A Road Trip through Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and the District of Columbia in July of 2018
As I waited in the San Francisco airport to catch the red-eye to Newark, then Washington D.C., I thought about my decision to embark on a self-directed civil rights tour of five southeastern states. Originally, I thought I would use the opportunity of visiting our nation’s capital (because of a work-related conference) to tour the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Those plans were derailed when I found out that, while researching information about how to obtain a pass to the museum, I needed to request the pass three months prior to my visit. I had missed the deadline by three days. That was back in April 2018. It was now mid-July.
While pondering an alternative plan, I realized I wanted to experience firsthand the people and culture of “red” states in the South. I wondered if I would find out how to “make America great again” if I actually went there. I felt like I needed to understand the political and cultural craziness going on in America. I booked four or five motels in various cities in these southern states along the Atlantic coast. Aside from wanting to visit the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, I didn’t have much of a travel plan.
As the plane landed in Arlington, the D.C. skyline seemed smaller than my first impression a few years before. The Washington Monument appeared short and scrawny. Our nation’s capital looked flat and unimpressive from Reagan National in Virginia. I picked up my rental car and drove out onto the busy streets that led to D.C. I was soon driving through traffic just a couple of blocks from the National Mall, which was somewhat disconcerting. I’m not a city person. However, in a very short time, I was heading east through Maryland, away from D.C. I eventually crossed Chesapeake Bay on a long bridge. I then turned south, and drove past tidy, unremarkable farms with alternating fields of corn and hay, bordered by strips of dense forest. The landscape was very flat with an occasional swampy wetland that seemed to sink a little below sea level. I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would be before this wide peninsula would surely go underwater because of sea level rise due to global warming.
As I drove past fishing and farming communities, my sleepless night started catching up with me. I began to wonder how I was going to find the places and stories about slavery, civil rights, and the current racial discord in this country. What was I thinking!
Just as self-doubt started to creep in, I saw a small roadside sign for the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. She has long been a heroine of mine. I made a quick right turn and ventured off the main highway, traveling through the back roads of Dorchester County. I felt like I was out in the middle of nowhere when, suddenly, I arrived at a small museum/visitor center, which turned out to be an excellent tribute to an amazing woman and a great start for my civil rights tour. Who better to start with than Harriet Tubman!
Only open a little over a year, the visitor center was located where Tubman grew up. Displays about her daring efforts to guide slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad were educational and inspiring. Real courage is a rarity.
After soaking it all in, I headed back to the main road and arrived on Chincoteague Island in Virginia by early evening. The small, low-key vacation island was simple and unpretentious, full of families, and just my speed. A friend had told me about Assateague, the island of wild ponies just across the channel, so I decided to make these islands my first stop.
After checking into my motel room, I went across the street to pick up some take-out for dinner. Chatting with a woman while we waited outside in a sandy picnic area, I told her I had just flown in that morning from California. Her response was, “To come all the way here, to this little island?” I told her it felt like just the right place to be. I was relaxed, as was this place.
My meal was a warning about Southern cooking. Entering Captain Zack’s Seafood Shack, I had hoped for a simple green salad for dinner. The only salad they offered was a pre-made, marinated cucumber, corn, tomato, and onion combination that was literally drenched in oil-and-vinegar dressing. It came in a small styrofoam container with a lid. Holding the container, this “salad” was heavy with dressing. I decided the fish tacos would at least have something green in them. I brought my washable to-go container with me (all the way from California,) and asked if the tacos would fit in the lidded box that I use almost every day in my office for my lunch. The women at the counter shook their heads and said, “No way.”
Back across the street in my motel room, I removed the purchased meal from the plastic bag (which I never use) and opened the styrofoam box (another item I avoid.) Although I had asked for grilled fish, they gave me three large, breaded, deep-fried cod fillets on top of a little bit of shredded cabbage, with a lot of shredded cheddar cheese, a few bits of tomato, and a spicy, creamy sauce on three large corn tortillas. It was enough to feed three people! What was even more surprising were the three added hush puppies (fried corn fritters), a small bag of potato chips, and two little serving containers of sweet butter. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with the butter. The amount of calories, carbs, and fat in this meal seemed enough to kill me. I ate a taco and a fritter. I knew I wouldn’t have to buy any more food for the next twenty-four hours.
I woke up around 4:30 am (1:30 on the West Coast.) But with six hours of sleep, it somehow felt like enough. I was anxious to see the wild horses. After a fish-less taco for breakfast (I saved the fish and fritters for my lunch), I was in my car by 7 a.m. and crossed over to Assateague Island where wild horses run free.
It was a serene morning. I entered the enchanting ecosystem of this protected barrier island made up of pristine salt marshes and beaches, thick forests, and open grasslands. I hiked a woodland loop trail and heard a stunning chorus of bugs and birds, saw bunnies and squirrels, and almost stepped on a very long snake making its way across the paved path.
At the farthest point on the trail, there was a beautiful wooden walkway up to a viewing deck where I could see wild horses far off in the distance.
The ground was soft and wet off-trail. I wandered down a path someone had created using random branches and pieces of wood to get to the barbed wire fence surrounding the massive grassland. (The fence is meant to keep humans away from the horses rather than to contain the horses.) I thought about the snake and realized I shouldn’t go off-trail anymore.
Returning to my car, I went to the beach and dipped my feet in the Atlantic as I waited for the visitor center to open at 9 a.m. When the rangers finally unlocked the doors, I went in and asked several of the many questions I had about the flora and fauna of the island and the best way to see the wild horses. I also got directions for making my way south to the Outer Banks, then on to Wrightsville Beach, all in North Carolina. This was going to be my longest driving day. I felt rested and ready. The ranger was very helpful.
