Mary Frances Whitfield: Why? is a collaborative exhibition between the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The exhibition is co-curated by AEIVA Curator John Fields and Dr. Brandon Wolfe, Assistant VP of Campus and Community Engagement in the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at UAB. It is on display at AEIVA until November 23, 2019. The images included below are in the exhibition.
Depictions of lynchings are usually loud – they bring into focus the agony of the victims, their bodies beaten and burned, hanging from a tree, or the intense anger, absolute hatred, and pure evil of the perpetrators and spectators as they relish in their acts of terror, dehumanization and brutality. Mary Frances Whitfield invites us to consider another experience, one that often goes unacknowledged or unconsidered artistically and historically. What happens when the spectacle is over, when the crowd disperses, when the terrorists have gone home, having achieved their fill of racial violence for the day? Who comes to claim the victims, to hold their lifeless bodies one last time, to cut them down and lay them to rest?
Whitfield’s paintings are not loud. They depict a silent despair. She transforms the space of public spectacle, of loud chaos, into a private and still experience that focuses on the quiet mourning of the bereaved. For Whitfield, this mourning conditions the lives of black people in her ancestral history and now. Her depictions are dark and heavy, they are full of grief and despair, and this emotional weight is largely held in the bodies of the mourners who literally hold this anguish – and their faces – in their hands. The victims and the mourners are often dressed in bright pastel colors, an image that foregrounds their vibrancy against the backdrop of a thick and consuming darkness. It reminds us of the life they could have lived, a life that was cut short by hate. Wives wrap their arms around the lifeless bodies of their husbands, young boys reach for the dangling feet of their fathers, women touch their protruding bellies, desperately hoping, we might assume, that their unborn children will not meet the same fate as the victim. Bodies of men, women, children, and babies hang from trees, sometimes engulfed in flames, sometimes appearing to sway slowly in the breeze. The stillness of the victims and the stoicism of the mourners in Whitfield’s paintings reflect the normalcy and the familiarly of an ordinary experience, part of daily existence for African Americans in the 18th and early 19th century, a reality wrought with unbearable pain, constant mourning, and overwhelming fear.
The title of the exhibit invites us to ask “Why?”, and the question looms on several levels. Why lynching? Why Albert? Why Sari-Mae? Why Mama and Papa? Why me? Why us? Why then? And maybe most importantly: Why now?
When the slavebody became the blackbody, white people could not let go of the compulsion to maintain dominance over black bodies and black lives. The vilification and demonization of black people took hold in the discourse, and a consensus grew around the need to protect white people and white dominance, a need so desperate it justified brutal violence and severe oppression against the newly “freed” citizens. Whitfield’s paintings are borne out of stories her grandmother told her about life during this time, a time when more than 4,000 black human beings were lynched publicly and without consequence. The work is timeless, though, and as we leave the exhibit and go out into the world, we are forced to wonder why this is still happening. Lynchings today take a different form, but they continue to terrorize and demoralize black communities all over the United States and emphasize the devaluation of black bodies and black lives in our society.
Toni Morrison says that the purpose and the power of art is in its ability to create conversation, one that is “critical to the understanding of what it means to care deeply and to be human completely.” If we can ask ourselves “Why?”, if we can have this conversation, if we can engage in this discourse honestly and authentically, if we can accept the truth about the continuing legacy of the slave trade and mass enslavement and lynchings in all of its forms – past and present – and then reconcile ourselves to that truth, then maybe through that conversation, we will see a path forward, one that leads us toward healing, one that will someday allow us to live in the peace and freedom and beauty of Dr. King’s dream. It’s a hard question to answer, not in its complexity but in its power to change our understanding of ourselves, but it’s one that we must ask.
On Thursday, October 18th, an event titled How Germany Has Come to Terms With Its Past was held at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The evening began with a lecture by former German diplomat Stefan Schlüeter who discussed how Germany has addressed its notorious role in World War II. Following, Schlüeter participated in a panel discussion with Laura Anderson (Alabama Humanities Foundation), Kiara Boone (Equal Justice Initiative) and Gregory Wilson (History Instructor at Lawson State Community College), putting this topic in the context of United States history.
Stefan opened by claiming there was silence in Germany after World War II, likely due to embarrassment and shame of the Nazi regime. Nevertheless, Schlüeter insisted we must keep the memory alive and never forget the millions who lost their lives during the Holocaust. Although there is an obvious presence of the country’s past, since the 1960s, German students have learned about the Third Reich in which he explained the teaching style and age of the student can mold how one processes this information; therefore, it is pivotal how one is taught. Such attempts to highlight and critique bigotry are a work in progress as we’ve clearly witnessed a resurgence of populism throughout Europe and North America.
The subsequent panel discussion centered on three main questions: How do we talk about the past? Who owns the past? How do we come to terms with the past? As a result of Birmingham’s legacy in the Civil Rights Movement, the discussion largely addressed the history of slavery and Jim Crow laws in the United States.
The discussion began by addressing how Americans are forgetting about controversial moments in history such as the Holocaust and Civil Rights Movement. This generated discussion about the possibility of mandating education of these histories, to ensure such events are never forgotten or to occur again. Wilson explained how he takes his students to museums, so they can view archives and artifact preservation behind the scenes, giving history a tangible presence. The panel then suggested there are holes in history and how bridging them with more information can cultivate nuanced discussion.
As for memorials, such as The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, it was suggested they be accompanied by information about the events as well as add individual narratives to the numbers of those who experienced oppression. The use of storytelling puts a face to a story, such as Harriet Tubman, and is better suited to resonate with audiences. Although, we can’t just change laws that mandate education, we need to change heart and minds of those who might carry attitudes that reflect the past.
When discussion centered on who owns the past, the panel demonstrated mixed feelings. It was argued that because we are all linked to history, we all own it. However, it was also demonstrated how depictions of history are predicated on power, leading to critiques of about Civil Rights education such as the lack of teaching around activist tactics and methods of the opposition. Such critiques beg us to further investigate these events and amplify the voices of people missing from these histories.
