Thinking about the recent passing of Robert Frank (November 9, 1924 – September 9, 2019) and the vision of 1950s America that he recorded in The Americans – https://www.lensculture.com/articles/robert-frank-the-americans.
Gainesville, FL is almost exactly half way between St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast and Cedar Key on the Gulf coast. The past isn’t dead, wrote one chronicler of the Deep South, it isn’t even past.
We moved to Gainesville in 1973. I was in first grade and for the first 4 years we lived there I went to the mostly White elementary school on the west side of town. The school was across the street from the pasture with the horses that would soon become the Oaks Mall. In 1977- towards the end of that decade in which the desegregation of public schools was finally being forced by state law – our neighborhood was redrawn as one of the many to be bused over into a different part of town and a different school. In 1978, I started middle school and the process repeated itself: 6th grade in the mostly White middle school on the west side of town; 7th and 8th grade at the school not just across town, but up to Archer Road and then that turn down that road deep-shaded with oaks and holding that low-slung church in that bend like the slowest of slow-moving rivers. Twice a day for two years our bus took that road and twice a day I loved the arc of that bend and that quiet church.
At some point in middle school I saw that photograph: a young brown-skinned woman, perhaps not much older than a child, with an expression that read to me as fear and that White man in a pose as though he was traipsing lightheartedly along the edge of the pool with a milk jug in his hand. Tra la la went his pose. And he was pouring the contents of that jug into the pool. Where people were swimming. 1964. I may have seen that image first in 1979 – a 15 year gap that was an eternity, of course, to a 12 year old, but a reality that from this vantage in 2019 was the equivalent of 2004. Is the world substantively different now than it was 15 years ago? Maybe. Or no, not really. 15 years before I saw that image, a White man in St. Augustine was pouring acid into a pool in which brown-skinned people were swimming. The past isn’t even past. That photograph stopped me short that day. I’ve never forgotten it.
At some point in high school I put two fragments together that I’d been handed in class and history rattled down and dropped: Rosewood. There on the road to Cedar Key is the highway sign: Rosewood – the last small town before you hit the pines and causeway and the place we’d get oysters from on Christmas day. There is the sign. And there was no town. And no real conversation yet about local racial history at our high school, but we had a library and the librarian was interested in helping and we looked it up. 1923. Charges against a Black man by a White woman and the White community lost their sh*t. An unknown number of Black community members were killed and their cedar slab homes were burned to the ground.
What we read was that after days of hiding, surviving community members made it out and away along the rail line. Some made it out on foot. Some were evacuated by train. This happened in a January, and the middle of winter in north Florida is plenty cold and folks who had escaped the violence had spent nights hiding in and amongst the trees and the dark water and, although it was winter and nothing would have been moving very fast, the snakes and the gators. And then here finally came the train – And would you trust it? Would you have even felt you had a choice in whether to climb on board? And I remember something like the vertigo of history falling open: 1923. And this was 1983, maybe. So, 60 years. An even larger gap that was an even greater eternity except for this: if you were 10 years old in 1923 – old enough to have a clear memory of that night and of that week of hiding – you could have still been alive in 1983. And the terror of that experience could have been the silent anchor of your entire world. And I walked back out into my high school day not even really understanding what that vertigo was, but it was this: The past isn’t dead. It is alive and it is experienced in human lifetimes. And there it went, blinking on large and loud and real, growing up a White kid dropped there into North Florida in the last quarter of the 20th century.