As I headed back down the road to leave the island, some wild horses were running very close to the road. It was a thrill to see them! I got out and tried to photograph them as they galloped by. Their freedom inspired me to stay adventurous on this trip, and to value what freedom really means. Some dark American history lay ahead.
I returned to my motel, checked out, and was on the road by 10 a.m. The first landmark was the 23-mile bridge that crosses over Chesapeake Bay, with two one-mile sections of tunnels that are sunk underwater. This would be one of many bridges connecting wetlands and islands that I would cross as I wandered south along the Atlantic.
As I entered North Carolina, one of my first stops was a place called, “Dismal Swamp.” This unappealing name did not compel me to investigate further, but I pulled over at the rest area nearby to eat my leftovers for lunch. Inside the visitor center, I got more directions and a warning that I had an ambitious travel agenda for the day. I was given a paper map and more directions. I headed down the road to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
I drove mostly back roads, which takes more time, but I also got to see much of the eastern part of this primarily rural state. Driving past fields of corn, I saw only small farms with humble homes. By the time I reached the Atlantic shore again, the roadside view had evolved into beach/vacation culture. As I crossed over to the narrow strips of barrier islands, I could understand how North Carolinians flock there to get reprieve from summer heat in the tepid Atlantic waters. Boating, fishing, surfing, and sunbathing are the activities advertised by endless strip malls selling beach chairs, inflatable floaters, hammocks, and beach umbrellas. A pirate theme began to appear in roadside businesses, including references to actual shipwrecks. Of course, old wooden ships were the means of transport for slaves (and for the wild ponies) to these foreign shores.
At yet another visitor center, I was directed to a small recently erected monument about the Freedman’s Colony on Roanoke Island. When slaves were set free, many had heard there was safe haven for them on the small island (now full of condominiums and nice homes.) The story of the freed slaves was etched in a tall, rectangular, dark marble stone that stood in a park. It described a fascinating story of those slaves’ transition to freedom.
By the time I reached this island, it was already almost 4 p.m., so I had to get on the road and drive most of the length of North Carolina to get to my destination for the night. Miles and miles of highways and byways revealed a wider variety of crops, including sweet potatoes, peanuts, and the sad reality of tobacco. Also along the way were roadside churches of every Christian kind: Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian. The South is a potpourri of Christianity. Jesus is either there or is coming according to the signs along the highway. Many of the churches had graveyards full of headstones beside them.
For hours, I drove past lush, green country that was tidy and unpretentious, on good roads that were free of trash and clutter. As the daylight turned to dusk, and the clouds from pink to lavender, I began to see more trailers parked in fields than I had further north. But there was little evidence of life in them. I kept thinking about the term “trailer trash” often used to refer to poor, ignorant whites living in this part of the country. Yet, I saw no people, and, frankly, no actual trash. The trailers all looked tidy and lifeless. As daylight faded, the trailers remained dark. My guess is that farm labor is seasonal in these parts, and probably made up of more brown-skinned migrants than of poor white residents.
The back roads of North Carolina at night, with warm air and loud locusts, felt lonely and a little depressing. I was glad that the last hour of my drive, which was in darkness, was on a four-lane highway with other cars. My headlights glowed on reflectors by the roadside, helping to light the way. It had been a very long day of driving.
When I finally arrived in Wrightsville Beach, I rolled down my window and was amazed at the loud chorus filling the night. How do people sleep with all that noise? The locusts sounded like a giant herd of crying baby lambs. However, once inside my motel room, I couldn’t hear a thing. It was almost 11 p.m. I was ready to sleep.
I really wanted to learn more about the Gullah-Geechee culture, a combination of West African and island culture that survived slavery. I had found a reference to it on a website for a plantation just north of where I was staying. In the morning, I ate the “free” motel oatmeal and a hard fried egg, then drove a short way to Poplar Grove Plantation, a historical conservation site.
I have always been curious about life on a plantation, but from all points of view. Unfortunately, this historical site had little information about slave conditions. The house was nice and well preserved. The tour guide was friendly and told us what she knew, including a little about how slaves interacted with the family. But there was no tour of slaves’ quarters, which had all been destroyed due to expansion of the farm after Emancipation. There was an outdoor back staircase on the house that was used by slaves so they wouldn’t use the main staircase inside. There was a restored “tenant shack” for black farm workers after the Civil War. But the three blonde-haired, blue-eyed kids and two moms who took the tour with me learned plenty about those who had lived in the house, and little about the slaves who built it, took care of the land, and served the people who owned them.
I left there around 1 p.m. just as the temperature was getting into the mid-nineties. About an hour down the road, I stopped to eat lunch at Ocean Isle Beach, right before the South Carolina border. I found a deli online that served vegetarian food, drove there, and ordered a tasty portobello mushroom sandwich. (No Chick-fil-A for this chick. That infamous fast-food chain is everywhere in the South.)
Driving toward South Carolina, I began to notice tropical influences as I passed through towns, such as a nursery selling palm trees. Although those trees are not native, I think these southern states identify with tropical islands further south due to the shipping trade, which was a big part of the development of early America. There were gaudy roadside attractions such as water parks and wax museums with pirate themes. The highway skirting Myrtle Beach reminded me of Southern California with beach towns, traffic, and palm trees. I really began to appreciate the Pacific Coast Highway with vistas of beaches, cliffs, waves, and sunsets. All the eastern state beaches are flat. They are long, narrow strips of sand adjacent to wetlands. The main highways are further inland. Lined with trees, the freeway looked the same all the way into Charleston. Right before crossing over the large bridge into the city, I saw roadside stands of basket makers closing up for the day.