Following the panel discussion, audience members contributed to the discussion with their own questions such as: To what extent should Civil Rights education be focused on shock value? How do we integrate the legacy of colonialism into these teachings? What does it mean to be a good ally? Ultimately, dignifying these questions not only give us a more informed, honest account of history but also ensures those who need their voices heard the most are afforded their agency and liberation.
This month the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum marks its 25th anniversary. This offers a chance to reflect on the mission and work of the Museum, and also an opportunity to look forward at how we will ensure the permanent relevance of Holocaust history for new generations, reach global audiences, and create more agents of change who will work to make the future better than the past. Working with partners like the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is vital in achieving this mission.
In the fall of 1978, President Jimmy Carter established the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, which was charged with the responsibility to submit a report “with respect to the establishment and maintenance of an appropriate memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust.” One year later, the Commission concluded that the memorial could not be a static monument. Instead, it should be a “living memorial” with a strong educational component. The result was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, an institution that is both a memorial to Holocaust victims and a museum that educates visitors, collects and preserves evidence, and produces leading research and scholarship. The Commission also issued a call to action, concluding that “A memorial unresponsive to the future would also violate the memory of the past.” As such, in addition to honoring the memory of Holocaust victims, the mission of the Museum is to inspire leaders and citizens worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity.
When the Museum was dedicated and opened to the public on April 22, 1993, its founding chairman Elie Wiesel told the crowd, “This Museum is not an answer. It is a question.” For the past 25 years, this is how the institution has approached its work: relentlessly exploring complex questions about history and human nature. We have designed programs and resources that not only ask what the Holocaust was, but delve deep into explorations of how and why it happened. Moreover, we aim to prompt people to recognize the importance of this history’s lessons about humankind and societies, and to take an active role in confronting divisions that threaten social cohesion.
It is a sad reality that in the near future, we will live in a time when there are no more eyewitnesses to the Holocaust alive to share their stories. It is more important than ever, therefore, to teach the next generation of emerging adults about the Holocaust as a way to ensure the lasting memory of the victims. As Wiesel says, “I believe firmly and profoundly that anyone who listens to a Witness becomes a Witness, so those who hear us, those who read us must continue to bear witness for us. Until now, they’re doing it with us. At a certain point in time, they will do it for all of us.”
In that spirit, the Museum works with diverse audiences to demonstrate the importance of honoring the memory and exploring the universal lessons of the Holocaust, even if one doesn’t have a direct connection to the history. These audiences include judges, the military, law enforcement, youth, and faith communities.
As the next generation of thought-leaders and changemakers, college students have been an important audience for the Museum. To date, through a wide range of resources, traveling exhibits, seminars, lectures, conferences, and other programs, the Museum has engaged more than 630,000 college students, faculty, and local community members on 545 college and university campuses in 49 states across the United States.
American college students’ interests with the history of the Holocaust are different across the country. Their own background, upbringing, and educational experiences shape how they approach and understand the history of the Holocaust and its relevance to their own lives. As such, the Museum recently launched an initiative to put the history of the Holocaust into conversation with local or regional histories in the United States. This initiative enriches campus dialogue by provoking critical thinking about the history of antisemitism, racism, extrajudicial and state-sanctioned violence, and the power and limits of human agency in different historical contexts. By examining themes through the lens of multiple histories, the Museum connects with new audiences and works with partner campuses to educate students about the history of the Holocaust, model how to responsibly research and talk about different historical contexts, and facilitate informed dialogue about the lessons and contemporary relevance of those histories.
Over the past year, the Museum has been working with faculty and students at universities across the Southeast region on a series of programs that explore the histories of race and society in Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South. These programs are neither an equation of suffering nor meant to gloss over the uniqueness of each historical period. Instead, they bring communities together to explore what can be learned from studying the similarities, differences, and gray zones of these two histories.
In February 2018, the Museum, with the UAB Institute for Human Rights, organized a capstone event of this regional program: a two-day interdisciplinary symposium entitled Bystanders and Complicity in Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South. In total, 401 people from 10 states — including 203 college students, 20 high school students, 47 faculty, staff, and teachers, and 131 local community members — gathered together to explore the complexity of these histories.
Through this symposium, history became a way to build common understandings, bring diverse communities together, and foster a sense of human solidarity. Although — or perhaps because — participants came from many different backgrounds, we understood that we were discussing more than just past events. Our conversations posed timeless questions: about relevance to our lives today, about the vulnerability of societies, about democratic values and human nature.
Attendees and presenters discussed how, when, and why ordinary people supported, complied with, ignored, or resisted racist policies in two very different systems of targeted oppression and racial violence. It takes a critical minority of determined leaders with the support of an acquiescent general population to introduce and establish state-sanctioned racism, antisemitism, and violence. The extreme examples of Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South show that the majority of the population in these two worlds witnessed the widespread persecution against a targeted minority and either actively or passively tolerated what they saw, thus enabling the continuation of persecution and raising pressing questions about the role of onlookers and the nature of complicity. Examining the role of ordinary people, therefore, provides us with a better understanding of how and why such atrocities like the Holocaust could happen. This focus also helps us to make a more intimate connection to the history since we often each think of ourselves as an “ordinary person,” rather than as a victim, perpetrator, or bystander.
Dr. Beverly Eileen Mitchell, Professor of Historical Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary, delivered the symposium keynote address: “Racism and Antisemitism: Sibling Threats.” She argued that we cannot understand antisemitism and racism as separate prejudices that each affect only one particular group of people. History reveals that while the two may manifest uniquely, racism and antisemitism are children of the same father: white supremacy. “Lessons from history can shed light on what is happening in our own time, if we pay attention,” she says. A key lesson, Prof. Mitchell concluded, is that we all must actively confront discrimination, even when it does not affect us or our community directly, because hate against one group ultimately grows to affect us all. “We must remain vigilant. … There are no innocent bystanders where white supremacy is concerned.”
