The South is easy to find but hard to sort out, and it is full of paradoxes. Once, I was talking Southern fiction with William Styron and he said, “I come from the High South”—he was from Virginia, and he was mildly boasting. Like many writers who had left the South to find a life in the North, he often talked fondly about the region that had formed him.
There is plenty to boast of in the Deep South, with its cultural pleasures, where the cities in particular are vibrant, the art galleries of Atlanta, the gourmet restaurants of Charleston, the cities with pro sports or great college teams. The Alabama Symphony Orchestra in Birmingham is scheduled to perform César Franck’s Symphony in D minor, as I write, and the Mississippi Symphony is scheduling six concerts for its Bravo Series (Mozart, Beethoven) in Jackson. There are presidential libraries, playhouses and botanical gardens. Civil War battlefields abound—these solemn places are well kept and enlightening: You could spend months profitably touring them. The golf courses of Georgia and Alabama are famous, there is motor racing, and every large city has a grand hotel or two, and a great restaurant.
Parts of the Deep South are commercially prosperous, too, with booming industries—medical research and technology, aerospace and aviation, car manufacturing. The Mercedes you bought could have been made in Alabama, BMW’s plant in South Carolina will soon be its largest in the world, Nissan makes cars in Mississippi, and so does Toyota. There are many associated businesses, suppliers of car-related components. This is a testament to the enduring pride and work ethic of the South, not to mention labor laws.
I think most people know this. They may also be aware that the Deep South has some of the highest rates of unemployment, some of the worst schools, the poorest housing and medical care, a vast number of dying and depopulated towns. As for being hard-up, the states I visited in the Deep South have nearly 20 percent of their people living below the poverty line, more than the national average of 16 percent.
This other Deep South, with the same pride and with deep roots—rural, struggling, idyllic in places and mostly ignored—was like a foreign country to me. I decided to travel the back roads for the pleasure of discovery—doing in my own country what I had spent most of my life doing in Africa and India and China—ignoring the museums and stadiums, the antebellum mansions and automobile plants, and, with the 50th anniversary of the civil rights struggle in mind, concentrating on the human architecture, in particular the overlooked: the submerged fifth.
PART ONE: SOUTH CAROLINA
The South began for me in Allendale, in the rural Lowcountry of South Carolina, set among twiggy fields of tufted white, the blown-open cotton bolls brightening the spindly bushes. In a lifetime of travel, I had seen very few places to compare with Allendale in its oddity; and approaching the town was just as bizarre. The road, much of it, was a divided highway, wider than many sections of the great north-south Interstate, Route 95, which is more like a tunnel than a road for the way it sluices cars south at great speed.
Approaching the outskirts of Allendale I had a sight of doomsday, one of those visions that make the effort of travel worthwhile. It was a vision of ruin, of decay and utter emptiness; and it was obvious in the simplest, most recognizable structures—motels, gas stations, restaurants, stores—all of them abandoned to rot, some of them so thoroughly decayed that all that was left was the great concrete slab of the foundation, stained with oil or paint, littered with the splinters of the collapsed building, a rusted sign leaning. Some were brick-faced, others made of cinder blocks, but none was well made and so the impression I had was of astonishing decrepitude, as though a war had ravaged the place and killed all the people.
Here was the corpse of a motel, the Elite—the sign still legible—broken buildings in a wilderness of weeds; and farther down the road, the Sands, the Presidential Inn, collapsed, empty; and another fractured place with a cracked swimming pool and broken windows, its rusted sign, “Cresent Motel,” the more pathetic for being misspelled.
Most of the shops were closed, the wide main road was littered. The side streets, lined by shacks and abandoned houses, looked haunted. I had never seen anything quite like it, the ghost town on the ghost highway. I was glad I had come.
Just as decrepit, but busy, was a filling station and convenience store, where I stopped to buy gas. When I went inside for a drink I met Suresh Patel. “I came here two years ago from Broach,” Mr. Patel told me, from behind the counter of his cluttered shop. Broach is an industrial river district of 1.5 million in the state of Gujarat. Mr. Patel had been a chemist in India. “My cousin call me. He say, ‘Come. Good business.’”
Many Indian shopkeepers, duka-wallahs, whom I knew in East and Central Africa, claimed Broach as their ancestral home, where the Patel surname identifies them as members of a Gujarati, primarily Hindu subcaste. And Mr. Patel’s convenience store in Allendale was identical to the dukas in East Africa, the shelves of food and beer and cheap clothes and candy and household goods, the stern hand-lettered sign, No Credit, the same whiff of incense and curry. A 1999 story in the New York Times magazine by Tunku Varadarajan declared that more than 50 percent of all motels in the United States are owned by people of Indian origin, a statistic supplied by the Asian American Hotel Owners Association—and the figure is even greater now.
