By Paris Coughlin | May 22, 2023

Four individuals who call the South home – a retired professor, a funeral home director, a small restaurant employee and a museum education director – explain what the region means to them and why they’ve stayed. (Paris Coughlin/WUFT News)

About a mile from The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, in Montgomery, Alabama, is Oakwood Cemetery. Buried there are my mother’s father William Faulkner Ledyard III; her grandfather William Faulkner Ledyard Jr., and from generations before William Faulkner Ledyard Sr., who died fighting for the Confederacy.

The Ledyards were an auspicious extended family in the Montgomery of the old South. They had been in New England since before the Revolutionary War – history buffs may recognize American spy John Ledyard – and they made Alabama their home shortly thereafter. There, they all reared children, raised crops and talked politics. My mother, Heather Coughlin, an aesthetician and third-generation Auburn University football fan, says they were a good bunch of people: warm, kind, “Christ-like” and southern in the best ways.

But it’s no secret what helped them make their fortune. They were also slaveowners.

The Legacy Museum presents the subjugation of Black Americans from the 17th century through Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement to the ongoing struggle for racial and social justice. Visitors enter the museum and immediately come to a wall of ocean waves that engulfed far too many of the men, women and children kidnapped from their homes an ocean away and sold as chattel into slavery. As visitors walk through, the sound of crashing water echoes.

Walking through the museum, I felt a surreal sense of irony. What a strange duality, a weird coexistence, that my Confederate ancestor’s body lays within walking distance of not only the museum, but also the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which focuses on the thousands of African Americans who were lynched in this country between 1877 and 1950. The Legacy Museum forces visitors to confront the South’s violent past, to hear and see the shame of its history and, in my opinion, its present. I couldn’t help but think of my mother, who loves her family and asked me to take a picture of the Ledyard family plot, if I got the chance to visit during my class trip along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail during spring break (we didn’t). After leaving the museum, I felt that I finally could articulate what it means to be of the South.

Montgomery wasn’t the only place we visited that depicted both sides of southern history. Over in Little Rock, Arkansas, the state capitol complex offers a great example of this complicated legacy. Just off the main property, the Little Rock Nine – the students who desegregated Central High School in 1957 – are immortalized in bronze, forever eyes forward and mid-step toward history. But their gaze lands squarely on a lone marble statue honoring Confederate soldiers, even closer to the capitol’s doors.

This juxtaposition of an “old” South and “new” South is reflected in everyday life. It’s both as stark as the statues in Little Rock and as subtle as a dead soldier’s grave a few blocks from a museum. There are many buildings named after Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Army’s general, on many streets and highways named after Martin Luther King Jr. It’s also reflected in the many towns made up of the same few families living in the same neighborhoods as they did 150 years ago. It’s in the laws and the justice system. It’s in the grocery stores. The quiet cohabitation of old and new is a fact of life accepted by most below the Mason-Dixon line. Not all of it is bad, rather just something that is. The Legacy Museum won’t move, and my great-great-great-grandfather won’t, either. But a good lot of it is a poor reflection of the South.

Benjamin Saulsberry explains the long-term effects of Emmett Till’s murder on his mother and how history is never as far away as it feels. (Paris Coughlin/WUFT News)

This civil rights trail trip reaffirmed my desire to be a southern journalist. Not one from the South, but one who would help educate the region, help banish the disinformation spread by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, help shed light on the insidious economic holdovers from Reconstruction, and help unify the South under a banner of love and equality. I believe it can and must be done, by southerners for southerners.

Before this trip, I feared asking for the impossible, not of the South, but of myself. How much can a single journalist do, particularly when having a political opinion one way or another may be taboo, or in an era of punditry and divisiveness, perhaps even all too expected? I felt at odds with my desire to both seriously pursue journalism and advocate for the South. Then, just days before we left, the 2023 legislative session started. My community was losing its civil rights just for being queer. Each day, breaking news updates: Another anti-trans bill proposed, drag queens being arrested, more books banned because of gender and identity, and on and on.

I was incredulous. There I was, on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, watching a national rollback on civil rights. And amid it all, I was expected to stay neutral. I’m a reporter. If there’s a protest, I better take pictures of the signs, not hold one. It was all, to put it lightly, disheartening. I thought about the reporters and editors in “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation,” by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. For the ones in it that weren’t outright pro- or anti-segregation, how did they remain unbiased? How did they, when amid an angry violent mob, not fight back? How did they fight the urge to give in and do something? My journalism instructors are telling me that I must follow their same path.

Elizebith Brown Pimpton describes growing up in Tallahatchie County Mississippi during Emmett Till’s murder and trial. (Paris Coughlin/WUFT News)

And yet I fear becoming compliant. If I don’t speak or act out against the bills, will I betray my community? My identity? Can I even call myself unbiased – if so much of who I am is affected by politics? I didn’t find comfort until our trip, on the second to last day of it, led us to Birmingham. That’s where we met with former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley and civil rights activist Olivia White. As we dutifully conducted ourselves as student journalists, White thanked us for taking this trip and striving to share it with others through our reporting and storytelling. After bringing many of us to tears with her stories from the ‘60s, she urged us to remember that the Civil Rights Movement isn’t over.

Just as we learned in “The Race Beat,” when King admonished a reporter for taking action against a segregationist instead of reporting about it for the public, White told us she didn’t want us on the front lines. She wants us to do our job – to take the pictures and tell the stories. That’s all that’s required of us, White said, to amplify the voices that would otherwise be silenced, to listen to what would be ignored, and to show what would otherwise be hidden. I found hope that day, for myself and for my home. For now, it’s enough.

All of which brings me back to the Ledyards. After the trip, I looked them up. My grandfather, the last male heir of the Alabama bunch, died in 1995. Other than a few cheerleading keepsakes from his time at Auburn and his favorite robe, my mother only has memories of her father. Might there be anything more about the family online. Something more I could give to my mother in lieu of just the picture of her father’s grave she had requested.

Turns out there are still Ledyards in Montgomery, but not the ones I expected. They’re descendants of the slaves who toiled on the Ledyard plantation. For me, this discovery was the last stop of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. My grandfather was among the South’s last aristocracies, and his generation’s passing marked the end of the old South. But his and its legacies continue – including in the names of buildings and streets as well as family surnames. Despite it all, I hope to see the day when the South leads this nation in the fight for equality for all of its citizens.

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