Charleston is a much bigger city than I expected. Entering from the north over Charleston Harbor, I could see that it was a major port, and undoubtedly a main entry for enslaved Africans. I knew I would find more stories about slavery and emancipation there.
I quickly found my motel and unloaded my bags. Then I went to the Piggly Wiggly market next door and got veggies and yogurt to carry with me for the next few days instead of going out to eat. After turning down the air-conditioning, I settled in for the night, hoping to catch up on more sleep.
After some research online, I found an hour-and-a-half bus tour by a Gullah descendent for $20. I called and made a reservation for 1 p.m. I ate the yogurt I bought from the Piggly Wiggly for breakfast, packed up, and headed toward downtown Charleston. Like any city, parking was a challenge. I knew I would be there for several hours, so I gave in and drove into a parking garage next to the visitor center. The temperature in Charleston was already climbing into the mid-nineties. The air felt surprisingly dry, and the warmth actually felt good after continuous air-conditioning.
I waited in line at the visitor center counter only to be told I should pay the driver directly. I wondered why this tour was different. I walked through to the area where I was supposed to meet the tour bus.
A nice, friendly woman named Lucy was sitting at a table weaving Gullah baskets out of sweet grass. She carries on the tradition of basketmaking brought over by slaves from West Africa, a craft that has been passed on through several generations in her family.
She filled me in on what the baskets were used for, and how the materials changed when Africans arrived on these shores. In Africa, the African men were the basketweavers. They made large baskets as functional items for harvesting rice from the fields. Once in America, the women took over the weaving. Having nothing of their own, slave women made small baskets as vessels to hold food. They used finer materials, such as long pine needles and sweet grass, a soft, fine straw. The designs became tighter and more decorative. Slave owners liked the baskets and had the slaves make them as functional household items for the plantation mansion. I bought a small basket from Lucy and thanked her for the generosity of her time and her personal historical information.
I wandered a block or two away to King Street, which was developed in early colonial times and lined with brick and stucco buildings. I found a small restaurant that actually had tofu mentioned in one item on the menu in the window. So my main meal for the day was a veggie quesadilla with tofu in it. There was a large neon light in the window in the shape of a crown. I asked my young, white waitress why it was called King Street, and added that I didn’t think it was in reference to Martin Luther King because of the crown. She said it was not for him. Then she scrunched up her nose and added, “That wouldn’t happen here.” She said she didn’t know why and walked away. I couldn’t tell if it was her own personal bias or a suggestion of racial bias in the city, but her response made me wonder about the attitude toward Dr. King in Charleston. I found out later the street was given the name in colonial times for King Charles of England.
Besides Lucy’s baskets, I saw no references to slavery, emancipation, or civil rights in the displays in the visitor center when I returned to wait for my tour bus. I sat and read the brochure that came with the basket purchase. I then went back to talk to Lucy. Along the way on my trip, I had bought a few children’s books to add to my collection. Meeting a basketmaker reminded me of all the curriculum development I had done with the Karuk basketmakers in northern California many years ago. There were so many interesting parallels. I wanted to share that with her and suggest that she write a children’s book about her personal story.
When I mentioned the idea, she said she had always been thinking about writing it all down. I pulled out the books I had purchased so far from my backpack, including my own about the leprechaun. I had brought a copy along in case there was a fussy child in the airport, but I decided she should be the recipient. She asked me several questions about self-publishing. Unfortunately, my tour bus had pulled up and I needed to board, so I told her I would check back in with her when the tour was over.
The Gullah tour guide was full of stories and humor. He taught us a bit of Gullah English (also known as Island Creole). As he drove us around and pointed out African-American sites, I realized, once again, that evidence of slavery has been mostly hidden or destroyed. It seems for much of white culture in the South, slavery never happened. But this guy could point out fine craftsmanship by slaves in the ironwork of gates and fences, the fancy plasterwork on houses, and hand-made brickwork on the streets and in the houses. He pointed out slave housing that had been modified, a market where slaves had been sold, and even a slave burial ground that had been paved over for a parking lot for the Bethel Methodist Church, which happened to be an all-white congregation when it was built. Slave tombstones were stacked along the side of the asphalt parking lot. I was shocked to see them, as were others on the bus. Even after death, and the end of slavery, slaves were denied their dignity.
Seeing Charleston from his point of view was fascinating. It was an entirely different presentation from that of the visitor center. Rice, cotton, and tobacco grown by slaves were the main crops that were exported to Europe from this port. But it was the sweat and skill of slaves that built Charleston. I wish I could remember all of the stories shared by our guide. He continually reminded us about a book he wrote and where we could buy it. I may just have to purchase it someday. Of the twenty people on the bus, only three of us were white. It made me wonder if any of the local whites knew these stories. I also wondered whether many African-Americans from around the country go to the South to learn about slavery.
Another aspect that was hard to miss was the number of Christian churches in Charleston. It seemed like everyone who lived there would have to belong to one of them. Toward the end of the tour, we passed by the Mother Emmanuel AME Church where the horrible shooting took place in June of 2015. Our guide had stories to tell about that as well. But he didn’t seem as shocked as so many of us were when it happened. To him, I think, it was just another shooting of black people. I knew I would have to return to the church before I left town.
When the tour ended, I went back into the visitor center to say goodbye to Lucy. I still had to drive to Savannah and it was now 3 p.m. She was a bit flustered because she had misplaced her credit card reader and missed out on a sale of a large basket. Her reaction surprised me. Instead of getting mad, she said, “I just have to accept this. I guess it wasn’t meant to be.” She was flustered, but I sensed a kind of acceptance, knowing you don’t always get what you want. I know I would have been more upset. We said our goodbyes, and I told her she could contact me by looking up my website if she wanted to learn more about self-publishing. I hope she writes down her story someday.
