Historic preservation: What it means for black lives to matter in Holly Springs

To the Editor:

The public protests as responses to the shooting deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and countless other black people in the contemporary U.S. have become points of reflection for many of us. Race is at the center of private and public discussions in ways that it has not been before. As those who believe in historic preservation as one form of reparation for slavery and its sustained impacts, we reflect on what this moment means in the context of historic preservation in Holly Springs.

What have we witnessed?

In the past 10 years, we have observed several significant efforts to publicly address the systemic silencing of black history in Holly Springs. Behind the Big House, a slave dwelling interpretation program which prioritizes the experiences of those enslaved in Holly Springs, is one of them. The program, managed by Preserve Marshall County and Holly Springs Inc., began in 2011 and remains the only multi-site historic preservation entity sustained by local community members. Out of that came Gracing the Table, a racial reconciliation group charged with helping to repair the impacts of slavery and its manifestation of systemic racism in the present.

Most recently, we had the unveiling of historical markers to honor the lives and contributions of people who attended the Rosenwald School and W.T. Sims School, the first public schools for African Americans in Holly Springs; and dedications of two markers in honor of journalist, antilynching advocate, suffragist, and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett. These efforts, and others, reflect a public desire to preserve and personify the significant contributions of African Americans to Holly Springs. These efforts are not only meaningful to local historic preservation but respond to a nationwide gap in recognizing the contributions of Africans and their descendants in the U.S. This disparity is a real one with a long history of historic preservation efforts in the U.S. valuing the histories of those able to record it, mostly rich White men.

Why is this important?

Holly Springs is no different than many other antebellum cities with a cultural landscape that honors early White settlers who built their wealth through the enslavement of others. After the region's Chickasaw occupation, the city was founded by White men and women who either economically benefited from the institution of slavery on the East Coast or who moved West to frontier Mississippi to profit from the free labor of enslaved people. Holly Springs, and its historical prominence, are here because slavery mattered.

This cultural moment is an opportune time to reflect on what that history means to residents and descendants of Holly Springs, and whether the historic preservation landscape in Holly Springs reflects how much slavery really mattered, and how much of an impact the institution has on how we see ourselves today.

What does this opportunity offer?

This opportunity offers a chance for the people of Holly Springs to think about the individuals and institutions that reflect not only who we are but who we hope to be. If we really want black lives to matter in the present and future, as many expressed at the march on June 12, then the black lives of our city's past must also matter. What memorials (historic sites, street signs, parks, etc.) are dedicated to African American individuals and institutions in Holly Springs? Where are they in the city and why are they in certain locations? Are they prominently and equally featured when guests visit Holly Springs? This is not a question about the ecumenical costs of making long-overdue changes, but whether our willingness and agency exist to repair nearly 200 years of damage to black residents and their ancestors in Holly Springs.

We must ask ourselves what we want to collectively remember and why? This question cannot be separated from an ongoing national campaign for black equity, or from local economic opportunities associated with heritage tourism. We have made some small strides in the latter but have neglected to frame our community development discussions about what it means for Black lives to really matter to heritage tourism in Holly Springs. What might it matter for Holly Springs to not be "All Kinds of Character," but "The Birthplace of Ida B. Wells," a black woman who is also one of the most significant historical figures in the world? What about her would we not want to be? What can the Rosenwald and W.T. Sims schools tell us about the long history of inequity in education in Mississippi from slavery until the present-day? What can they tell us about what fortitude it takes for black Americans to survive despite systemic racism? What might it mean for Holly Springs' antebellum mansions to not be disconnected from the slave dwellings that made them matter, from the enslaved men and women who labored in spite of being policed in every facet of their lives? What can they tell us about how black Americans are policed today? If the slave dwellings do not matter as much as the big houses, then doesn't that indicate that the descendants of enslaved people don't matter as much as the descendants of those who enslaved them? These are just a few questions. There are too many to ask in this space. What we do hope is that our reflection helps give voice to those already thinking about these issues and provides a starting point for others.

To know history is to understand the times you find yourself in. It is to be aware of what is taking place in your environment and being a cognizant participant. Our country is in a defining moment for us and our future. It matters what we do. What each one of us chooses to do in this moment will determine the future of our country for generations. The drafting of the Declaration of Independence, the three-fifth compromise, and the 1965 Civil Rights Act were all moments in history where our leaders made decisions about who we were. What kind of country will we choose to be? What kind of city will we choose to be?

To know history is also to understand the responsibility of your contribution to it. In a just society, one's thoughts and actions matter and equitably affect everyone else. This is an awesome inherent responsibility of being alive, of being human. Life grants us all this opportunity to affect one and another. We make history in our communities every day. What will be your contribution to our history? Will you be a cognizant active participant for the greater good? Will you act in what you perceive to be your self-interest alone? Will you choose to be silent, not pay attention, not participate. We all have a choice. How do we want our community to move forward from this moment? Do we want to create a society that is conducive to the benefit of all its citizens?

Since 2012, Gracing the Table has worked to help Holly Springs tell and talk through uncomfortable truths about the history of our community. We plan to continue that work with others, thinking more specifically about history's impact on contemporary Black lives and what that means for all of us.

Sincerely, Wayne Jones
Gracing the Table

Holly Springs South Reporter

P.O. Box 278
Holly Springs, MS 38635
PH: (662) 252-4261
FAX: (662) 252-3388

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