Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Brundage, "Top young historian," tells history in black and white.

UNC's W. Fitzhugh Brundage is featured by the History News Network--and rightly so--as a "top young historian." He has written some of the earliest and best commentary on the topic of memory and southern history. I recommend his new book, the product of some ten years' labor, out from Harvard: The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory. It's told in chapters that alternate beween the memories of the dominant white southern culture and those of the black southern culture. Since the black communities had few resources, their memories are not preserved in large stone monuments. Much of their commemoration was through parades and celebrations, the handing down of an oral tradition. Fitz walks us through archives and photo galleries to show us little-known threads of the story of race in America. Needless to say, these stories have little to do with the "failures of Reconstruction" or the faded glories of antebellum southern culture.

For Triangle area folks, perhaps the most interesting section is the discussion of the history of the Hayti section of Durham. We generally understand that it fell to the dreaded forces of "urban renewal" (see Yonah Freemark's nice site), but what came as a surprise for me was that the residents of Hayti bought the program: they believed the promises that the resulting new landscape would be better for everybody. It wasn't, of course. To the expected range of emotional responses to having your neighborhood wrecked, anger at that betrayal has to be added.

It was a 1954 Supreme Court opinion, Berman v. Parker, that opened the way for municipalities to exercise eminent domain in the name of "cleaning up" the "slums." Making a broad sweep, it was the first to say that a "public use" under the 5th amendment takings clause could be found when the resulting use was not strictly public, if the result--the specific result in this case being planned urban renewal--was for a public purpose. It even allowed the destruction of buildings that were not run down if they were in the midst of what the city considered a "blighted" area.

So this is what happened in Durham. Beautiful, important buildings--which we would now surely consider "historic"--fell to the bulldozer along with the "slums." One of them was the White Rock Baptist Church building, a handsome Gothic structure that was a frequent meeting place for civil rights workers. This is where Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in February 1960, just after the Greensboro sit-ins.

white rock baptist church

The Berman opinion, in turn, served as key precedent for Kelo v. City of New London. Kelo has generated plenty of outrage. Where was the outrage 50 years ago?

But I digress. Congratulations, Fitz, on a well-deserved recognition!

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