Retrieving my car (I only had to pay $9 at the parking garage, much to my surprise), I drove out onto the streets of Charleston and just a few blocks away to the Mother Emmanuel AME Church.
As I got out of the car behind the church, the temperature had reached the high nineties. I walked up to the door in the back of the church and rang the bell. A woman’s voice from the speaker by the door politely asked if she could help me. I inquired about coming in for just a few minutes. She told me that, for security reasons, they could not allow visitors unless they had an appointment. I realized in that moment that I was standing where Dylan Roof had entered the building and joined the prayer group on that fateful day three years ago before he opened fire and killed nine people. That realization gave me chills. I said that I understood, and backed away.
It seemed so strange to see people walking by, doing construction work across the street in high heat, driving cars and riding bikes past this place where such an evil act had stolen away the lives of nine people while they were praying. It shocked the nation. Somehow it didn’t seem right that life could just go on. But, of course, it does. I stood in front of the church and took a moment to remember and honor the dead. As I got back in the car and drove the two-hour stretch to Savannah, I thought about how Obama sang “Amazing Grace” at the memorial service for those who were murdered. He helped us get through that horrible event. I will always be thankful for his amazing grace and leadership during such a sorrowful time.
The heat actually felt good as I checked out of my motel and walked to my car at around 9 the next morning. It had been cold in my room when I arrived the evening before. I turned the air-conditioning off and never turned it back on. I was fine all night long. This day was expected to be another hot day, but still was not humid.
I headed into the center of Savannah and found the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum, just off the freeway near downtown. The neighborhood was somewhat run-down, and the building was old and smaller than I expected. But once inside, there was a treasure of history and information. I was the only visitor there at 10 a.m. A friendly older African-American woman greeted me, asked where I was from, and collected the small fee. Every inch of display area was used to talk about the civil rights history of Savannah. She began telling me the history of the museum. Just then, a bus tour stopped in with a young black man as their tour guide. She recommended I join in with them. I was the only white person there. I discreetly joined the group as we watched a documentary about civil rights actions in Savannah during the sixties. The mass meetings in churches were the most effective method for organizing. Black people came to church meetings and felt like they were a part of something. There was support and safety in numbers. A particularly startling moment on the tour of the building was looking into a small stairwell where a half-burned cross, wrapped in kerosene-soaked burlap was displayed inside a glass case. It was terrifying to actually see this symbol of hate. It was all too real.
After the tour guide ended his talk and everyone shuffled back onto a shuttle bus, I was alone again in the museum. I wandered into their tiny gift shop and picked out a paperback children’s book called “Black Biographies.” Displayed among the few items available for purchase were lovely photos of the Obamas. It was clear that the two older women who staffed the place were Obama fans. When I approached the counter to pay for the book, I mentioned how I liked the photos, and how much I missed the Obamas, and I almost choked up while saying it. Then I said that I hoped that, in the next presidential election, I would be voting for Kamala Harris. They immediately smiled and laughed a hopeful laugh, but didn’t say a word. It was a good moment. I wished that they felt like they could say more, but I sensed a reserve in their manner, much like most of the black people I had interacted with so far on this trip. I think it was a combination of Southern manners and not mixing it up with white people.
Just a short way down the boulevard was the visitor center for Savannah. I pulled into a parking lot with a sign that said “Free parking.” A nice young black woman walked up to me after I parked and said that the parking was only free if I was paying to go on a tour. Impulsively, I decided I should take the tour. And so I did. And I’m glad I did. I got an hour-and-a-half ride in an open-air tour bus of Savannah’s historical district. Although mainly white history, the narrative was about a lovely, well-planned downtown area with many brick homes and buildings that have been there since the 18th century. A series of small, square parks (over twenty of them) with very old oak trees and hanging Spanish moss are dispersed throughout the city, including the one where Forrest Gump was filmed sitting and eating from his box of chocolates. The statues in the center of these parks were all from the Revolutionary War. There were no Civil War heroes on display that I noticed. Of course, the statues were all of men.
Listening to the bus driver made learning and seeing Savannah in a short time very convenient. And although it was a hot day, the breeze from driving in an open-air vehicle made it extremely pleasant. We each got a paper hand fan with our ticket. It is surprising how well those fans work.
After the tour, I went into a pub next to the visitor center and had a veggie burger and sweet potato fries. I ate half and took the rest for later. It was time to hit the road.
I got on the freeway and drove in a straight line for almost four hours to Atlanta. The drive was along more tree-lined highways where there is no way to see what the landscape holds. Georgia is known for peaches, pecans, peanuts, cotton, blueberries, and a whole lot of chickens. But I could not see any of that agricultural life from the road. It was a good thing that I had over 200 songs in my playlist on my phone. The music enriched the driving experience and helped pass the time.
Just as I entered the outskirts of Atlanta, a thunderstorm hit. Within seconds, there was a barrage of big, fat raindrops hitting my windshield. I slowed down and got in the right-hand lane. It was almost impossible to see through the downpour. After a few minutes the drops became lighter, but the lightning show continued. It was stunning! I am used to the sheet lightning that we get in northern California, but to be able to see the lightning rods shoot down toward the ground was very exciting. Thunder and lightning always make me feel like nature is reminding us of her ultimate power. Then, as quickly as the storm arrived, it disappeared.
I waded through some traffic to reach my hotel, next to the freeway and near the airport. With leftover food from lunch and the grocery store, I settled into my room for the night.
I knew I had another four-hour drive ahead, so I ate another free, hard, fried egg with an English muffin the next morning. I checked out of my hotel to get to the Martin Luther King Center right as it opened. Getting off the freeway in the Sweet Auburn area of Atlanta, (an historic African-American neighborhood of homes and businesses west of downtown), I pulled up to park across the street from the Ebeneezer Baptist Church. The church looked familiar from photo images of King’s life in my memory.
