‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ George Santayana
When I was a child and our family visited family in Iredell County, NC, my father often pointed out a platform near the train tracks in Mt. Mourne as we drove between Davidson and Mooresville. He told us that the town was called Mt. Mourne because slaves were traded on that platform. I remember exactly where that platform stood and I used to imagine what “trading slaves” might have looked like. At least someone had the sensitivity to name the town “Mt. Mourne.”
Not only is the platform gone but I can find no historical evidence about the slave trade in Mt. Mourne. Either my father was sharing a mythological tale or somebody has cleaned up the history really well.
The Mt. Mourne Plantation, however, is on the National Register of Historic Places as the site where Rufus Reid owned 80+ slaves who worked his cotton fields, making him one of the wealthiest men in North Carolina in the 19th Century. I’ve long wondered if Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church – which is near Mt. Mourne – was named for Rufus Reid. The whole story makes me feel queasy and uncomfortable. But I believe that my father was telling the truth about that long-gone train platform.
I have visited Holocaust Museums in both Washington, DC and Jerusalem, and they are disturbing. They are meant to be disturbing. School groups visit on field trips and – in the Washington, DC museum – they walk through the hallway filled with the shoes of men, women and children who perished in death camps. It’s a history that we must not forget even though it’s sickening and reminds us of how some of us have dehumanized others of us.
As Jim Wallis and others have written, human slavery is the original sin of our nation. It’s unspeakably shameful. And who wants to remember one’s shameful past?
If I’m visiting Our Nation’s Capital, I’d rather watch the pandas at the National Zoo or check out Dorothy’s ruby slippers in the American History Museum or try to figure out how the Wright Brothers’ 1903 glider in the Air and Space Museum could have possibly gotten off the ground.
But on September 24 of this year, The National Museum of African American History will open on the National Mall in Our Nation’s Capital and we who love our country need to go – if not in September, then sometime in the near future. I believe it will help us understand how we got to where we are today – where a young white man can sit through a Bible study in S.C. and shoot the black church members along with their pastor, and where a drug-addled young man can be shot 16 times while walking away from a police officer because of – I believe – the color of his skin.
We will have the chance to see what none of us wants to see but all of us need to see – so that we will not forget how some of us in history have dehumanized others of us in history. Among the collections to be included in the African American History Museum will be an exhibition on the history of slavery. I’m guessing these will not be easy hallways to walk through, but we have got to remember in hopes that we will not repeat this history.
I love remembering beautiful stories depicting women who were brave and men who were kind and people of all ages being generous beyond all comprehension. But we owe it to all God’s children to remember the stories of injustice as well.