Dayton is one of thousands of small American towns besot by hyper-conservative goofery, but the residue of the Scopes trial seems to trap and magnify it, even all these years later. Over those two weeks in July 1925, journalists swarmed in from across the country, their baser tendencies prevailing on a new, massive scale—it wasn’t the first “trial of the century,” but it was the first broadcast live over the radio. Preachers and monkey-souvenir vendors peddled their wares on streets clogged with looky-loos. The defendant lent his name to the production, but the counsel starred: famously agnostic Chicago attorney Clarence Darrow led the defense, with populist statesman turned fundamentalist vanguard William Jennings Bryan a figurehead of the prosecution. Chief among the gawking scribes was H. L. Mencken, whose dispatches for the Baltimore Sun and The Nation bemoaned Dayton’s “forlorn mob” of “rustics” and “gaping primates.” Dayton was a “ninth-rate country town,” he sneered, a “dung pile” destined to be “a joke town at best, and infamous at worst.”

Growing up in Chattanooga, I always heard about the Scopes Trial Play & Festival they held up in Dayton every year, but I never went until last summer. Here’s my attempt to make sense of a town that’s still making sense of itself, from this spring’s issue of The Oxford American.

(photo via)

“Harris was taught to read and write (illegal for slaves at the time), so that he could monitor the local funeral announcements, and trained his memory to mentally capture the flower arrangements on a grave so that he could recreate them perfectly after his midnight expeditions. He preferred to work in Cedar Grove cemetery, reserved for Augusta’s impoverished and black residents, where there was no fence, and where poor blacks were buried in plain pine coffins sometimes called “toothpicks.” His routine at Cedar Grove was simple: entering late at night, he would dig down to the upper end of a fresh grave, smash the surface of the coffin with an ax, reach in, and haul the body out. Then he would toss the body into a sack and a waiting wagon and cover up his work before setting off for the school, the corpse destined for vats of whiskey and, later, the student’s knives.”

Been thinking a lot about this Mrs. Julian Heath. When I saw these photos on the Library of Congress Flickr page earlier she existed only as a woman eyeing/buying some poultry three days before Christmas 1915. But when I returned to look at them again just now, there was a new comment identifying her as “founder and president of the National Housewives League,” including a link to a November 1915 New York Times article regarding her involvement in some fracas around a botchced baking powder sponsorship. Many questions yet remain about her hat.

“Take snails and sponge them; pull them out of the shells by the membrane and place them for a day in a vessel with milk and salt. Renew the milk daily. Hourly clean the snails of all refuse, and when they are so fat that they can no longer retire to their shells fry them in oil and serve them with wine sauce. In a similar way they may be fed on a milk porridge.”
A 4th century Roman cookbook! Somebody Julie & Julia this mess.
“So they reinvent a fake history for ourselves that doesn’t deal with the complexities. And I think in some ways that’s what the south and the upper Midwest have in common is that there’s a delusion at work about who we were. And that’s why we have a hard time about who we are. So that the kind of self congratulatory history that passes for heritage keeps us from seeing ourselves and doing better.”

There was a moment last night when I realized—this is all so remarkable, all so totally unlikely. I mean, in general, human life itself—the fact that we’re generally able to sustain ourselves on this rock spinning around in an unknowably vast conglomeration of other spinning rocks—quite often seems remarkable and totally unlikely to me. If I think about it too straight-on I feel dizzy and pointless. But on a microscopic personal level, yesterday morning I voted, which is something I alternate between taking for granted and feeling totally gobsmacked that I get to do, given all the people in the world who cannot do it even still and how women in this country weren’t allowed to until less than one hundred years ago. It was a long time ago, but also not a long time ago. And then last night I came home from work and ate a dinner that my husband cooked, which is just, you know, really cool (also: delicious) and also not something a woman in history has generally been able to say for herself. We were safe and warm and dry and healthy, which we almost always are, but which things like Sandy remind me we could very easily not be, just in the blink of an eye. And then we sat there watching the returns on a preposterous number of screens, just the two of us there in our house, but with friends at a bar down the street and friends in states far away and strangers all over the world just a few taps-on-a-screen away. I (in Georgia) learned that Obama won Ohio from a text message my high school best friend (in North Carolina) sent to me instead of to her brother (in New York City). Re-electing this black man as president somehow seems more important than getting him there in the first place. Two points make a line. And then all over the country there was suddenly pot being legalized and gay marriage being approved and women taking offices from hateful old men—it’s like the difference between a glass being cracked and being shattered. I’m not saying this is the best time to be alive. I don’t know. But it’s a time, and to me right now it seems like the only time that all of this could happen in this particular way, and here we are.

July 24, 1919


GA’s General Assembly rejected the 19th Amendment, denying women the right to vote.

It’s so cute how this state is pretty much forever on the wrong side of history!

“The outbreak of World War I expanded the demand for condoms, but they remained technically illegal until 1918. Progressive purity advocates instructed GIs to exercise “moral prophylaxis” while overseas, advice that was about as effective as the Lysol douches that women used to prevent pregnancy in the 1920s. Schmid and his rival, Trojan producer Merle Youngs, teamed up in a failed attempt to ask the military for legitimacy. They were rebuffed, and the United States was the only Allied country to send its soldiers into battle without arming them with condoms. As a result, almost 10 percent of American soldiers contracted a venereal disease over the course of the war. Schmid made a bundle off the war nonetheless. Germany had been Europe’s top exporter of condoms, and when the German economy became isolated, Schmid was ready to step in.”

