Stories from the Great Loop
Woodrow Wilson & the Red Neck Bar
Oriental, North Carolina
May 2, 2019
I recently saw a quote from Woodrow Wilson on a t-shirt, of all places: “If you want to make enemies, try to change something”. It’s ironic coming from Wilson who was progressive in many ways, but also very racist, even for his time. Some say that he set back civil rights for decades with the power of the Presidency. Still, it captures a human truth: change is hard and usually resisted.
I was born in Baltimore and moved several times around the Chesapeake until I left for the army in 1972. One of the highlights of my Loop has been revisiting my old stomping grounds. Baltimore has changed a lot but it’s still a ‘southern’ city, the one Abraham Lincoln had to sneak through in the middle of the night to get to his inauguration. The North began north and west of Baltimore, not at the Mason-Dixon Line.
I went to geographically segregated schools as did most kids in the north in the 1950s and 60s as well as a racially segregated school in southern Maryland. Calvert County had two high schools, one for blacks, one for whites, two miles apart in the middle of a county 60 miles long and 20 miles wide.
During elementary school an aunt in Florida provided my family a ‘warm’ welcome during winter school breaks. The long drive, before interstates, along Hwy 301 through unending small towns provided ample opportunity to see Jim Crow in practice, even if I didn’t grasp its significance at that age. A college volunteer program in Mississippi made a more pointed, and scary, impression.
My army stint, thanks to President Harry Truman forcing through the military’s desegregation, taught me that black and white could work well together. Cpt. Truman of World War I understood battlefields didn’t discriminate, all blood is red.
One of the things I was curious about as I started the Great Loop was what changes I would see in the South. My first impressions came quickly. While I was still mastering the art of planning early in the trip, I slipped into a closed, private marina and took to my bike to find something, anything, for supper. After a mile or so of the deep woods of Kentucky, I found a small bar that didn’t even show up on Google maps.
From the rusted tin roof to the pickups lined up outside, it had Red Neck written all over it. I took a deep breath, leaned my bike against an outside table in view of the window and opened the door as confidently as I could. I was confronted at the bar by a guy who had had half his face blown away including his nose and one eye. Judging from his age, I’d guess it happened in Vietnam.
He may or may not have been the bar’s unofficial greeter to separate out the weak hearted or unwanted guests. Thank God for my BOEC experience*. I was able to look him in his one eye and handle a pleasant, if somewhat awkward conversation. That broke the ice. The good looking, mid-30ish female bartender, who had taken this all in (and had these locals wrapped around her finger/figure) served me a beer and even led me to a table where I could charge my laptop. I devoured the hamburger, which was actually pretty good, while taking in the decor which included a sign “Parking for Confederates only. Others can go back North.”
I didn’t feel exactly welcome, but I was accepted, which is not bad for a guy in bike shorts and helmet with a laptop in a local red neck bar. I might be a bit optimistic, but I think a local black would have been accepted as well. It was local pride, not racism that was on full display. I say that because I did see blacks in similar places, both in the deep south and even more so in the coastal south: in places I had never seen them in my youth. I was surprised to see numerous mixed race couples as well, my surprise perhaps indicating that I still have some of my own prejudices to work on.
In some ways, I think change has been easier for the South than the North. Segregation had ensured a social, economic and political hierarchy that dated back to colonial times. But black and white were always more familiar with each other than in the North. As Civil Rights era laws slowly knocked out the legal underpinning of Jim Crow, the south didn’t have to deal with as much hatred based on fear and the unknown, which I often saw in the North.
Yes, there are exceptions. There are bigots everywhere and nearly all southern cities and towns still have monuments to Confederates. But I think there is ever increasing recognition that the bigots and those statues built by the Daughters of the Confederacy during the early twentieth century to reinforce southern revisionist history** do not represent the South today.
Change is disruptive at best and often brutal; ask Native Americans wiped out by European disease, blacks kidnapped from their homes in Africa to be packaged and shipped across an ocean to slavery, Jews shipped by the trainload to the gas chambers or the hundreds of thousands executed in the Gulag, starved in the Cultural Revolution or purged in Rwanda. History eventually condemns the worst, but obviously not enough to keep us vigilant.
I’m heartened to see change in the South, even if too slow for some, too fast for others. Questioning change is healthy; ignoring it is not. Nothing has to stay as it is; more important, nothing will stay as it is. Change is constant and inevitable. And as Wilson noted, it usually gets people riled.
*The Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC) is a non-profit in Breckenridge, Colorado offering outdoor programming for people with varying abilities. It is one of those unique programs where teacher often learns more than student.
**The southern revisionist history that recast Reconstruction as an era of carpetbaggers and scoundrels from the North is bunk. The South had made remarkable progress under a watchful occupying federal army but mostly through local leadership, both white and black, until the panic of 1873 and accompanying worldwide depression distracted the North which was also tiring of Reconstruction. This allowed the Southern ‘elite’ who had lost the war as well as everything they owned to regain their fortunes based on the same hierarchy they enjoyed in the Antebellum South.