A highlight of the symposium was “Keeping the Memory Alive,” a session that featured a conversation between Riva Hirsch, a Holocaust survivor, and Josephine Bolling McCall, whose father was lynched in Alabama in 1947. These two women shared their powerful stories about the dangers and personal impact of racial violence and genocide. Their testimony ensured that their memories would be carried on by others. “Don’t ever stop learning about the Holocaust,” Hirsch told the crowd. “Don’t ever stop talking about it. There are people who say that it never happened, but I’m here to tell you all that it happened to me. To you youngsters out there: our memory is in your hands.” But the women also issued a challenge, urging everyone to speak up when they see discrimination. “You can’t wait for someone else to do something,” McCall said. “All it takes is one person to change someone’s mind for the good. Be that one person.”
The women’s parting words reflect a guiding principle of our Museum’s work: when you learn about how and why the Holocaust happened, you now have a moral obligation to act on that knowledge and to confront hatred and promote human dignity.
As we honor the memory of Holocaust victims during the Museum’s 25th anniversary, we recommit our affirmation that the exploration of this dark history must illuminate lessons that can guide us in our mission. One important lesson is that, as individuals in a pluralistic society, we have a responsibility to each other, to defend against threats to social cohesion, and to protect democratic institutions. Second, the confluence of motivations, pressures, fears, and concerns of daily life means that moral choices are not always clear or easy, yet we must commit to making the moral choice. Our (in)actions have unintended consequences and reverberate further than we may realize. What you do matters.
And finally, one of the most important lessons is that the Holocaust was preventable. “That’s not just a statement of fact,” says Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield. “It is a challenge to all of us.” After the Holocaust, the world promised “Never Again.” But this promise cannot only apply to mass atrocities or genocide. It is up to each of us to make sure that “Never Again” is a challenge to combat discrimination, prejudice, and hatred before it evolves into violence. Never Again begins with you.
Dr. Jake Newsome is the Campus Outreach Program Officer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where he is responsible for developing strategic outreach programs and resources for institutions of higher education throughout the United States. These programs take the lessons of the Holocaust beyond the Museum’s walls and inspire new generations of scholars, students, and leaders to engage with the history and contemporary relevance of the Holocaust. Dr. Newsome’s research focuses on Holocaust history, gender and sexuality, and memory studies.
I was enthused and a bit trepidatious when professor Madden-Lunsford announced we would be attending, as a class, the lecture of a Holocaust survivor and an African American woman whose father had been lynched when she was a child. I knew their stories would be both amazing and difficult to hear.
During my undergraduate studies in the early 90’s at Auburn University at Montgomery, I took a history course on the Holocaust. Before the course I had considered myself knowledgeable of the Holocaust. I discovered how ignorant I was when I learned of: the depth and breadth of the brutality and mass murder; the willing collusion of many nations and millions of people; how many nations including the U.S. denied sanctuary by not increasing immigration visas; how entire educated societies and cultures readily accepted the expansion of racism and anti-semitism to point whole scale genocide without question, because it fed their fear and anger; the discovery that if a group can be successfully scapegoated almost anything can be done to them, with little resistance, because to defend a scapegoat with logic and reason is to become a scapegoat. The most shocking discovery for me was that despite mountains of irrefutable evidence, the number of Holocaust deniers was growing. The knowledge I learned in that course changed me permanently and profoundly. I lost much of my faith in mankind. For a period of time during and following the class I suffered recurring nightmares.
Before entering the class I had naively believed that such an event could never happen again. I now know that not only could it be repeated, but that it has, in Cambodia, and most recently Sudan.
However, I also discovered that individual human courage was boundless and that miracles large and small happen. That was where my last personal seed of hope took refuge.
It is with this background and knowledge that I intellectually looked forward to, and was emotionally apprehensive of, hearing Riva Hirsch and Josephine McCall speak. I knew that these women were and are courageous. I wanted to be near that courage and learn from it.
Riva is a force of nature. She spoke of her own miracles; being found in Ukraine by people who spoke German and because of her Yiddish background being able to understand them (She referred to Yiddish as Jewish and I hoped that didn’t confuse too many people in the audience); the guard not looking underneath the carriage where she was hiding during her flight to safety; being hidden by a nun, who also spoke German, and that nun paying the ultimate sacrifice for helping her. When she spoke of being all alone in the forest, battling malnutrition, typhus, malaria, and hordes of lice, I knew she was made of far sterner stuff than I.
Riva spoke of her father’s business and how her family and his workers were a close knit group, an extended family before the war came to the Ukraine. Yet, for fear of putting themselves and their families in danger, these workers shut their doors to Riva and her family during their flight. Only one offered temporary refuge and only after Riva’s mother gave him all her jewels. As Riva spoke, so many of the atrocities I had learned of in that Holocaust course came back to the forefront of my mind. My faith in mankind was eroding again.
Though I had girded myself for Riva’s story, Josephine, was like so many neighbors, coworkers, and friends I have known over the years. I had heard voices like hers over countless retail counters, through back screen doors and hollered from front porches. Her soft Blackbelt accent lulled me into a sense of comfort.
Riva’s story had taken place in WWII era Ukraine; a place I had only known through books and movies. But, I am familiar with Lowndes County, Alabama. I spent my childhood in neighboring Montgomery county. I had crossed Lowndes county many times on both the Old Selma Road and Highway 80. I knew the upper echelons of white society in Lowndes county were mockingly referred to as cornbread millionaires. They lived in antebellum mansions full of antiques; they were land rich but money poor. So much so, that if you went to their homes for supper, the only thing they could afford to serve in their heirloom china and silver was cornbread and beans with hog meat. I had heard it discussed that this facade and lack of resources made whites in Lowndes County particularly brutal in their treatment of black folks.