Just learned my office is partly in “area of MEDIUM probability for containing intact archeological resources”! This is because the Georgia Tech campus is basically built on a Civil War battlefield. I also just learned that. (Related: The thing I wrote for the Burnaway party about Atlanta’s weirdly/maybe not weirdly lacking sense of its own history.)

I was going to post this as a comment on the actual piece itself—something I haven’t done in… years, maybe?—but it was too long.

But, some thoughts (using HANNAHJSTEPHENSON’s comment as a jumping-off point):

I wonder, too, if following this logic would mean that any celebratory event at a historic site tied to slavery or any other terrible human event should be reconsidered. And I’m not trying to be flip, here. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the South where it seems like there are more places like this—used as wedding venues and for many many other purposes—but I sympathize with and respect people who successfully marry places’ checkered pasts with enduring modern function.

So if you’re asking “why are people still getting married on plantations?” don’t you also have to ask, “why are people still doing anything on plantations?” or “why are people still doing anything on properties or in buildings directly linked to slavery or slave trade or institutionalized racism?”

As a kid, I went to plenty of 4th of July fireworks parties on Civil War battlefields—where thousands of people not only died but died, in part, defending their right to hold slaves. It’s not such a problem in Atlanta, where I live now—thanks, Sherman, etc—but in cities like, say, Charleston, there are still buildings in use that once housed slave auctions (like the King Street market, which I think is still an active marketplace for local artists and vendors). 

It’s pretty easy to rag on wedding-planning folks for engaging in seemingly mindless, culturally/historically/racially insensitive behavior—I know, I’m planning my own wedding right now, and I know how people can get “in my state.” Folks in the throes of wedding planning can forget about the feelings and needs of the people closest to them… to say nothing of considering really really tricky matters of race and history and privledge. And that Colonial Africa wedding the other day makes a good peg to talk about plantations as a venue, I guess. But I’m not sure it’s totally fair to compare that with weddings (like the ones linked here) that just happen to take place on a plantation, not that went all-out with horribly insensitive antebellum trappings. 

Setting up your venue like the set of a Hemingway short story and hiring what seems to be an all-black staff of waiters and not seeming to have any awareness of the weirdness of that is one thing. Praising a plantation venue’s beauty and deliberately spinning its history to make it more inviting as a wedding venue is another. And living with historical properties, in all their blotchy past and uncomfortable associations and enduring beauty (and, often, friendlier prices) is another altogether. 

Having thought about it a little bit, I’m kinda disappointed that this post seems to forego a bit of much-needed nuance seemingly just for the snark factor.

National Museum of American History blog | June brides and D-Day (h/t Ashley)

The material used in Rosalie’s gown not only saw combat, but was responsible for saving her groom’s life. … Bourland and his comrade spent a couple days in a foxhole and were able to use the parachute as a blanket to stay warm until they were discovered by Allied troops. He returned to his unit in time to participate in the Normandy Invasion on D-Day—June 6, 1944.


Harris Street is Gone and John Portman Took It

The Atlanta City Council voted today to rename downtown Atlanta’s Harris Street to John Portman Boulevard, killing yet another piece of Atlanta’s history. Harris Street has held its name since at least 1886 when this Sanborn Fire Insurance map was made.

To be fair, Harris Street has actually been dead for a while, thanks to the work of its new namesake. Portman is credited by many as being a major player in the economic vitality of downtown Atlanta (a claim that has never convinced me). I prefer to think of him as the guy whose Peachtree Center complex set an example for blank, bland walls on downtown streets, killing the true vitality of this area.

His monolithic architecture is tailor-made for car culture. Drive into the parking deck, walk through a tube into your office building and never sully yourself with anything happening on the street level. Luckily, the lifeless street-level walls of his buildings and the parking decks that serve them leave nothing to be missed.

Above is a beautiful illustration from a 1960 Saturday Evening Post cover, taken from the wonderful Atlanta Time Machine site. It shows the intersection of Peachtree Street and Harris Street as it looked before Portman’s blank-wall monoliths killed the prospect for a continuation of the kind of street life depicted here.

Portman’s buildings didn’t save downtown Atlanta. They made it palatable for suburban commuters who didn’t want a real urban experience. And as long as their blank walls linger, they will continue stealing the chances for good urbanism in this area.

It’s entirely possible that Mr. Harris is somewhere up there  looking down — suddenly grateful that his name is no longer attached to a dead street.

I work on this block and get to get depressed by its “blank-walled monoliths” on a near-daily basis. I’m glad to learn its history, but it might be worse, now, when I stand on that corner every afternoon on the way to the train and think about the lovely old tree that used to grow there, or when I make my inevitable weekly trips to Corner Bakery and know that I could be partaking in some of Davis’ Fine Food had I not come around fifty years too late. I will be consoled only by the fact that people of 1960 did not get to enjoy the healthy wonder of the Salad Trio!