The hanging, which remains America’s largest mass execution, ended a rebellion by the Dakota, who fought against starvation after the government’s promised winter provisions never arrived on their reservations. Minnesota settlers were so disturbed by the uprising that in 1863 the U.S. Congress passed a law permanently expelling all Sioux from the state.
Fisher Body Plant 2, Flint, Michigan, 2016
General Motors’ gigantic manufacturing center in Flint, Michigan, was named “Chevy-in-the-Hole” for the cars made there, and for the physical depression of the land itself as it hugged the banks of the Flint River. The plant’s workers played a key role in the Flint sit-down strike during the winter of 1936–37. Their victory over local police who stormed the gates of the Fisher Body Plant helped establish the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and led to the formation of America’s modern industrial unions under the AFL-CIO. Organized labor ushered in half a century of economic progress for the city of Flint, for the union laborers working the line, and for General Motors. Today, the eighty thousand manufacturing jobs that underlay Flint’s economy are gone, and the once powerful and historical union halls have only retirees as members. The great factories have been torn down and paved over, leaving a concrete scar on the shrinking, impoverished, and ecologically devastated city.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade, Greenwood, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 2016
By 1921, the Greenwood section of Tulsa had become one of America’s wealthiest black neighborhoods, with a firmly entrenched middle class and a shopping district stretching along Greenwood Avenue, just north of downtown. Developers with links to the Ku Klux Klan coveted this desirable land, however. When black World War One veterans in the neighborhood defended a local young African American man from being lynched, the stage was set for America’s most destructive race riot. For two days armed white mobs attacked Greenwood, even using airplanes to firebomb and shoot black residents. The mob burned thirty-five blocks of Tulsa to the ground, leaving ten thousand people homeless. Police detained six thousand residents, and rampaging whites murdered anywhere from fifty to three hundred blacks. Although Tulsa’s African American community rebuilt their neighborhood after the riot, urban development of the 1960s and 1970s ultimately destroyed the area more successfully than any white mob. For decades, little mention was made of this racial pogrom in the city’s schools or public sphere. In 2010 the State of Oklahoma and City of Tulsa finally established a well-maintained memorial park dedicated to the events of May 31, 1921, but Interstate 244 overhead has left this once thriving, vibrant neighborhood with little economic development.
Deer Island, Winthrop, Massachusetts, 2011
By the 1670s enough indigenous peoples had converted to Christianity to form dozens of separate “Praying Indian” villages across New England. Chief Metacomet’s success in attacking and destroying many of the white settlements of New England during King Philip’s War created a panic among the colonists. During the bitterly cold winter of 1675–76, colonists rounded up even those Indians who had converted to Christianity and interned them on Deer Island in Boston Harbor, creating America’s first concentration camp. Denied adequate shelter or food, hundreds of “Christian Indians” starved or froze to death on the island. Now connected to the mainland, Deer Island is part of a National Park Service recreation area, though no public marking of its dismal past is visible to those who enjoy its scenic vistas.
Nelson Lynching, North Canadian River Bridge, Okemah, Oklahoma, 2016
In May 1911, the African American Nelson family faced a sheriff’s posse investigating a recent stock theft. The Nelsons’ teenage son, L. D., fired a shot, killing a deputy sheriff. Although arrested and taken to jail, a few weeks later a mob overpowered the local jailer and removed L. D. Nelson and his mother Laura from the Okemah jail before they could come to trial. The next morning, their bodies were found hanging from a railroad bridge over the Canadian River, six miles outside of town. As was usually the case with such lynchings of blacks by white vigilante mobs, no one was ever brought to justice for this crime. Like thousands of other lynchings, no public acknowledgment of this atrocity marks this location.
Though the Nelson lynching is largely forgotten now, the atrocity was widely known at the time. A photograph of the Nelsons’ hanged bodies subsequently circulated as a grisly “souvenir” postcard. Woody Guthrie, whose father witnessed—and perhaps participated in— the lynching, later wrote a song about the Nelsons’ murder. There is no way to know if the perpetrators of the Nazi and Klan graffiti now defacing the concrete bridge support near where Laura and L. D. Nelson’s bodies dangled are aware of this unacknowledged history.
Prayer for the Ancestors, Rockaway Beach, Queens, New York, 2010
By some estimates, upwards of twelve million Africans were kidnapped and forced onto ships headed to the New World to be sold as slaves. Millions died on the journey. Every September, parishioners from St. Paul’s Community Baptist Church in East New York, Brooklyn, remember this holocaust by offering a prayer to their ancestors who died on these slave ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Hundreds of worshippers, wearing white, attend a dawn ceremony at the western edge of the Atlantic Ocean in Rockaway Beach, Queens.
The Last Resident of Pigeonroost Hollow, Blair Mountain, Logan County, West Virginia, 2010
In 1921 thousands of armed union coal miners marched into West Virginia’s Logan County to help striking miners who were being attacked by company gunmen. On Blair Mountain, sheriff’s deputies, armed guards, and soldiers halted the march. The ensuing battle lasted for five days, and the miners left defeated after airplanes bombed their trenches and federal troops arrived to suppress the rebellion. For many years the State of West Virginia, under pressure from the coal industry, refused to list Blair Mountain as an historical site, until recently ordered to do so by a federal court.
James Weekley was the last resident of Pigeonroost Hollow, on Blair Mountain. A former coal miner, he refused to sell his land to coal mining companies, which sought to mine the forested mountain. Instead, he opened his door to journalists and environmental activists documenting the mining destruction occurring on the historical site of the Battle of Blair Mountain. Despite harassment and threats from many of his neighbors, who felt Weekley’s activism had cost the impoverished area much-needed new jobs, he refused to sell his land until the bitter end. He died in 2014.
“Marked, Unmarked, Remembered: A Geography of American Memory” was published in October and is available online at wvupressonline.com.