I am well steeped in the culture and nuances of Southern race relations. Though my experience of it is as a white male, born in 1964. This was the first time I had heard someone speak personally of the loss of a family member at the hands of open, socially sanctioned racist. I was surprised to learn that lynching was defined as death at the hands of three or more people and was not limited to death by hanging. I should not have been as surprised, as I was, when Josephine informed the audience that indenture (the practice of holding someone on your land as a laborer if they owed you a debt, essentially de facto slavery) was still enforced by they law in Lowndes County in 1947.
Josephine stated that her father, Elmore Bolling’s crime in the eyes of white men was that he had succeeded and purchased land, resulting in a white woman having to move off the property. Even though Mr. Bolling helped the women move and found her exactly the accommodation she wanted, his actions still constituted a crime against an unwritten social code, punishable by death.
I knew whites who thought this way, including many within my own family. They believed that all black men were lazy and stupid. Therefore, if a black man succeeded and had wealth, he must have cheated a white man or had help from interfering Northern whites and/or the Federal Government, which was the same as cheating a white man.
That was what was most disturbing for me about Josephine’s story. Her father’s murderers could have been friends of my grandparents or distant relations. Many people within my family were certainly capable of such a crime. Even the more moderate older family members believed that if a black man was lynched he must have done something stupid to put himself in harms way.
Both Riva and Josephine talked about how we must continue to speak up and talk about such atrocities and not let the deniers corrupt history and attempt to repeat it. Silence is the enemy of justice.
My lack of faith in mankind was growing. I wondered if speaking out was enough. The attitudes of many whites I know, especially those young enough to know better, is still shockingly racist. Just this week, I spoke with a friend who teaches high school English. She was distraught because a student had turned in an essay that was essentially a white supremest manifesto. The student was not a child on the fringe but rather a well liked person very popular in the high school social structure. I am often gobsmacked when I hear well educated white colleagues use the N-word, assuming I am as racist as they. I looked around at the audience in attendance and found them to very simpatico with the Riva and Josephine. The people who most needed to hear the speakers were not there. Just last night the local CBS news reported that according to the Anti-defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents were at a twenty year high. Up 47% in just the last two years.
I am honored to have heard Riva and Josephine’s stories and bask in the presence of their courage. I will speak up and continue to seek to root out my own internal vestiges of racism.
I spoke to Josephine after the presentation. We chuckled about Lowndes County’s cornbread millionaires. She told me where her father’s historical maker, that she had worked so hard to get erected, was located in Lowndesboro, just two hundred yards from the yellow flashing caution light. I knew the spot.
I spoke of my racist father who carried a badge and a gun for the Montgomery police force for twenty-five years and then twenty years more as an Alabama State Trooper. I told her, with dismay, of my father’s braggadocios, I heard as child, after he had a few beers. He told how he and his friends in high school would lay in wait in the dark, to catch the black men walking to town along the railroad tracks on Saturday night to visit their wives or girlfriends who were domestics and nannies in town. They subjected these men to humiliations and tortures. Their favorite being to strip them of their clothes and put them in the trunk of a car. They would release them naked on the highway, hands bound with lit firecrackers tied to their ankles and backside. My father always smiled with glee when he told these exploits. Josephine, compassionate and understanding of my grief over having such a father, clasp my hand and nodded. She was familiar with these kinds of events.
I left the lecture remembering that in my youth, in the seventies and eighties, I had believed by now we, as a society, would have a more level field of justice and opportunity for all, and that hate crimes would become fewer and fewer as society became more enlightened and heterogenous. However, as I walked to my car, a fear chewed at me. Was the leveling so many had fought for, and were still fighting for, beginning to slope again, becoming muddy and slippery, rising in elevation to the disadvantage and injustice of minorities? Will there be enough voices speaking up to again seek a leveling? History does not make me hopeful.
Leonard Lee Smith holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from Auburn University at Montgomery. He is a non-degree seeking graduate student in writing at University of Alabama at Birmingham. He won a Hackney award in 2012 for short fiction. He has told stories for The Moth Radio Hour
Black tablecloths drape over oval tables scattered about the square room, with its square doorways, chairs, and ceiling accents. Oranges and tiny cinnamon rolls sit on a silver platter in the corner, and the last light of the sun filtered through the blackout curtains over the wall-length windows. The olive-green carpet patterns stood against the flurry of heels and brown dress shoes. However, near the front is a pair of blue converse sneakers with bright yellow socks. Next to him, red heels, red suit, red lipstick. Then, to the left a man with short blonde hair shifts his navy jacket over his pink dress shirt and brown tie—melded together with a silver clip.
Their clothing was reminiscent of vines. The kind of foliage that you imagine in a rose garden filled with the generational knowledge of the gardener—whom tenderly cares for us all from the bugs, diseases, and birds that seek to feed off it. Although even he cannot keep watch all the time.
With violet flowers on her dress, pink flowers on her scarf, and vines connecting the two, Riva Hirsch sat with her square jaw set into concentration. The points came to her cheek as she looked on to the crowd.
A deep olive-green pullover with stripes in the fabric sat on her shoulder, with embroidered vines creeping from her other. A turquoise bracelet dripped from her wrist, a greener string of stones from her neck, and her fingernails were as bright as the oranges on the tables. Josephine Bolling McCall sat with an earnest look on her face, as she smiled at her family among the audience.
Riva started the conversation, and retold her story about surviving the Holocaust in Ukraine.
“My mother said to ‘Kiss the mezuzah, because we won’t be able to come back here,’” said Riva, as her strong Ukranian voice rang in the room.
She told her story about how she and her family were captured in the forest—about how they separated them all apart from each other—about the trail of dead babies, young men, and old folks—as she was taken to the train filled with the dead.