This was my ultimate destination, replacing my hope of obtaining a pass to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C. Walking up the steps toward a wide, open area, I couldn’t see what was ahead, but could hear the recorded voice of Dr. King making a speech. When I reached the top of the stairs, I was standing by a huge reflecting pool that surrounded the tombs of both Dr. King and Coretta Scott-King. The two marble crypts rest above a beautiful, blue-tiled reflecting pool that stretches back toward Freedom Hall.
The water flows over steps embossed with crisp white lettering that reads,
“We will not be satisfied
until justice rolls down like water
like a mighty stream.”
The stunning design, the open space, the tombs, the blue- it all worked together. It was a profound moment for me to finally arrive there. I never imagined I would see this place, would be in this place.
No one else was around just yet. Standing there by myself, I took it all in. King’s life and work had a huge impact on my development growing up. I remember when he died. I was fourteen. Even though I didn’t really understand everything about the civil rights movement, I knew judging people by the color of their skin and treating them unfairly was wrong.
I walked down the long stretch of the reflecting pool and into Freedom Hall. There were some small displays inside, but the building’s primary purpose is for meetings and gatherings. The main exhibits are across the street.
A whole city block is turned into a park, which includes the museum/visitor center, a more modern and much bigger Baptist Church, as well as gardens, sculptures, and walkways. Inside the museum, a ring of displays fill a big room with videos narrated by civil rights activists such as John Lewis and Andrew Young, speaking about different aspects and eras of the civil rights movement. Many visitors had arrived and were viewing the displays. Almost everyone there was African-American.
In a smaller room to the side of the main hall, the wooden wagon that carried King’s coffin in his funeral procession was parked in the middle. It was a visceral reminder, an emotional flashback to watching his funeral on television, and realizing the national wave of shock and grief.
As I turned around to look at the displays on the walls in this room, to my surprise and disgust, there was a large photo of Trump signing a document. In the photo, standing next to a seated Trump, were three black people. I was stunned to see his image in this building anywhere! I tried to put it out of my mind, but it haunted me for the rest of the tour.
The entire experience throughout the museum was very emotional and inspiring. The courage, patience, and determination of those being oppressed, sacrificing for what they believed in, is to be treasured and revered. It is these kind of virtues that really makes America great.
By the time I got through all the displays, I knew I had to ask about the Trump photo and make a formal complaint. I went up to the desk and asked if others had complained about the picture. The man behind the desk said, “Yes.” I asked how the photo got there. Trump signed the document to declare the site a national landmark. He had come to Atlanta for a football game, and after returning to Air Force One, he allowed some King family members on board. Thus, the picture.
I was sure Trump must have insisted that his image be displayed because of this event. I tried to express how wrong it was to me, but the three men who now stood behind the counter got a little defensive and said it wasn’t their decision. One of them said, “The decision was made higher up.” I asked, “How high?” Then he got a look on his face that made me think he couldn’t tell me. It seemed like it wasn’t just ego-maniac Trump. Somehow there was support from within. Then the first man I had approached pulled out a complaint form from under the counter. He offered it to me to fill out. I realized the display of my fury was a bit much for them. I’m sure they wondered who this older white woman was, wearing a faded, old MLK T-shirt, and why was she so openly pissed off. Clearly, I wasn’t showing Southern manners. An added attraction was my hair. I hadn’t brushed it since leaving the hotel while it was still wet. This was, by far, the muggiest day yet. My hair had expanded into a huge, curly mass. I had forgotten about it until I ran my hands over my head while I was talking to this man. I can only imagine what he was thinking about me.
I did say out loud, “I need to compose myself,” after taking the pen to fill out the form. I wrote continuously until the page was full. Basically, I said there wasn’t enough paper to explain all my reasons for why Trump’s image should not be there. After I was done, I handed back the form and thanked him for letting me share my thoughts. (After returning home weeks later, I wrote a formal letter of complaint.)
I went outside and along the “Walk of Fame,” where plaques of famous people footprints were planted along a walkway. By this time there were hundreds of people filling up the place, including groups of children from summer programs. And still, almost everyone was African-American. Maybe only a handful of white people had arrived since the museum had opened that day. To me, that speaks volumes.
When I got back to my car, a homeless man standing nearby asked if I could help him with some food. He said he didn’t want money, but he wondered if I could buy him some Gatorade and a bag of potato chips at the store next door to the church. I was sure this was a common routine for him, but I appreciated that he didn’t ask for money. We went into the gas station store, and he picked out his drinks and chips. I added a small bag of cashews so he would have some protein. He thanked me. I got in my car and drove away, thinking about how Dr. King grew up in this neighborhood, and how amazing his life was, how important he was to the civil rights movement and to America. Life would not have been the same for any of us without him. He could have ended up like the guy who asked for food. But instead, he changed the world.
It was only half-past noon, so I decided I had time to see the Carter Center before I headed out of town. I got there within a few minutes. There was a stark contrast in the physical environment. Although the King Center was well groomed, this presidential library, paid for with our tax dollars, has grounds that are large and full of pristine landscaping.
The temperature was well into the nineties and very sticky. There were clouds in the sky that threatened rain. I went inside to the large lobby area with cool air. After paying an entrance fee (the King Center was free), I took the self-guided tour that started with a short documentary narrated by Martin Sheen.
