Sometimes history seems far away. Though we know it happened, the people in those grainy black-and-white photographs or rich-hued oil paintings seem to belong not just to another time but another world. It’s hard to fathom they once lived and breathed and loved and laughed and wept on the same ground we walk today.
Other times, history comes so close we can reach out and touch it…literally. That happened for me on this recent trip to Maryland and Washington DC.
We sat at a table within the building of 15th Street Presbyterian Church, my friend Sandra and my sister and I, as Dr. Tressie Muldrow shared the stacks of historical documents she had compiled for me on the history of this African-American church founded in DC in 1841. I’d wanted to use 15th Street as a site in my current novel-in-progress, as the church was involved in the interracial abolition movement my characters take part in.
I so appreciated all the time and input and materials she so graciously gave. But we really sat riveted when Dr. Muldrow started telling us about her own life. How as a college student in 1960 she participated in the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins protesting segregation in Greensboro, North Carolina. How she and the other students had mayonnaise and mustard smeared in their hair, abused by white customers simply for sitting outside the “colored” section. How the demonstrators met together every evening for training and debriefing as they worked together for civil rights. Of the satisfaction she feels today when she visits the site of that restaurant and sees it gone, with a civil rights museum in its place.
We got to sit and talk and have lunch with this amazing lady, who sat on these lunch counter stools now in the Smithsonian Museum (see photo). We touched history.
A couple of days later, we visited Arlington National Cemetery, and stood on the site of the Freedman’s Village I’d been reading about in my research, where freed slaves were housed on the former estate of Robert E. Lee from 1863 to the 1880s. Today the area is mostly covered in graves of citizens of Freedman’s Village and soldiers who fought in the United States Colored Troops. It was amazing to stand right there and read the headstones.
But on our way to that site—which we only found because we asked, there’s no marker I could see—we passed a headstone oddly marked with several stones placed on top. Wondering whose it was, I stepped to the other side to read the epitaph.
“Medgar Evers,” I read aloud.
“What—it says Medgar Evers?” Sandra exclaimed, hurrying to see.
I didn’t recognize the name, but she did. So Sandra explained about Medgar Evers, a courageous Civil Rights leader who was shot to death at his home in Jackson, Mississippi, right in front of his children, because of his work for equality and justice. And we’d just “happened” upon his grave.
Last week, my sister and I were watching the movie The Help for the first time, though I’d read the book before. And soon we came upon a scene where a Civil Rights leader was speaking on the fuzzy black-and-white TV in the characters’ living room. It was Medgar Evers. We watched as he spoke, and as then as Aibileen had to get off the bus going home because someone had been shot near her neighborhood. When she got to Minny’s house, she learned it had been Medgar Evers.
And we remembered how just a couple of weeks before, we had touched history.
There were other instances when history came close on this trip for us, like when my sister and I had a history nerd freak-out moment upon encountering a dark blue and buff uniform that George Washington actually wore at the entrance to the American Revolution section of the Smithsonian. But I think the moments above stood out for me the most.
What about you? Can you remember a time when you “touched history”? Please comment and share!
Enjoyed reading about you history-touching experiences. What exciting moments! That Medgar Evans connection gave me goosebumps.
As you probably guessed, my history-touching moments are when I visit an old fort or a lighthouse and learn about who was there before me.
You’ve definitely had lots of history-touching moments, Marilyn! And it shows in your stories. 🙂 Thanks so much for sharing, friend!
I LOVED this!!!
I’ve touched history a few times.
I’ve toured our Parliament Buildings, saw John Diefenbaker’s first law office, and walked the banks of the Pecos River inside the boundaries of Bosque Redondo.
I love history.
Wow…thinking of you walking along the river within Bosque Redondo, that really gets to me. And it was right there…
Thanks for sharing, Shik’is. One thing I’ve been wondering lately–why do I, or we, love history so much? What is it, exactly, that captures us and that is so powerful and valuable about it? A post for another day, perhaps!
On the college campus I spent my first year of university at, there was a hall that used to be a courtroom during the Civil War. The basement was the morgue. That building you could just feel the history walking. To sing in its empty chambers and hear the sound fill the space, you wondered what arguments filled its halls, defenses of soldiers, of men caught up in a war that tore this country and land apart. I always wonder if they ever thought that it would be used for a place to create music. If they looked out those windows and wondered if the world beyond the mountain gap would ever be the same, the way I did when 9/11 happened. There was something about that place removed from so much of the world and yet very much a place where it was represented. It was a feeling I won’t forget.
Wow…that must have been amazing, Jessica. Sometimes I do think about what stories old buildings could tell if they could, what history is held in their walls and floors… Thanks for sharing!
Your love for history has given me an appreciation for stories of our past. It seems I was peeking through a small crevice, but hanging out with you has widened the opening to yesteryear. I was stunned by Medgar Evers gravesite. Hadn’t realized he was buried in Arlington Cemetery. So, thanks for being so curious and exploratory!
I think the time chills ran down my spine was when I’d organized and chaperoned a tour of the US Capitol for a group of student ambassadors. I had just recently watched the movie Amistad, which told of a slave revolt aboard an international ship enroute from Africa to Cuba in 1839. During the rebellion, the ship was rerouted off-course to the United States. The slaves were placed in prison, and then later placed on trial in the very courtroom where I sat! This trial actually happened 25 years before slavery even ended in America. It was fascinating to sit there and visualize what actually occurred in this controversial and highly political case, which became known as the “Amistad Case”. It was also inspiring to learn that abolitionists rallied around the “slaves” and translated the hearing for them. “Give us free”, the only English the captives spoke, will forever be etched in my mind. The judge ruled in favor of the slaves and they were granted freedom to stay in America or return to their native homeland in Africa. If I’m not mistaken, this opened the door for missionaries being sent to Africa.
Wow! I got a bit of chills there too, Sandra, just reading what you wrote. What an amazing story. Thanks for sharing, friend!