Silent tears dripped on the tablecloths, while sniffles replaced the sound of the usual cell phone rings at public events such as these. “The future is in your hands!” she yelled to the audience, stopping to look into a few specific faces. “Never let it happen again!”
Josephine told the story about being 5 years old and seeing your father dead in a ditch. Her eyes looked into the past as she spoke.
“A car followed him and blinked three times—which back in the day meant to pull over—so he did, thinking they needed help,” she paused. “Then, they shot him multiple times with a pistol and once with a shotgun. I saw him dead in the ditch with his eyes wide open.”
The family went through the ordeal of losing everything. They lost a father, husband, breadwinner, and a respected community businessman. They had to move away to Montgomery to escape the corrupt sheriff—the same one that assisted in the murder.
Josephine spent years researching her father’s death and who was responsible for the lynching—which is defined by a unjust murder done by more than one person.
She survived the Jim Crow South, the other the Holocaust. Their scars surround them like vines, the ones that remind them they are alive, they survived, and continue to grow—to show others that they can grow without vines, without prejudice, without hatred.
“I had everything until the murderer came,” Riva Hirsch begins, clutching a microphone between two pale hands. “We weren’t rich, but we had a ball and a doll and a dog… There was no discrimination. We loved.”
Sitting in a sterile events space around circular tables, we watch as a map appears on the projector screen to helpfully show us exactly where seven-year-old Riva lived before that day: an area of Ukraine that used to be Russia. She isn’t sure where exactly she was taken. “A better place,” was all the Nazis told her as she boarded a train overflowing with corpses.
“Did you see any towns on the train ride?” the moderator of the talk asks.
“Piles and piles of dead bodies–that I saw. Children. Grown-ups. Babies. But not towns.”
A microphone fails, its battery dead. Some shuffling and chuckling, then Riva’s microphone is handed to the other guest speaker, Josephine Bolling McCall, from Lowndes County, Alabama. “Bloody Lowndes”, it used to be called because of all the murders.
“We thought someone was killing cows,” she tells us, describing the sound of her father’s lynching. His children found him lying in a ditch with his eyes open, shot several times. “The definition of lynching is not about the noose around your neck. It’s about the group of people. At the time, three people made a lynching”
The room releases a deep hum of a surprise.
Her father was rich for a black man, owning a storefront, some land, and several shipping trucks. The night of his murder, Josephine’s brother scrawled down the car tag number of the white men he saw driving away in the dirt outside their store. “The sheriff wasn’t interested. Lowndes County planned my father’s murder and planned to make it look like it wasn’t a lynching, because the county would be held responsible. Most of the blacks were afraid to talk. There was no mercy there.”
The two women trade their lone microphone back and forth, standing tall when it is their turn to speak with the kind of straight-backed poise that has been lost over the generations. Both look dressed for a nice evening out, their hair in big, loose curls around their shoulders, Riva’s white and Josephine’s dark brown, like their skin. Riva talks fast, with an Eastern European accent, her voice booming through the sedate hall. Josephine, by contrast, talks Southern slow and soft enough that we lean forward to catch her words. Riva speaks as if the horrors she witnessed happened only yesterday. Josephine speaks as if they happen to her every day.
“I was lying more dead than alive,” Riva says of her condition when the German man who smuggled her out of the camp to a convent. “Me as a little Jewish girl, I had never seen a nun. But I survived through them.”
“I decided it was time to get some recognition,” Josephine told us about publishing a book about her search to discover what really happened to her father. “They made my book required reading at Northeastern University.”
The moderator asks them what one lesson would they want us to take away.
“The intention was to terrorize,” Josephine says. “Terrorism is what they got… We must continue the discussion, but as it says in Hebrews 13:1, ‘Let brotherly love continue’.”
“Make sure to educate our students,” Riva answers, her voice reaching a fever pitch. “Because the future is in your hands to let the world never, ever let it happen again.”
The room is silent when her words stop ringing through the high ceiling, but in our ears, the shouts of Charlottesville echo. We clap to drown them out.
Mary Elizabeth Chambliss is a graduate English student specializing in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, as well as a CRM Administrator in UAB’s Enrollment Operations. She graduated from Lehigh University with a Bachelor’s in Cultural Anthropology in 2015.
I did not know what to expect when I walked in to the Alumni House to hear the talk with Riva Schuster Hirsch and Josephine Bolling McCall for class, but what I received from hearing the two was much more than I had hoped for. The rarity of still being able to hear a Holocaust survivor speak is unfortunate, so my class and I were very lucky to have the opportunity to hear Riva speak on the horrors of what she went through. It is also upsetting to know that there are people still living today who were greatly affected by such explicit racial injustices as Josephine Bolling had endured as a child. The only positive thing I can think about it is that today, we can listen to their stories and work on preventing future incidents like those from happening.
Things that stood out to me from what the women said were: There was still slavery in Lowndes County, Alabama in 1947, Riva and her family had to hide in fields and forests, Josephine and her family were “afraid to talk” or speak up about the injustice to her father, and that Riva had gotten so sick while in hiding that she could not walk or talk, only play dead.
Despite all the sufferings these women have gone through, it is thrilling to know that they both turned their unfortunate pasts into present successes. Josephine had a book published in honor of her father titled The Penalty of Success and it is now required reading for certain Law School classes, and although Riva never went to school, she was able to teach herself seven different languages. She also has famous YouTube videos and created a beautiful family for herself in Birmingham, Alabama.
The most important part of their talk was listening to them each give advice on how we can make a difference today.
Riva says: Go around and speak to youngsters—the future of our world—to educate them on the hatred that occurred in the past, to ensure it never EVER happens again.
Josephine says: It is important to continue the message, to acknowledge the Golden Rule, and to spread brotherly love to all.
These are things I will never forget.
Layla is currently a graduate student at UAB studying to obtain her Master’s degree in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing.