I had forgotten about some of the things Carter had done as president. He had to deal with some very difficult crises. But I realized as I started going through the massive museum, that I was beginning to feel a panic attack coming on. The symptoms are familiar, so I was able to tell myself it would pass quickly. I was all alone, way inside the spacious museum, wishing I could just lie down somewhere until the feeling passed. I started thinking that maybe I’d had enough American history for one day. I was an undergraduate in college at the time Jimmy Carter was president and still forming as an adult. The displays reminded me of some of my own tumultuous feelings during that era. Then I came upon the replica of Carter’s Oval Office. Standing there made me think about who is actually in the Oval Office at this time. It was then I realized the cause of my anxiety attack. Trump literally makes me sick.
I quickly walked through the rest of the museum to get outside. I thought that perhaps walking through the gardens would help me relax. But the intense humidity and the adrenaline that was still coursing through my veins made me realize it was time to go.
I drove northwest out of Atlanta, glad to be heading in the cardinal direction that feels like home. Southeast is the opposite of what feels familiar. I felt calmer seeing some change on the horizon. Starting with rolling hills and eventually climbing to a higher elevation was a nice reprieve from the “low country,” which is the eastern side of all these states.
Getting the betrayed feeling out of my mind and body was difficult when I thought about the invasion of Trump into the sacred space of Dr. King and civil rights. Justice and equality and the importance of a moral compass are all missing from this man. I kept wondering what King would think about Trump and how he would deal with him. One of the great things about Martin Luther King was that he was not a politician or elected official. He was a moral leader. He could participate in civil disobedience and not lose votes. In many ways, he was free.
I knew I needed to stop thinking about the “Trump invasion.” The mountains and my music were helping. Then I saw a sign for Tallulah Falls and decided to wander down that road. I pulled off the highway and drove to the edge of a huge gorge. It began to rain as I got out of my car, which helped wash away my angst. It seemed almost impossible after so much flat land to suddenly be by this surprisingly deep and wide river canyon. A funky little store sat at the edge of the cliff. I went into the store, which was full of vintage toys, souvenirs, and candy. I bought myself a metal mug that read, “Make life an adventure” on one side, and “Take the off roads,” on the other. I knew I needed to have it.
Outside and on the other side of the store was an even funkier little shack selling boiled peanuts. It was garishly decorated with Harley-Davidson paraphernalia and other oddball items. A sign read, “Hot Hillbilly Nuts.” I had seen signs along the road throughout my trip for boiled peanuts and wondered why they boiled them and how they tasted. After asking the nice young woman inside the shack what they were like, she let me eat one. They are soft and salty and taste almost like a bean. I wanted more. She loaded up a giant styrofoam cup of them for $5. I went back to the car and sat and watched the rain, enjoying this wonderful new discovery that also served as a vegetarian protein source. I had finally found a Southern food that worked with my diet.
The mountain air smelled fresh after the warm rain. I was feeling much better and drove further down the road to the visitor center for Tallulah Falls. I watched a short film all by myself in their little viewing theater. It was great to be focused on nature and to escape the world of politics and human frailties. After the film, I took a short walk out to a vista point to look down at the gorge and the low-flowing waterfalls below. It is a very deep, wooded cut in the landscape. I had crossed over into someplace new. I then got back on the highway and headed for Asheville, North Carolina.
At one point on the highway, right as I was driving a steeper incline than the whole rest of the drive, rain began pouring down in buckets. All of the cars slowed down and moved into the right lane. It was a little scary for a moment because visibility was greatly reduced. But, just like the storm I had driven through the day before, it was over as quickly as it started.
My motel was definitely on the funky side, but I had expected it to be so. The photo online when I booked it had given me a hint. The Mountaineer Inn was not a chain, but a unique, vintage motel with a mountain/hillbilly theme. My room was clean and had all the amenities that all the other places had, with the addition of some torn upholstery on an armchair. After getting my key (it was a real key instead of a magnetized card), I drove to the store to get a few grocery items, including some wine. A glass (or mug) of red wine to soothe my nerves seemed right. I settled in for the evening and tried to find something benign to watch on TV.
I knew from reading about it on their website that I needed to arrive in Greensboro by midday to get into the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. But I also wanted to see a little bit of Asheville. So after a quick free breakfast of grits and grapes, I checked out of the Mountaineer Inn and drove into the center of town. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville is a bigger town than I had realized, with almost 90,000 people. But I was anxious to get on the road and back to my mission. My brief escape to the mountains had been a nice break.
The road to Greensboro gradually returned to the lowlands, but at least there were some rolling hills on the horizon as I descended. Eventually the highway became the tree-lined monotony that I had been experiencing for days. Then, in the middle of nowhere, about halfway between Asheville and Greensboro, I drove past a huge flagpole next to the freeway with a gigantic Confederate flag. It was a terrifying sight! I don’t know what was hidden behind the trees at the bottom of the flagpole, but I found myself hoping that the FBI was aware of whatever happens there. (I never thought I would be on the side of this government agency.)
I pulled into Greensboro right at noon, and went straight into the museum, an old Woolworth department store and the very one where four young men from a local black college started the lunch counter sit-in movement. I was quickly added to a tour that had just started. As we were led through a series of small rooms in the basement of the building, a very well-informed young black woman took us through some of the most horrible events at the start of the civil rights movement. There were large images of black children being knocked down with power hoses; images of the church bomb that killed four young girls; images of Emmett Till’s horrific murder. It was overwhelming. There was no escaping the truth on this tour.
