Making Things Right

One hundred forty years after the Civil War, and more than 40 removed from the days of Jim Crow, we still are haunted by the ghosts of slavery, specters that swarm around us in the form of racial animosity, cultural division, and economic disparity. Try as we might, and regardless of our most liberal, good-hearted intentions, the problems of our racially dysfunctional society remain the fruits of our country’s questionable past.

So the question gets asked time and again: Like the unsuspecting children in the crowds calling for Jesus’ head, should an entire country be held responsible for the nefariousness of its past, especially a country like the United States, where there’s been enough nefariousness dished out over the years to spread the guilt and blood around for generations and still not see the end of it?

Are we, as a society, damned for the sins of our past?

China Galland would have us believe we are, both as a society and as individuals. But she qualifies the sentiment with the belief that it’s nothing a little atonement can’t fix. In her new book, Love Cemetery: Unburying the Secret History of Slaves, Galland (who’s quietly making a cottage industry writing books about personal journeys taken against the backdrop of enormous historical injustices) is explicit about the personal guilt she feels for the current state of racial affairs in America and her native Texas, and her desire to make amends.

That guilt runs deep. Her family moved to East Texas in 1900, and her great-grandfather Stephen John Verhalen bought land in Harrison County for what would become the Verhalen Nursery from the family of W.T. Scott. Scott had moved to East Texas from Louisiana in 1834, and by the late 1850s was the largest and wealthiest slave owner in the county-Scottsville is named after him-having helped found the local railroad that allowed him to move cotton from his plantation to New Orleans and points east. During Reconstruction, in response to the growing political power of local African-Americans, Scott was instrumental in disenfranchising black voters-using poll taxes, literacy tests, ballot-box thievery, and outright intimidation-and the propagation of the “store system” of debt peonage that effectively stole back from freed slaves the land they had purchased and farmed after the Civil War. Unhappily for Galland, the founders of the Verhalen Nursery-her ancestors-were not above suspect dealings themselves.

Galland learned all this while visiting East Texas in 1993 to research her family’s history. She learned about the Love Cemetery, a small patch outside Scottsville in which the remains of slaves and former slaves were interred. The cemetery had been named for its former owner, Della Love, a relative of Scott. After being “brought low” by creditors in the 1870s, Scott was forced to sell parcels of his land to freed blacks, many of whom had been his slaves only a decade before. For the first time in Harrison County, African-Americans became landowners. And Love was the cemetery-the “consecrated ground”-for both these free blacks and their enslaved ancestors.

By the time Galland arrived in 1993, the cemetery had fallen into disrepair. When she first visited, she found it untended and overgrown with wisteria. Looking at it, one would hardly have known it was a cemetery.

The Great Depression and the preponderance of factory jobs in big cities during World War II (not to mention acts of land theft by rich whites) had conspired to effectively eradicate the black farming community that had viewed Love Cemetery as its own sacred space. By 1993, the descendents of those buried there had been locked out of the site for 40 years, the result, Galland conjectures, of long-standing racial animosity stirred up by the civil rights movement and the daunting intricacies of property law.

Figuring that Love was the “last vestige of that thriving black farm community” and hoping to make some kind of restitution for her family’s complicity in its decline, Galland decided it should be restored and that she would write a book about her experiences helping do so. In the process, she believed, she and those who helped her could purge some of the racial mistrust and animosity that had tainted East Texas, and the United States, for so long.

What follows is grand expiation through work, prayer, education, apology, and forgiveness. Galland and a small group of volunteers-black and white, young and old, some descendents of those interred, others merely good Samaritans with the desire to see a wrong made right-set about cleaning up Love Cemetery and reconsecrating it through Christian ceremony. They were forced to work their way through myriad legal snares keeping Love inaccessible to those with relatives buried there, and to avoid the economic entanglements presented by corporate interests with eyes on the cemetery’s timber-rich surroundings. The reconstituting of Love Cemetery became not just an act of respect for the dead and recognition of a tainted history, but a trip through the maze of American bureaucracy and racial stubbornness.

Love Cemetery is strongest as a history lesson, mapping the founding of Harrison County and the growth of the surrounding community during the 19th and 20th centuries through the lens of the slave trade and the economic and social world it made: a world of unprecedented prosperity for some and inhuman degradation for others. Galland paints a vivid picture of an economic and cultural region most people don’t associate with Texas: not the wild frontier of the West, but a cotton-rich, plantation-heavy “neutral territory” between, and yet apart from, the regulations of the United States and Mexico, and therefore free to engage in all sorts of unaccounted and sinister behaviors while still maintaining its place in lore as a Southwestern, rather than Southern, state. According to Randolph B. Campbell in his book An Empire for Slavery, this failure to see Texas as a Southern state profiting from the injustices of a slave-based economy allows Texans to this day to “escape a major part of … the burden of Southern history.”

This dichotomy is fascinating, and its intricacies supply Galland her most engaging topic.

But first and foremost, Love Cemetery is a personal-atonement story, and you will probably enjoy the book in direct proportion to your tolerance for the particularities of that genre.

At several points, Galland worries that her involvement in the reclaiming of Love Cemetery is somehow unseemly, that the white daughter of a prosperous landowning family in the South has no right being involved in saving an African-American sacred space, especially one that is so inextricably linked to a racially destructive past. Her own family’s historical culpability muddies the moral water even further.

Galland chooses to make amends through that great Southern tradition: old-time religion-invoking the language of both the Christian church and ancient African traditions to present her group’s actions and her own personal journey in grand religious metaphors. In an act of ceremonial atonement, she stands before a black Baptist congregation and apologizes for any role she’s played in the promotion of racism in America. It’s a powerful scene, though one not entirely without potential embarrassment for the reader: It’s always a fine line to walk for liberal whites, trying to gain the respect and acceptance of African-Americans without coming off as desperate or, worse, patronizing.

The deep religious strain running through Love Cemetery gives Galland’s project a sense of significance that celebrates the personal value in acts of historical penance, and looks beyond it to larger, more symbolic notions of morality and meaning. Galland speaks respectfully of the ancestors abiding in Love Cemetery and the importance of acknowledging their suffering and desire to see their final resting place made whole. Through acts of spiritual restitution, she argues, old ghosts, literal and metaphorical, can be laid to rest.

Which is fine, but it’s enough to knock cynics off their stride. Isn’t it enough that men and women lived and died enslaved and that their graves are now being ignored in the name of expediency, financial gain, or lingering intolerance? Aren’t injustices that exist in the secular world just as palpable as those that exist in the religious? Galland calls the cemetery “holy ground,” saying it was made so by “the struggles of the people whose bodies” were buried there, but those struggles were nothing if not tied to the material world. What, in fact, could be more material than slavery?

Considering the physicality of the images Galland employs-relating buried bodies in buried cemeteries to the buried secrets that define the Southern experience-we need no ghosts from the grave to tell us when something has meaning and something doesn’t. Sometimes the human side of a story is enough, especially when that story revolves around something as undeniably human as cruelty.

Josh Rosenblatt is an Austin writer.

Josh Rosenblatt writes about film from New York City.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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