All the convenience stores, the three gas stations and the one motel in small, unpromising Allendale were each owned by Indians from India. The presence of Indian shopkeepers, the heat, the tall dusty trees, the sight of plowed fields, the ruined motels and abandoned restaurants, the somnolence hanging over the town like a blight—and even the intense sunshine was like a sinister aspect of that same blight—all these features made it seem like a town in Zimbabwe.
Later I saw just outside Allendale proper the campus of the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie, with 800 students, and the old main street, and the handsome courthouse, and a small subdivision of well-kept bungalows. But mostly, and importantly, Allendale, judging from Route 301, was a ruin—poor, neglected, hopeless-looking, a vivid failure.
“We have to change the worst.”
In an office tucked inside a mobile unit, sign-posted “Allendale County Alive,” I found Wilbur Cave. After we shook hands, I mentioned the extraordinary weirdness of Route 301.
“This was a famous road once—the halfway point from up north to Florida or back,” Wilbur said. “Everyone stopped here. And this was one of the busiest towns ever. When I was growing up we could hardly cross the road.”
But there were no cars today, or just a handful. “What happened?”
“Route 95 happened.”
And Wilbur explained that in the late 1960s, when the Interstate route was plotted, it bypassed Allendale 40 miles to the east, and like many other towns on Route 301, Allendale fell into ruin. But just as the great new city rising in the wilderness is an image of American prosperity, a ghost town like Allendale is also a feature of our landscape. Perhaps the most American urban transformation is that very sight; all ghost towns were once boomtowns.
And this was why Wilbur Cave, seeing the area where he grew up falling to ruins—its very foundations conducing to dust—decided to do something to improve it. Wilbur had been a record-breaking runner in his high school, and after graduation from the University of South Carolina in Columbia, worked locally and then ran for the state representative’s seat in this district. He was elected and served for more than four years. He became a strategic planner, and with this experience he joined and re-energized the nonprofit Allendale County Alive, which helps provide decent housing to people. The town itself had a population of 4,500, three-quarters of them black, like the county.
“It’s not just this town that needs help,” Wilbur said. “The whole county is in bad shape. In the 2010 census we are the tenth-poorest county in the United States. And, you know, a lot of the others are Indian reservations.”
Wilbur Cave was 61 but looked ten years younger, compact, muscular, still with an athlete’s build, and energetic, full of plans. His family had lived in the area for many generations. His mother had been a teacher at Allendale County Training School. “The black school,” Wilbur explained. “The white one was Allendale Elementary.”
I remarked on how recently social change had come to the South.
“You have to know where we come from,” Wilbur said. “It’s hard for anyone to understand the South unless they understand history—and by history I mean slavery. History has had more impact here.”
Without realizing it, only smiling and tapping a ballpoint on the desktop blotter, he sounded like one of the wise, admonitory Southern voices in a Faulkner novel, reminding the Northerner of the complex past.
“Take my mother’s family. Some were farmers, for generations, right here in Allendale County. They had a hundred acres or so. It was a family activity to pick cotton. The children did it, the grandchildren. It was a normal after-school job. I did it, I sure did—we all did it.”
The small cotton farms were sold eventually to bigger growers, who introduced mechanical harvesters. That was another reason for the unemployment and the decline in population. But farming was still the mainstay of Allendale County, home to 10,000 people, 36 percent of whom lived below the poverty line.
Once, there had been textile factories, making cloth and carpets. They’d closed, the manufacturing outsourced to China, though a new textile plant is scheduled to open. The lumber mills—there were two in Allendale, turning out planks and utility poles—did not employ many people.
Wilbur drove me through the back streets of Allendale, and as we passed along the side roads, the lanes, the dirt paths on which there were two-room houses, some of them fixed up and painted, others no more than wooden shanties of the sort you might see in any third world country, and some shotgun shacks that are the emblematic architecture of Southern poverty.
“That’s one of ours,” Wilbur said of a tidy, white wood-framed bungalow on a corner, one of 150 houses his organization had fixed up or rebuilt. “It was a derelict property that we rehabbed and now it’s part of our inventory of rentals.”
“My feeling is—if South Carolina is to change, we have to change the worst,” Wilbur said as we passed a small, weathered house of sun-blackened planks and curling shingles, an antique that was beyond repair. But a man had lived in it until just recently, without electricity or heat or piped water.
“You hungry?” Wilbur asked.
I said I was and he took me on a short drive to the edge of town, to a diner, O’ Taste & See, sought out for its soul food, fried chicken and catfish, biscuits, rice and gravy, fruit pies and friendliness.
“Money is not the whole picture, but it’s the straw that stirs the drink,” Wilbur said over lunch, when I mentioned the hundreds of millions in U.S. aid that was given to foreign countries. “I don’t want hundreds of millions. Give me one-thousandth of it and I could dramatically change things like public education in Allendale County.”
