About a week ago I noticed that to go to the bathroom at The Browncoat Pub, I had to step through Dr. Who’s time machine, the TARDIS. A day after stepping through the TARDIS, I drove to Raleigh to attend a Moral Week of Action rally.
After my first-ever stroll of the capitol grounds, I sat on a bench next to pair of participants—Vera and her father, Dunstan. Both were African American. Dunstan was raised in Harnett County and moved to Raleigh in 1963 after an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army. They consider the right to vote vital and are registering Raleigh voters.
“Did I just leave the TARDIS?” I asked.
Vera raised an eyebrow.
“Has anything happened here since the Civil War?” I stuttered. “There are more Civil War monuments here per acre than in Gettysburg! No wonder folks still don’t get separation of church and state. See the motto on the Confederate Monument? ‘Deo Vindice’: ‘God will vindicate us.’ Dunstan, you took an oath to defend the Constitution of the U S of A. Isn’t displaying the great seal of another country on U.S. soil sedition? Bill O’Reilly says ‘get over it’ about the whole race issue. Look around and tell me who’s not over what.”
Dunstan smiled and shook my hand. “There are a lot of folk still fighting the war of Northern aggression here. I wish more people thought like you.”
I wish more people would read James Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of America.” They add balance to the dominant narrative of America as civilization’s moral beacon, as a land of perpetual progress where none of our heroes have zits.
I turned to see a stately African American woman open a lawn chair and begin to read a book under the gleaming, gold great seal of the Confederacy. I felt a shiver and wave of nausea—I’d somehow traveled back in time.
“Don’t make no never mind,” the woman said. “Happens to every time traveler.”
I jumped away from a horse-drawn carriage.
“I’m Harriet,” the woman said, chuckling. “Penny for your thoughts?”
“When, where am I?” I asked.
“May 21, 1895,” Harriet said. “Colonel Waddell dedicated this fine memorial yesterday. He talked about the compact theory that the Constitution is a contract between states that they can break anytime they want. Every supreme court decision since 1793 disagrees. At Gettysburg my friend, Abe, said we are a government of ‘the people,’ by ‘the people’ and for ‘the people’—not the states.”
“Or the corporations.” I tried to get a signal on my smartphone. “Did Waddell mention slavery?”
Harriet nodded. “Only to explain slavery was the ‘occasion not the cause’ of the war, and that Northerners made a lot of money from slaves, too. It made it sound like the war happened because Southern states didn’t want the federal government to force them to raise the minimum wage.”
“It slipped his mind that most Western societies began outlawing slavery in the 1300s,” I said. “Most Northern states outlawed slavery by the early 1800s. Even Britain outlawed slavery by 1843. Humanity knew for centuries slavery is morally indefensible.”
“An inconvenient truth,” Harriet smiled.
“What are we doing here?” I asked.
“I’m listening to Steve Vernon read ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ while waiting for my train and you’re the doctor about to have an idea,” she said. “We’re all timelords. History isn’t a cold line of facts. It’s facts warmed and woven into a story by each human heart. And no telling how the story ends.”
I googled Colonel Waddell. “He did not!”
Harriet nodded. “Yes, he did,” she said. “Waddell led another rebellion in Wilmington 1898 and said, ‘If you find the negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him—shoot him down in his tracks.’”
Harriet took a penny out of her purse, placed it at the foot of the Confederate Monument, and slowly recited the Gettysburg Address.
“Miss Harriet, we have memorials to the unknown soldiers,” I said. “Why not have a memorial to the unknown slave right here on Union Square? Right now St. Augustine’s Parish in New Orleans is the only such memorial in a country built partly by people in chains.”
“There are shackles in every time and every size.” Harriet flipped me another Lincoln penny and smiled. “You’re going to need to register more voters.”