For a child growing up in the late 1960s in Aiken, South Carolina, the summers were hot, hazy, and very boring. Air conditioning was still something of a novelty, and there were only two television stations, which presented a meagre fare of decidedly un-kid-friendly shows. (I tried watching The Edge of Night one afternoon with our maid, Eunice Johnson, as she did the ironing. I eventually abandoned the soap opera to watch Eunice iron, a spectacle I found infinitely more interesting and understandable.) Video games were still more than a decade in the offing, and a swimming pool was something that only the glamorously wealthy possessed. My mother had a number of quaint activities that might keep the boredom at bay for a short time. (When was the last time a child was provided a dish of soapy water and a wooden thread bobbin to blow bubbles?) Eventually, though, with such ploys exhausted, my mother would point to the door and say, "Why don't you go outside and play?", although the tone indicated that she was issuing a command, not making a suggestion.
Thus banished into the heavy heat of the day (I can still conjure up the oppressive smell of hot, dry pine trees), I would take a turn through the neighborhood seeking friends who had received similar injunctions from their moms. There were usually at least two or three children about, and we would band together to find something to do. Occasionally we collected enough kids for a game of baseball, although we usually had to rely on "imaginary" runners to fill out our teams. More likely, we went to the woods beyond Tommy Burch's house to construct a fort, or caught tadpoles in a tepid drainage stream that ran down the side of a dirt road on the edge of the neighborhood. There were stables nearby, too, and if anyone could sneak a carrot or two out of their Frigidaire, we would go feed a horse in one of the paddocks before being chased off by a groom. If we were feeling particularly adventurous, though, we would hop on our bikes and strike out into the town looking for adventure. It was on one of these forays that we saw the Yankee graves for the first time.
That afternoon, three of us took our bikes up Coker Springs Road past Easy Street and continued on Whiskey Road. Just past South Boundary, Whiskey Road turned into Chesterfield Street, and we rode five more blocks to the First Baptist Church. There, on the east side of the church, we found the graves we had so often heard about but never seen before that moment. We parked our bikes and walked among the headstones of men who had been killed in a Civil War skirmish a century earlier.
There were perhaps two dozen graves, and although a few of the headstones bore names ("Corp. James T. Wingard, Mathewe's Co., C.S.A."), most were simply marked "U.S. Soldier." These, we told each other in hushed voices, were the Yankees. And as we walked carefully through those gravestones, we knew in an odd way that our world was still haunted by the same conflict that had brought these men to our town, and killed them, on a February day in 1865. It was certainly not a deep understanding, but we understood nevertheless that there was a connection between those headstones and what was going on in our community in 1968.
There was a connection between those headstones and Eunice Johnson, the black woman who was back at my home ironing my father's shirts and watching The Edge of Night on the television set.
There was a connection between those headstones and Wesley Jones, our black "yardman" who cut the grass and always treated me, an eight-year-old white boy, with a deference so pronounced that it made me uncomfortable. (What other adult addressed me, with such utter seriousness, as "Sir" or "Mister"?)
There was a lot of talk in those days about "integration," and we knew there was a connection between those headstones and the fact that we would soon have "colored" schoolmates. (And although we did integrate two years later, white and black students continued to be segregated by classroom.)
There was a connection between those headstones and Martin Luther King, and what had happened to him in April of that same year. (I had actually seen King speak several years earlier. On that April morning, I remember asking my parents what the word "assassinate" meant.)
There was a connection between those headstones and the "Stars and Bars" that flew over the courthouse.
There was a connection between them and the entrance to Richardson's Lake, a local swimming hole, which displayed a sign reading "Private Club" next to a framed color photograph of Alabama's governor, George Wallace.
There was a connection between those headstones and the anonymous hate mail my parents received for their involvement in a civil rights group called the Human Relations Council.
The connections to those headstones were all around us, and while we couldn't completely comprehend it all, we knew enough to understand that we were living among the consequences of the past.
We are all living with the consequences of the past. We are haunted by history and memory, and often nagged by a strange feeling that past events are somehow never really "over." Even though they are creatures of the past, history and memory cling to us in the present. At best, the past makes us feel warm and nostalgic; at worst, it makes us feel uncertain and uncomfortable - at times even afraid. But to live in the present, and to plan for the future, we must realize that we are all citizens of a persistent past. It defines who we are today, and although the past is a hard thing to really know, we must seek to understand it.
Special Collections Librarian and University Archivist
Theme Year Director