Wilbur said that he didn’t begrudge aid to Africa, but he added, “If my organization had access to that kind of money we could really make a difference.”
“What would you do?”
“We could focus our energy and get things done.” He smiled. He said, “We wouldn’t have to worry about the light bill.”
With accommodations scarce in sunny, desolate Allendale—most of the motels abandoned or destroyed—I drove up Route 301, the empty, glorious thoroughfare, 45 miles to Orangeburg. It was a small town, kept buoyant by revenue from its schools and colleges.
Walking along the main street, I fell into step with a man and said hello. And I received the glowing Southern welcome. He wore a dark suit and carried a briefcase. He said he was a lawyer and gave me his card, Virgin Johnson Jr., Attorney at Law. I asked about the history of the town, just a general inquiry, and received a surprising answer.
“Well,” Mr. Johnson said, “there was the massacre.”
Massacre is a word that commands attention. This bloody event was news to me, so I asked for details. And he told me that Orangeburg was still segregated in 1968 in spite of the fact that the Civil Rights Act had been in force for four years. A bowling alley, the only one in town, refused to allow black students inside.
One day in February ’68, objecting to being discriminated against, in the bowling alley and elsewhere, several hundred students held a demonstration at the campus of South Carolina State College across town. The event was noisy but the students were unarmed, facing officers from the South Carolina Highway Patrol, who carried pistols and carbines and shotguns. Alarmed by the jostling students, one police officer fired his gun into the air—warning shots, he later said. Hearing those gunshots, the other police officers began firing directly at the protesters, who turned and ran. Because the students were fleeing they were shot in the back. Three young men were killed, Samuel Hammond, Delano Middleton and Henry Smith; 27 were injured, some of them seriously, all of them students, riddled with buckshot.
When I mentioned Kent State to Mr. Johnson, how everyone knew the name, he smiled and said, “But you know those kids that died were white.”
Before I went on my way I remarked on how odd it was to me to be holding this conversation with someone I’d met by chance, simply asking directions on a public street. I was grateful for his taking the time with a stranger who had so many questions.
“People here understand how it is to need help,” he said. “To be neglected.” He tapped the business card I’d been holding. “You let me know if you want to meet some people who know more than I do. Why not stop in to my church this Sunday? I’ll be preaching.”
“Your card says you’re an attorney.”
"I’m a preacher, too. Revelation Ministries over in Fairfax. Well, Sycamore, actually.”
“God has a plan for you.”
The back roads from Orangeburg to Sycamore were empty on this Sunday morning—empty and beautiful, passing along the margins of more twiggy cotton fields, many of them puddled and muddy, the ripe tufts (the linty so-called “locks”) in open bolls sodden and the bushes beaten down by yesterday’s rain.
Rev. Johnson’s church was the large industrial-looking structure near Barker’s Mill and the flag-draped meetinghouse of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. At the church a group of older men, formally dressed in suits, welcomed me and introduced themselves as deacons and ushers.
On the back wall, a scroll-shaped sign in gold, “Revelation Ministries—Revealing God’s Word to the World—We Love You—Ain’t Nothing You Can Do About It!”
After the preliminaries—music, singing—when the church was full, the familiar dark-suited figure of Virgin Johnson Jr. rose from his high-backed, thronelike chair. He began to preach, a well-thumbed Bible in his right hand, and his left hand raised in admonition.
“Hear me today, brothers and sisters,” he began, and lifted his Bible to read from it. He read from Luke, he read from Mark, he read from Jeremiah, and then he said, “Tell your neighbor, ‘God has a plan for you!’”
The woman in front of me and the man beside me took turns saying to me in a grand tone of delivering good news, “God has a plan for you!”
Rev. Johnson described the children of Israel taken into captivity in Babylon, and paraphrased Jeremiah’s epistle, “‘Even though it look like stuff mess up in your life, it gon’ to be all right, after a while! Stop distressing, stop worrying. Even though your circumstances don’t look prosperous you gon’ be all right!”
Thirty minutes of his warm encouragement, and then the music began again in earnest and the whole church was rocked in song.
“I’m just a country boy, from bottom-line caste, born and raised in Estill, Hampton County,” Virgin Johnson told me that night over a meal up the road in Orangeburg, where he lived. Estill was the sticks, he said, deep country, cotton fields. Then with a mock-resigned sigh, he said, “Po’ black.”
Still in his dark suit, he sipped his iced tea. This was another man speaking, not the excited Sycamore preacher, not the shrewd Orangeburg trial lawyer, but a quiet, reflective private citizen in a back booth at Ruby Tuesday, reminiscing about his life as a loner.
“I was born in 1954, in Estill. In 1966, as a result of what they called ‘voluntary integration,’ I was the only black student at Estill Elementary School. Happened this way. There were two buses went by our place every morning. I had said to my daddy, ‘I want to get the first bus.’ That was the white bus. He said, ‘You sure, boy?’ I said, ‘I’m sure.’
