Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Levine Museum of the New South - Without Sanctuary

Sue and I went to the Levine Museum of the New South; whatever that means; the other day, primarily to see the exhibit "Without Sanctuary", which is composed of photographs taken of lynching’s in the United States between 1882 and 1968. There were some 5,000 of them; and with 1,200 of the murders being distributed amongst various white groups such as Catholics, Jews and Hispanics; the visitor must take a momentary pause as they realize that no one group is/was ever safe from mindless hatred.

Another big surprise was that the 5,000 lynching’s were recorded in 44 of the 48 contiguous states; the only 4 dissenting states being Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire. This was really a surprise to me, as I have always thought of these murders as being in the “pastoral south”, as Billie Holiday hauntingly sings in “Bitter Fruit”, which happened to be playing during the exhibit. I was very relieved to hear the song in that setting, as I had earlier remarked to both Sue, and a friend, that it would be most appropriate for the exhibit.
I don’t have to go into the viciousness of the topic of lynching, as I assume my “audience”; small though it may be; is way beyond that type of thinking, let alone action. There was a billboard provided for the people who chose to leave a comment. Most of them were along the lines of “God is great”, or, “Politicians kill people.” There were some that blamed the culture of the times; which to a certain extent may be true. I had to leave one of my own, which I felt really summed it up nicely. I wrote that in every era, and every nationality; be they Asian, as with the Japanese; or German, as with the Second World War; or NapolĂ©on in his quest to conquer Europe and parts of Asia in the early 19th century; or even Caesar himself, with his holy Roman Empire; all the way to the tribal and cultural wars of the Middle East and Africa today; people are all capable, when properly manipulated; of the most horrendous horrors imaginable. It’s a sobering, and sad, reality, but history bears it out.

The exhibit was very informative; even to the armchair historian such as myself; and several facts were revealed to me regarding how widespread the practice of lynching was. And when that part of the exhibit was through, you get to walk through the “standing” exhibit of the Levine Center itself; which chronicles the emergence of the Charlotte region post-Civil War up until today. That’s me sitting at a mockup of the original Woolworth counter which was part of the early Civil Rights Movement here in Charlotte in 1960. Since I remember those events more clearly, this exhibit was extra special.
The cotton gins and the mills were represented in several exhibits which highlighted the plight of the mill worker in the earlier days of the 20th Century. The rise of the millworkers eventually caused the area to change from an agricultural to banking community, as the rising wages drove some of the mills out of business. The photographs of the millworkers; living in all but abject poverty; while toiling away for 60 hours a week; and always in hock to the “company”; were heart wrenching. These were people in their 30’s, who looked as if they were 60 years old.

This was a very educational and thought provoking exhibit. It asks you, as the patron, to examine the past, and judge the present and the future for yourselves. When confronted with the misery endured by others yesterday, it is often much easier to understand the present.

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