I’ve been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. twice. The first time was just over a year after it opened. I was newly out and went with a new gay friend and a straight ally. We picked up random ID cards to “own” during the tour, but also asked for information about the gays who died in the Holocaust. Those pamphlets were kept behind the counter, like the dirty magazines at 7 Eleven.
It was a somber visit. Seeing the shoes was the hardest. The owners were dead. Only their shoes left to give witness. Hundreds—thousands?—of shoes. I whispered the refrain of the tour, “never again.”
My last visit to the museum was a few months ago. Donald Trump had been in the White House for several months. I still had not called him the P word. I can’t do it here. I didn’t remember the tour being so crowded. It felt right, though. Again, I clutched my identification papers. Last time I cheated and looked to see my assumed persona lived or died right away. This time I wanted to find out in real time. The crowd added to the experience, especially when I saw the train car.
Last time when I said Never Again it was defiant, a promise. Now it was a question. The tour starts at the upper floor with the lead up to the Holocaust. It didn’t happen overnight. Old newsreels and headlines show Hitler’s rise to power. Shave his mustache and tint his skin orange and it could have been the buildup to the 2016 elections. It scared me, the Othering part of the German people. Change Jew to Mexican or Muslim and it wasn’t dusty history at all. Never again?
Something else was wrong. The mood wasn’t as somber this time, not for everyone. A group of people in front of me laughed at some of the videos and exhibits. Not nervous titters. I do that sometimes. I smiled nervously when I told my mom that Mr. Lamar, my seventh-grade gym teacher died. I wasn’t happy. I was nervous. These people now, though, were enjoying themselves. This wasn’t a shameful part of humanity’s past but a primer.
I had to sit down, but there was no place to sit.
Last night when I heard Riva and Josephine speak, I thought the Holocaust museum, and the Civil Rights Institute, and the news coverage of the Valentine Shooting at Parkland, and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando and the Sandy Hook, were too sanitized. When I worked in the ICU and ER in the Navy I treated gunshot victims. I keep hearing people speaking abstractly about 2nd Amendment this Crisis actor that. It’s easy to be a talking head when all you see are helicopter shots of students walking single file across a school parking lot with their hands up. Or the flashing lights of emergency vehicles and worried parents behind barricades.
I don’t know what the dead and wounded looked like at Marjorie Stoneman Douglass High School or Sandy Hook, or the Pulse, or the field where Josephine’s father was lynched. But the shooting victims I saw had half their heads missing, their entrails hanging out, entrance wounds the size of a quarter and exit wounds the size of an orange. More blood than you’d think a human body could hold saturated their clothes. I don’t believe anyone could see that and NOT say never again!
And yet those laughing people at the Holocaust Museum took pictures with their smart phones of the photos and videos of the atrocities of Joseph Mengele to show off to their friends back home.
One of them had a red MAGA baseball cap on.
Riva and Josephine must keep telling their story, but that’s not enough. Everyone who heard it must also tell it. And they must insist, Never again. And when the assholes with the MAGA caps laugh we have to shout it, Never Again! Never!
And for the love of God, never here.
For Bob Byrd, it was a race to see which he would earn first: an undergrad degree or AARP card. He is a senior at UAB, majoring in Communications with a minor in Creative Writing. He just celebrated his 55th birthday–looks like AARP won, but it was close. He is an award winning storyteller and a frequent contributor to the NPR radio program Says You!. He grew up in Fort Lauderdale but has called Birmingham home for the last twenty years.
A creative writing class from the UAB English department attended the Nazi Germany and Jim Crow South symposium in February. Six students, including Taylor, submitted their reflections on the interview with Riva Hirsh, a Holocaust survivor, and Josephine Bolling McCall, daughter of lynching victim, Elmore Bolling. Their honest and emotionally raw selections will post over the course of this week. — AR
Riva Hirsch scans the room with wide eyes and white hair. Her shoulders are draped in purple and gold, her veiny hands clutched around her microphone. When the interviewer asks her to tell the room about her childhood and family, she stands up and brings the microphone to her lips.
“I had everything I needed until the murderer came.”
Her voice comes out grainy and loud, her lips probably kissing the microphone. She shakes with emotion I’m sure she’s felt for a lifetime.
The interviewer turns to Josephine Bolling McCall, who sits in her chair with her ankles crossed, robed in shades of emerald. Her hair is as red as fall leaves before the separate from branches and litter sidewalks. Like Riva, she wears glasses. The interviewer asks her the same question and she stands. Her voice is softer, as steady as a librarian talking while leading you through the stacks and pulling the book you need from the shelf.
“I lived in Lowndes Country, Alabama. It was known as ‘Blood Lowndes’,” she reveals. I look around the room and watch a few audience members shift in their seats. One squints his eyes, as if trying to imagine just how bloody it had been. “I was only 5 when my father was killed.” Even I shift in my seat.
Riva begins the heartbreaking tale of bring separated from her family by the Nazis. She was seven when war came to her town. A family friend named Joshua warned her family to leave. The second time he came, Riva tells us “I could smell human flesh.” Riva and her family were forced to leave their home, taking only the packages her mother and grandmother made. Joshua hid them until he could hide them no more. One day Joshua came running.
“The SS are coming!” Riva and her family were forced into the forest, where they lived in sickness, became covered in lice. Eventually they were caught and separated by the SS. Riva tells the room of alert eyes and open mouths that her mother was beat in front of her when she refused to let go of her children. They were forced to wear the yellow star and told they would be taken to a better place. She tells us of the trains they were forced on and leaves us with an image that chills to the bone and boils blood all at once.
“There were piles of dead bodies on the train. We were all moving from life to death, death to life.”
Josephine tells us about her father, Elmo, before he was killed. “He had airhorns on his truck,” she reminisces. Her father would blow his horns as he passed the family in the shop or the house. But in December of 1947, gunshots could be heard some time after the airhorns. No one thought anything of it until they were told her father was dead. “He was laying there in the ditch and his eyes were still open,” she says, looking down into the microphone. I know we all imagined a 5-year-old mind replaying that image, understanding more of its horror as time passes.
