Sometimes we need permanent markers.
I’m not talking about the kind you keep away from toddlers. I’m talking about the ones that remind older children and adults that there are beautiful and terrible things in history we must never forget. There are acts of heroism we need to remember for inspiration and gratitude. There are acts of brutality we need to remember so they will never happen again.
When I was a child, there was a permanent historical marker in the small town of Mt. Mourne, NC along NC Highway 115 that reminded passers-by that “this was the place” where enslaved people were sold and put on a train headed south. It was near one of the largest plantations in Iredell County owned by Rufus Reid, a Presbyterian. He owned as many as 84 human beings.
As a child, my dad would stop alongside this permanent marker as we drove between Mooresville and Davidson, and he would point out that the town was called Mt. Mourne because of it’s legacy of trauma.
The train tracks are still there but the platform where the enslaved were forever separated from their families is gone. The historic marker is also gone and even Mt. Mourne’s wiki page doesn’t mention this history of selling people on a platform across from the train tracks. Even the origination of the town name has changed. It’s now said that Mt. Mourne was named for the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland.
Sometimes even a permanent marker is not permanent.
Last week – with 42 colleagues – I made my first pilgrimage to The Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The Equal Justice Initiative, founded and directed by Bryan Stevenson, created both this museum and memorial in order to tell a story that most of our U.S. History books do not tell.
Just as the Bibles many of us study include true stories of the mistreatment of women and children, slavery in Egypt, the worship of gold, the devastation of villages, and even the gory crucifixion of an innocent man whom some of us call The Living Word of God, real history – even if it’s excruciating and shameful – is essential for us to know. It reminds us who we are and who God is.
There are more than 176,473 permanent historic markers in the USA according to The Historical Marker Database with more added daily. There are markers at the homes of Clara Barton, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Davy Crockett. There are markers at U.S. Naval Base Pearl Harbor and Bunker Hill. There are even markers designating a Circus Train Wreck in 1918 in Indiana and the original Krispy Kreme Donut Shop in North Carolina.
Many of us prefer not to know about the excruciating and shameful parts of our U.S. history. When NFL Panther fans go to a home game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, they probably don’t want to know that the first lynching in the city happened on what is now the 20 yard line under the turf. When tourists visit Mt. Rushmore, they probably don’t want to hear that the land was stolen from the Lakota people when the U.S. broke a treaty with them in 1877.
But we need to remember. We need to remember in order to honor those who have suffered. We need to remember in order to tell the truth about ourselves – which is my favorite verse before Sunday Prayers of Confession:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I John 1:8-9
The Equal Justice Initiative continues to collaborate with local communities to install more permanent markers that tell the truth. My hope is that – one day – there will even be a marker at the Bank of America Stadium.
Image of a marker at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice commemorating the lynchings that occured in Rowan County, NC from where my people hail.
Thanks for this, Jan. It makes me wonder: how does the “nothing to make us feel bad” crowd justify remembering Good Friday?