“The day I hit that bus everything changed. Sixth grade—it changed my life. I lost all my friends, black and white. No one talked to me, no one at all. Even my white friends from home. I knew they wanted to talk to me, but they were under pressure, and so was I. I sat at the back of the bus. When I went to the long table for lunch, 30 boys would get up and leave.
“The funny thing is, we were all friendly, black and white. We picked cotton together. My daddy and uncle had a hundred acres of cotton. But when I got on the bus, it was over. I was alone, on my own.
“When I got to school I knew there was a difference. There was not another African-American there—no black teachers, no black students, none at all. Except the janitors. The janitors were something, like guardian angels to me. They were black, and they didn’t say anything to me—didn’t need to. They nodded at me as if to say, ‘Hold on, boy. Hold on.’
“I learned at an early age you have to stand by yourself. That gave me a fighting spirit. I’ve had it since I was a child. It’s destiny. What happens when you let other people make your decisions? You become incapable of making your own decisions.
“I was the first African-American to go to law school from my side of the county. University of South Carolina at Columbia. I was in a class of 100—this was in the ’80s, I was the only black person. Passed the bar in 1988. Got a license to preach.
“There’s no contradiction for me. I’m happy doing both. I just wish the economy was better. This area is so poor. They got nothin’—they need hope. If I can give it to them, that’s a good thing. Jesus said, ‘We have to go back and care about the other person.’
“This is a friendly place—nice people. Good values. Decent folks. We have issues—kids having kids, for one, sometimes four generations of kids having kids. But there’s so little advance. That does perplex me—the condition of this place. Something’s missing. What is it?”
And then he made a passionate gesture, flinging up his hand, and he raised his voice in a tone that recalled his preaching voice. “Take the kids away from this area and they shine!”
PART TWO: ALABAMA
Greensboro, Alabama, less than 40 miles south of Tuscaloosa, lies under the horizon in a green sea of meadows and fields, a small, pretty, somewhat collapsed and haunted town. Up the road from Greensboro, around Moundville, lies the farmland and still-substandard houses where James Agee and Walker Evans spent a summer collecting material for the book that would become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Published in 1941, it sold a mere 600 copies. Its commercial failure contributed to Agee’s heavy drinking and early death at the age of 45. Twenty years later, it was republished, and in the early 1960s, it found many more readers and admirers.
Cherokee City in the book is Tuscaloosa, Centerboro is Greensboro, the subject of some of Evans’ photographs, and where I was eventually headed.
Greensboro was beautiful—hardly changed architecturally since Agee’s visit in 1936—but it was struggling.
“Our main problems?” Greensboro’s mayor, Johnnie B. Washington, said with a smile. “How much time do you have? A day or two, to listen? It’s lack of revenue, it’s resistance to change, it’s so many things. But I tell you, this is a fine town.”
One of the largest personal libraries I have ever seen belonged to Randall Curb, who lived in a white frame house on a corner, near the end of Main Street, in Greensboro. He was legally blind, but as it had been a progressive decline in his vision, he had continued to buy books—real tomes—while adjusting to audio books. He was 60, kindly, generous, eager to share his knowledge of Greensboro, of which he was the unofficial historian. He was also steeped in the lore of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He impressed me by calling its prose “incantatory.”
Randall knew all the readers roundabout. He gave talks—on Agee, on Eudora Welty, on the English writers he loved (he spent a few months in London almost every year), on historical figures such as Ben Franklin. He knew the writers, too.
“You should meet Mary T,” he said to me, his way of referring to Mary Ward Brown, who lived in the town of Marion, in the next county. “She writes short stories—very good ones. She’s 95,” he added. “Ninety-six in a few months.”
“Perhaps you could introduce me,” I said.
Days passed. I read a dozen of her stories and her memoir. I called Randall and said, “I’d like to see her soon.”
When I came to Marion, I realized how moribund Greensboro was. The shops in Marion were still in business, Marion had a courthouse, and a military institute, and Judson College, which Mary T (she insisted on the name) had attended. There were bookstores in Marion and a well-known soul food restaurant, Lottie’s. Coretta Scott King had been raised in Marion, and voting rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson had been shot and killed by an Alabama state trooper in the town in 1965 during a peaceful protest, a catalyzing event in the civil rights movement that provoked the protest marches from Selma to Montgomery.
“Notice how it’s desolate here,” Randall said as I drove outside town. Though he was unable to see, he had a clear memory of the flat land, the fields of stubble, the wet clay roads, the thin patches of woods, the absence of houses, now and then a crossroads. “You’ll know it when you see it. It’s the only house here.”
After five miles of fields, he said, “This must be Hamburg,” and a white bungalow appeared, and on the porch—we had called ahead—Mary T and a much younger woman, wearing an apron.