When asked about the community’s reaction to her father’s murder, Josephine admits that everyone was afraid to talk. “Keep your mouth shut, stay inside, and don’t say anything,” she recites. This was the law of their land. Josephine’s brother saw the murder of their father and saw the car that appeared to be following their father before the murder. Her brother wrote the tag number in the dirt in front of a sheriff, trying to give him the information. The sheriff had no interest. “My father’s murder had been planned,” Josephine says. And the room understands that the sheriff already knew.
Riva is asked to talk about her savior, a man who spoke German. “A man put his hand on my mouth,” she says. “I was so sick with malaria and typhoid. He told me to play dead. He put me on his shoulder and started to run with me.” The German man hid Riva in a carriage to smuggle her out of the camp. The carriage was stopped, but Riva went undiscovered until she was brought to a convent. “He handed me off to a nun and then she started to run with me,” and I imagine a nun’s black clothing flailing in the still of night, a sick child limp in her arms. She was brought to a place where more children were hidden and told the nuns would bring them food as often as they could, but not too often as to draw attention. “They were my guardian angels,” Riva confesses.
After Josephine’s family fled Lowndes County to Montgomery, she found information that would launch her into an investigation about her father’s murder. In the Montgomery Advertiser had an article about her father’s murder. “He had been shot 6 times with a pistol, once in the back with a shot gun. What does that tell you? That there was more than one person there,” Josephine urges into the microphone. After retrieving the article from historical archives and interviewing others, Josephine discovers that many people had known her father’s murder was planned. She also discovered that by definition, her father’s murder had been a lynching. In a Chicago newspaper headline about her father’s murder, the word “lynch” appeared.
The interviewer asks, “Why was it important for your father’s murderers to not make it look like a lynching?”
“Counties were being held responsible and fined,” Josephine responds. “The Association of Southern Women to Protect Lynching (ASWPL) came to Lowndes County to stop the lynching from happening.” The murderers were trying to protect themselves.
Riva tells us about her life after the way. She never went to school, but taught herself 7 languages. She married another Holocaust survivor, who lost his whole family to the gas chambers. He was the only survivor. 28 years ago, Riva came to Birmingham. Her daughter and step-daughter and still with her. She lost her husband 4 years ago, her son 9 years ago. She still claims with excitement, “America is the best place in the world.”
Josephine started a foundation in memory of her father. She wrote a book, The Penalty of Success: My Father was Lynched in Lowndes County, Alabama, and had two book signings a day for a week in Boston. She continues to share her story.
Both women leave us with their own words of advice. Riva cautions, “Make sure you speak to educate our students because the future is in their hands.” She pins us all with a determined stare before finishing, “Never ever let it happen again.” Josephine follows Riva, urging that “we have to acknowledge what has gone on before we can reconcile and come together.” Finally, she points us to Bible, Hebrews 13:1, “Let brotherly love continue.”
Taylor Byas is a graduate student at UAB pursuing her Master’s Degree in English, Creative Writing. She aspires to teach Creative Writing at the collegiate level.
My research seeks to answer a complicated question: Why did everyday people participate in the systems of racial oppression known historically as the Third Reich and the Jim Crow South? Historians have focused on these two national cultures and the wide variety of ways in which they excluded racialized others while elevating their own preferred racial makeups. Much of my graduate career has been spent studying the prejudice that emanated from Nazi Party leadership down to the German citizenry. However, when I took a graduate seminar on Southern History with a preeminent scholar, I was struck by the fact that, at the structural level, histories of the South resembled many of the German histories I had already consumed.
Both fields attempt to sort through complex pasts by debating continuity over time. In Germany’s case, scholars asked if there was something essentially German that caused the rise of the Third Reich by the early twentieth century? Was there a direct path from Martin Luther to Adolf Hitler, or was the development of German history more complex? Similarly, U.S. Southern academics often argued over whether the antebellum South had ever truly given way to a New South built on technology and industry. Both arguments created a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts that has consequentially damaged historical interpretation in both fields. By setting up a world where the U.S. South was always at its heart magnolias and bigotry and Germany was always a peculiar nation susceptible to authoritarianism, no one needs to take ownership of their horrendous racial legacies. Exceptionalist narratives paint a deterministic picture where the racial castes that evolved into brutality and violence were inevitable outgrowths of inherent flaws. Nobody could help themselves; it was simply meant to be.
Such determinism has long had its opponents and supporters amongst historians, but both fields tackled this problem in remarkably similar ways: memory history. Southern and German historians embraced a historical methodology that called scholars to probe historical actors’ memories. How did exceptionalist myths like the “Lost Causes” and “Special Paths” (Sonderweg) get formed? Scholars of both cultures claimed that historical actors chose to selectively remember and internalize false memories which were then purposely perpetuated to future generations. One of the most blatant of these efforts was the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization defined by a desire amongst white Southern women to give permanence to the “Lost Cause” illusions of the Confederacy. Through textbooks, statues, speeches, public events, and other cultural activities the UDC ensured that a Neo-Confederate lifestyle would exist well beyond the South’s military defeat. Germany similarly internalized powerful false memories regarding militarism. Many young German men willingly went to war in the Spring of 1914 hopped up on tales of glory from Germany’s imperial wars; the fact that these conflicts were inherently one-sided and genocidal did not make it into travel accounts and youth magazines. These same myths would influence another generation; instead of seeing the First World War as brutal meat-grinder of humanity, many Germans sought glorification in the Nazi cause. False memories had indeed defined both regions and by extension their historical studies.
