Downtown Natchez, Mississippi, the seat of Adams County. In many ways it was the “gray” plaques vs. the “blue” plaques and to the outside world it seemed to end clearly: blue wins. In the Deep South of the United States, however, it was not victory, it was containment.
On November 10th 2011, at ten in the morning (an honest mimic of the official World War I Armistice Day of 11-11-11), the largest Federal Agency you never heard of, the General Services Administration (GSA), held a program to dedicate a World War I memorial. The new set of bronze plaques included the names of African American troops left off in the original set hung in 1924, during the height of the Jim Crow era, as well as a few white names deemed unworthy at the time. Why now? The Great War, as the 1914 generation first called it, was almost one hundred years ago. The monument was created by that generation to serve its needs, bolted to an old 1850s high school assembly building and then all but forgotten, keeping its secret under a thick green patina. Then the monument was “outed” during a local public talk in 2004. I know—I gave that talk. What I did not know was that the set of four plaques had been removed for relocation and cleaning. I never get the memo!
Soon the local preservationist told the GSA “We have a plaque problem”. The local gentry wanted it to stay back up on what was a new United States Courthouse, others wanted it melted down. What to do? They were banished under the Wings of the Eagle, placed inside the courthouse, on the other side of the security zone to bear witness to their time. In their place in the sun is, as a Jackson based news program saw it, “A history lesson you can touch”. Central to making the case for a new set of plaques was my grad school thesis. The story of most masters theses, after they are ‘bound’, is to sink by their weight into university libraries. In this case, it was as if I had a child who’d gone out into the world to make good. I was on the sidelines of a strange athletic event screaming, ‘Go Johnny! Go!’ In a very real way the story is now bigger than any one person, not “owned” by anyone, but by all. What parent could be more proud?