By the time we got upstairs to the lunch counter room, I was surprised to see how long the counter was as it followed the length and width of the old store. The tour guide reminded us that it had been a five-and-dime store filled with shelves of merchandise. But the emptiness at the counter and in the rest of the large room was haunting. I had a sudden flashback to my short time as a waitress at a Woolworth lunch counter in St. Paul, Minnesota, back in 1972. I remembered the day when I noticed a young black woman sitting alone at the end of the long lunch counter. I approached her and asked if I could help her. She wanted to inquire about a job. I told her I would go get the manager to come and talk to her. I walked back toward the register end of the counter and told the manager. After a while, I noticed the young woman was still sitting there. I went back and asked if the manager had brought her an application. She said, “No,” and had a worried look on her face. I walked back up the length of the now empty lunch counter to the manager and told her the woman was still waiting. In a very cruel voice, she replied, “She’s never gonna work here.” I remember her not looking at me as she spoke. I was shocked by her response. In all the food service jobs I had in California, nothing like this ever happened. Many of my co-workers were black. One of my bosses was black. The incident made me sick to my stomach.
At the end of my shift, I ended up in the freight elevator, which we all took to go down to the basement and punch out. The manager was on the elevator with some others and started saying racist things. I went home furious, then came in the next day and quit.
I was frustrated that no photographs were permitted inside the museum. I think it is a historic location every American should see for themselves. It is the site of courageous young people putting their bodies on the line for justice and equality.
Our tour guide, along with some re-enactment video, took us all back to the past. I really liked how we weren’t just being told history. The young tour guide presented herself with a clear sense of educating us by asking us to think about what it might have felt like if we were in the position of those young men. At the end of the tour, as she had done throughout, she asked if anyone had any questions. I asked her if she would ever consider running for office. She laughed and said, “I might run for office someday.” I hope she does. She gave me hope.
After buying some more children’s books in the museum store, I wandered up and down Elm Street to find a place to eat. I finally found an Egyptian restaurant hidden right across the street from the museum and had my meal out for the day. I ordered a falafel, which I hoped would have more vegetables in it. Veggies seemed to be scarce in these parts.
It was only 2 p.m. when I finished lunch. I realized that I could get back on the road and make it to Charlottesville by the evening. My plan had been to stay in Greensboro and get up early to drive into Arlington so that I could return the car on time. I switched plans and drove on to Charlottesville.
I passed another giant roadside Confederate flag after crossing into Virginia. Another chill. I had a quick flashback to my drive through the back roads of Northern Ireland two years before where I had seen the occasional British flag along the way. As I headed for Charlottesville, I wondered how there could be sympathy for the Confederacy so far north. After all, Washington D.C. is right next to Virginia and not considered “the South.” But then, D.C. had slaves and has been run by power-seeking white men forever.
I arrived in Charlottesville while it was still light, but was tired enough from all the driving to just do my laundry that night, and do my exploring in the morning.
I rose early, packed, ate free motel oatmeal, and headed into the center of town. It was a quiet Sunday morning when I arrived at the historic center. Churchgoers weren’t even out yet. As I pulled up to Emancipation Park (recently changed from Lee Park), I could see the huge statue of Robert E. Lee on a horse standing in the middle. I got out and wandered around the small square block. I thought I was the only person there until I discovered a couple of homeless men at the park’s edge.
I sat and looked at the statue, and thought about how 32-year-old Heather Heyer lost her life while protesting a white supremacist demonstration in this town. It had been almost a year. Her famous post on social media, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” was a mantra in my head. How could such a horrible act take place in such a pretty, peaceful little colonial town? But then, how could that statue still be standing there? A few blocks away was another park with a statue of Stonewall Jackson on a horse. And in front of the tidy, red brick courthouse, another Confederate memorial bearing the phrase, “Confederate soldiers, defenders of the rights of states.” I was surprised to see all this, especially being so close to Washington D.C.
I knew I wanted to check out one more place before heading back to D.C. I drove up to Monticello, the plantation owned by Thomas Jefferson, where he had hundreds of slaves. The drive up the hill passed by prime real estate. This part of Virginia is very beautiful. The landscape is lush and the soil rich. The view from the top of Monticello must really be something. But I only got as far as the visitor center parking lot.
When I got out and started walking, there was a sign that pointed to the visitor center in one direction, and toward the slave graveyard in the other. As I walked down the path toward the graveyard, I ended up at the far end of the parking lot. There was a humble split-rail fence separating an area of barren earth with a few weeds and stones. The sign revealed that in 2001, archeologists had discovered that bones of slaves were buried there. The fact that there was no reverence for the area made me feel angry. I thought about my parents’ ornate gravesite. Theirs is too much, and this, nowhere near enough.
I knew I had no desire to pay the exorbitant fee to shuttle up to the top of the hill to see how this white slaveholder, and third president of the United States, lived in his mansion with captured Africans doing all the work to make it the spectacle that it is. Some say he was good to his slaves, but this graveyard showed no evidence of that.
This became my last stop in what turned out to be a 2,000-mile journey to learn about, see, and experience my country’s shameful and courageous history. As I headed out of Albemarle County and drove past pristine farms with white rail fences and perfect rows of grape orchards, it seemed clear to me that so much more needs to change. Slavery may be gone and buried in the South, but racial hatred is sadly very alive in this country and in the very places where our forefathers lived, wrote our laws, and developed our systems of government.
Arriving in Arlington, I turned in my car at the airport and took the shuttle to the hotel where I would be attending a conference for the next three days. I checked in and settled into my room on the 18th floor of the Hyatt Hotel. Even though the pretense of the hotel (and the cost) was at a much higher level, all of the rooms I had throughout my trip had the same amenities. I lay down on the huge bed and took a three-hour nap. When I woke up, I went down to register for the conference, and ate an expensive vegan dinner of boring vegetables (not even seasonal ones). I asked at the concierge desk about how I might be able to get into the African American History and Culture museum in D.C. I was told to get there by 7 a.m. and wait in a line. I was determined to try. I went back to my room, caught up on work emails, and on the news of the day on television, then went to sleep early so I could get up and catch the shuttle to the metro by 6 a.m.