The more I read Southern history and reread German history I noticed more similarities. Neither regions’ academics seemed to address one another in any significant way. There were Cursory mentions here and there, footnotes in an epilogue, an occasional article. German historians and Southern historians seemed unaware of how significantly their methods of analysis overlapped. It was maddening! How could either of these places consider themselves exceptional when their histories were so painfully similar?! How had no one else really dug into this subject? The possibilities were staggering! I wrote a paper for my Southern History course on this overlap, and the whole exercise was produced more in the name of catharsis than course completion. However, the paper would not be enough, I did not find myself satisfied.
I read more and more and continued to find considerable overlap, but meaningful comparisons were few and far between. So, my new obsession slowly shifted into my dissertation proposal. I refined my original project, stripped it down to its bolts, and completely rewrote it. I added a research prospectus where I outlined my major argument, my answer to the question I asked above: Why did everyday people participate in the systems of racial oppression known historically as the Third Reich and the Jim Crow South? People were subjugated, excluded, and made the easy victims of violence and deprivation. The answer would not be found in studying politicians, demagogues, and the elites that had often defined my research. No, the similarity between these two regions, the element that formed the foundation of a transnational system of racial intolerance and exclusion was everyday people. The racial castes of Jim Crow and National Socialism may have had the force of law, but everyday people were the ones who enforced and followed the boundaries of racial propriety. Those boundaries were often set and adjusted at very local levels in countless interactions far away from any state supervision.
Many historians have argued that events and circumstances dictated complicity- in other words a historical actor’s present world left them little choice. Other scholars assert that historical actor’s memories of the past informed their complicity. I depart from these arguments; I insist that the answer to everyday complicity in the Third Reich and Jim Crow South lies not in past or present but in the future. I study the various expected futures that these historical actors internalized, which I call “Expectation” for shorthand. Expectation is a fact of human existence; we all walk around with some form of expectation of the future, be it a political identity, a five-year plan, or even what to eat for dinner. Historical actors similarly had expectations. In my research I have unearthed those hopes and fears of countless possible futures that provided considerable motivation for a wide variety of actions that lent credence to Jim Crow and Nazism.
Identifying and explaining expectation has been a fascinating endeavor that has taken me across six Southern states and all across the Southern German state of Bavaria. This particular German state and its people have long considered their culture to be highly distinct from the rest of Germany, harking back to an aristocratic tradition that thrived long before Prussian led unification “reconstructed” their region into a united Germany. As such, it offers a very proximate point of comparison with a Southern culture that deals with its own hatred of reconstructions. I have assembled pamphlets, newspapers, sheet music, broadsides, tourism brochures, flyers, letters, diaries, and a wide variety of everyday kitsch to assemble a clear picture of white supremacist hopes for the future. These items help illustrate a wide variety of wants, needs, and fears that informed everyday expectations for the future and by extension the justifications people internalized to vindicate their position in racialized states.
My research has shown five key components of expectation, each one of vital importance to understanding everyday complicity. First, tradition: the idea that people expect some form a remembered past will carry over into the future. Second, continuity: the hope that the institution, customs, and society of the present will continue to exist. Third, potential: the desire to maximize the potential of humanity and society to thrive in the future. These three ideas embody expectation generally and can be found outside of Jim Crow South and the Third Reich. However, the next two components help bridge the gap between expectation and complicity. Fourth, urgency: the pressing fear generated by either stressful times, political demagogy, or the perception of changes to the status quo that motivate historical actors to become more ardent in realizing their expectations. Finally, entitlement: the idea that historical actors considered themselves entitled to their expectations of the future at the direct expense of other people.
To fully explain how tradition, continuity, potential, urgency, and entitlement form expectations for the future and motivate everyday people to participate in racial states I use a series of vignettes to tackle each topic and illustrate a component of expectation as it existed in both the U.S. South and Bavarian Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. For example, to study the idea of tradition, I look at the Lost Cause and postwar Confederate worship to demonstrate that Southerners generally expected their futures to contain some vestiges of moonlight and magnolias. In Bavaria, an emphasis on agricultural roots and Bavaria’s separate monarchy demonstrate that Bavarians hoped to honor their separatism of yesteryear. In assembling this argument, I have called on debates over Women’s Suffrage, Bavarian Catholicism, white supporters of Marcus Garvey, sterilization and eugenics, the Scopes Trial, Bamberg tourism, Prohibition, and so much else to unearth everyday expectation in a clear and compelling fashion.
When we consider the factors that contributed to everyday complicity, we must not only look at the usual suspects hierarchy, heritage, racism but also reflect on the role of people’s entitlement to expected futures and the fear of losing those futures. The world of the 1920s and 1930s was truly tumultuous with the rise of communism, a global war and an epidemic that combined wiped out much of a generation, a global depression, and many other destabilizing events. People needed and craved stability; in the case of the Jim Crow South and the Third Reich, that stability was offered by politicians and demagogues in exchange for participation in a strict and violent racial system. This stability afforded everyday whites in both the U.S. South and Bavaria Germany the opportunity to achieve their desired futures and to avoid imagined apocalypses. The opportunity to realize their expectations convinced far too many people to enforce, support, or at least look the other way as African Americans and Jews were stripped of their human rights, their dignity, and sometimes their very lives.
Derrick J. Angermeier is presently a PhD candidate in the History Department of the University of Georgia. His dissertation, titled Both Hitler and Jim Crow: Lost Causes and Imagined Futures in Nazi Bavaria and the New South, 1919-1939, explores the expectations, hopes, and fears for the future held by everyday people in the U.S. South and Bavaria, Germany during the 1920s and 1930s as vehicles to understanding complicity in racialized states. Derrick has been awarded multiple research grants and fellowships which have taken him across the U.S. South and to the southern German state of Bavaria. This May he will be a Graduate Fellow of the Berlin Seminar in Transnational European Studies. Derrick prides himself on sharing his expertise and research with the public. He has spoken at multiple events sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; most recently in February 2018 when he discussed the role “Expectation” played in everyday complicity in the Third Reich and Jim Crow South at a symposium co-sponsored by the UAB Institute for Human Rights.
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