Under Eagle Wings

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?

Natchez Veterans Plaques Dedication

Shane Peterson poised for a photo (by request) with Tammy Estwick and Mike McCarty from the news crew of Channel 16 WAPT.

“Blue” Highway

The drive to Natchez was pretty, the words I used, not so much. The trick to getting to the old port river city is to NOT take the first sign pointing to you to the city, off the 55 Highway. I got lost, but the advantage is that there are only so many roads, and you do reach the end of the line on way or another. The smaller road, as fate would have it, had trees the color of fall, something you do not get in most of the Los Angeles area.

Pick-Up, Drop-off

As good as the first day in Jackson, Mississippi, was it came to that old and rather bad pun about the Russian driver, “Pickupandropoff”. Like many older downtown areas that date from the heyday of rail travel, Jackson has a warren of one-way streets, odd angles and faded glory. Good for walking, not driving; so why rent a car on the first day? A fellow passenger gave me a ride to the Garden Inn, known back in the day as the King Edward Hotel (pick up); the hotel shuttle van raced me to the state archives building just ten minutes before closing (pick up); met with the wonderful Anne Webster, state historian to give her a copy of the Masters Thesis (drop off) and talk of what might come next. Back at the hotel, I walked over to the old Union Station across the intersection from the hotel and found both train and bus station, like Los Angeles, and what can be more pick-up-drop-off than Union Station? Dinner at the hotel. Bar, sorry, but no Pick-Up.

Re-done in 2009 after being a relic for 40 years, the hotel is once more Election Day headquarters. The hotelroom tv had the day’s election returns running like a ticker tape under the main local/national news and the second floor deck looked and sounded like a group waiting for votes to come in. According to the hotel history, from about 1910 to 1960, “There were three branches of Mississippi legislature, the Upper House, the Lower House and the Edwards House.”

Going Bused

I was not sure if the bus would get me to “church” on time. So I am at a hotel near LAX. If you saw it in daylight you might wonder were you where–lush and green with little noise from the outside world. Denny‘s next door. Wake up call at 4:30AM. Flight at 7:45am. With any luck the shuttle will leave at 5:30am, I will arrive by 6:00am, and be at the gate by 7:00am.

It may be that “free airfare” is not always free. It‘s at odd hours and you often feel that you spend more just walking thorough the doors that are opened for you. In this case, it‘s not true. I am going to Mississippi with the help of friends I knew I had, but did not think would help as deeply as they have. There will be a few streams I have to wade into, such as cab fare, and fast food, but going there is “priceless”. One tip if you are taking an early flight? Stay near the airport and grab the hotel shuttle. There will be bills and hell to pay when I get back, but it is good to go.

Getting Ready

I recall startling a street-wise professor at Cal State with the claim that I had not paid “rent” (as he understood it) for…well, a long, long time. As this is the biggest part of everyone’s budget, or lack of it in hard times, just how is that done (legally, I might add)?

I understand the concept of paying someone for a place to live, but it seems a better idea to be paid to live in a place. So far I have found two jobs that do that: offshore oil and as a live-in aide to a handicapped person. Both jobs can kill you, but with some luck, I got the time to study history, and I hope, to write about it.

As I get ready to say hello to Mississippi, I might have to say good by to my car. To not have a car in the Los Angeles is “blasphemous”. How can you get anything done without a car?

Car ownership is another expense that seems out of control, or at best an unknown. How high will gas go? Who knows? As fate would have it, I live near one of the Metro lines. Visit to the main LA library downtown for yet another history book? No problem. A monthly pass is about the same (not counting repair!) as a car, and I know I am going to get there. My “ride” is fine, thanks.

My “Larry Crowne” moment

Some five or ten years ago I found that I was “obsolete” and needed a ‘Plan B’. Call it my Larry Crowne moment. ‘Plan B’ was a Masters Degree, or so I thought at the time. I was wrong. Right out of grad school, I found out that the world was not what I thought it was and that the problems I was dealing with, as well as the questions I was asking, were things that others were asking. Join me as I deal with everything from beating the high cost of bread (the kind I eat and the kind I earn) to how to live a life of the mind—while not going out of your mind in the process.

In a real way, my own Masters thesis showed the way, by impacting the city of Natchez, Mississippi–forcing a long needed change in a forgotten landmark. In the process of writing up the history of World War I (1917-1918) veterans of Adams County, I found a monument to the veterans that was a work of the “Jim Crow” era. The monument was a list of only white vets, not black. In the face of historic documents to prove it, the local people demanded change, and next month they get it. In this way, I became a “Public Historian”—the person you hire to check out a forgotten piece of the past before you change or restore it. I don’t know where I am going, but I am on the way.