I caught the early shuttle to the metro, bought my pass, and got on the train to D.C. I arrived close to 7 a.m. and rode the escalator from the underground world of the metro up into the city. I was re-reminded of how impressive the buildings are, big and old and adorned with columns and statues. This is where major decisions are made. It is the power center of the country, where the people in power make choices that impact the world.
I found my way to the museum and walked all around the periphery, looking for a line of people. I finally spotted a couple of maintenance guys and asked where to stand. They told me that it was only on the weekends that folks line up at 7 a.m. For weekdays, they told me to come at noon and, if I was lucky, I might get in. I had to be at my conference at that time, so I figured I would try again on Wednesday when the conference ended.
Although it was only a little past seven, it was already very warm. So I decided to walk down to the Lincoln Memorial and sit inside in the shade and reflect on my travels and what I had learned. As I walked past the Washington Monument, the World War II memorial, and the reflecting pool leading up to Lincoln, it seemed the day got hotter by the minute. But that didn’t stop the endless flow of runners that I had to continually dodge. Anyone who chooses to run in that kind of heat and humidity has got to be out of their mind.
As I climbed the stairs to the cool shadows inside this formidable monument, I looked for where King’s words were engraved on a step. It was the place where he stood fifty-five years ago. From this step, he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the historic March on Washington in 1963. Finding the spot, I turned to look out toward the National Mall and pictured all the people, black, brown, and white, and thought about what an important moment that was for this country. We need more moments like that, especially now.
I then turned around and went inside to visit with Abe. What would he think of Trump and the mess we are in? As his unsmiling face looked out over D.C., Trump and Putin were over in Helsinki wreaking havoc. If he could see us now, what would he say?
After resting against one of the giant marble columns in this peaceful place, and paying tribute to a man with a true vision for a better society, I walked back toward the metro, passing the Vietnam Memorial and a homeless vet who asked for money. I hadn’t brought money, just credit cards. It must be even harder to panhandle nowadays when everything is plastic. I went to the Corner Bakery in the National Press Building a few blocks from the White House. I have eaten there each time I have been in D.C. I ate a small breakfast then headed back to Arlington to attend the conference for the rest of the day.
After watching the news of Trump’s disastrous summit with Putin the day before, I woke up on the second day of the conference and wondered what might be going on in the streets of Washington on this day. During a lunch break in the middle of the conference, I made a quick trip over to the White House and see if there was a protest going on. When I got there, a few very loud doomsday demonstrators with big signs and bullhorns were telling everyone that the world was ending. There were tourists walking by, and commuters on bicycles. And there was the one guy that is there all the time in a makeshift tent covered with signs. He has been there a very long time. But there was no official, organized protest. I walked up to one man with a handmade sign that read, “Send Trump back to the tower,” on one side, and “Treason will not be tolerated” on the other. He told me there was going to be a demonstration there that night at 8 p.m. I knew I would have to come back. I took the metro back to Arlington in time for the afternoon workshop at the conference.
When I returned that night, there were about 300 demonstrators making lots of noise. There were mostly young people with clever signs shouting a rotation of chants. It was hard to imagine that the noise couldn’t be heard inside the White House. Slogans on signs included, “From our house to the big house,” “Make America America again,” “Traitor-in-chief,” and many, many more. Of the chants, the one that moved me the most was when the demonstrators got down on one knee, held up their fists, and repeatedly chanted, “Take a knee.” I took many photos.
I had tried and failed to talk others from the conference into joining me at the protest. Then I ran into one of the people I had been trying to talk into coming. I was glad to see her show up. It was nice to be there with someone else. As the sky grew darker and the air became even more humid, the crowd began to dwindle. She had taken a cab over and offered to let me ride back with her. We left by 9 p.m. and were back in the hotel in Arlington within 20 minutes.
When the conference ended the next morning, I needed to try one more time to get into the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Even though my road trip through the Southeast was inspiring and educational, this was where I had initially wanted to go. I caught the shuttle, then the metro, and got myself to the door of the museum by 11:30 a.m. I walked up to the woman who was letting groups in with passes. I told her I didn’t have one, but was told I could wait in a line. She asked how many were in my party. I told her, “Just me.” She said, “Just go on in.” I was so happy I almost cried. I thanked her and entered into a huge, beautiful lobby.
I knew that, as a new museum, and as part of the Smithsonian, it would be good. But it really surpassed my expectations. There was an excitement within the walls of the building. The museum is a celebration of rich culture and achievement, of courage and persistence, of resistance and success. There is, of course, pain and sadness too. There have been so many African Americans that have suffered. But so many have also shaped our country and added to our society, many through extreme sacrifice. The displays were numerous, well crafted, and highly informative.
I stayed in the museum for six hours, including eating an excellent lunch from the cafeteria. The choices were many, from creole style to soul food, including some vegetarian options. I sat next to an African-American couple from Maryland and had a long conversation with them about the museum, their family, my trip, and eventually, the politics of the day.
Amazed at my good fortune on this trip, I left the museum when an announcement came over a louder speaker that it would be closing soon, and headed back to Arlington very thankful for all the opportunities to learn about such an important part of American history.
The lessons I take away are not new. This 2,000 mile journey was a re-discovery of the meaning and importance of courage and dignity. It was also a reminder that humans are born innocent, and that we have to learn how to hate. If we can learn how to love first, chances are we’ll make the world a better place. Learning how to share and not be greedy; to respect each other as equals and not put our own needs above the needs of others; how to cooperate and celebrate our differences instead of creating divisions; to share our wealth and our culture and embrace other cultures from around the world; to believe that peace is the ultimate goal, that is the America I want. If we could achieve those things, this could be a country that is truly great.