Healing Through History

by W. Todd Groce, Ph.D.

“Thank you for finally telling our story.”

This was a common sentiment expressed by many of the nearly 300 people who attended the dedication of the “Weeping Time” historical marker in Savannah. Dedicated in March 2008 on the 149th anniversary of the largest slave sale in American history, the “Weeping Time” was one of over a dozen new historical markers installed by the Georgia Historical Society (GHS) to commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

The day of the dedication, we received a phone call from an anonymous older man. “I can’t believe you’re putting up that marker in that neighborhood,” he said. “You’re just stirring up trouble. I am tired of hearing about slavery and feeling bad about my ancestors. It’s time to get over it and move on!”

The dedication of the marker later that day was incredibly moving. After remarks by Otis Johnson, the second African American to serve as mayor of Savannah, members of the audience performed a traditional African ceremony of “libation” and then sprinkled dirt from Africa around the base of the marker. There was not a dry eye to be found.

On the way back to the office, we discussed what had happened, how it affected those who attended, including each of us. We determined that events like historical marker dedications were a powerful way to off er new perspectives on the past and foster the difficult but necessary public conversations that must be held if our country were to tackle the problem of racism.

When in May of this year protests erupted around the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, GHS prepared a statement about race and history. In it we describe what our institution is and has been doing for over a dozen years since the “Weeping Time” marker dedication in 2008 to promote through education and research what historian David Blight calls “a richly pluralistic version of American history to the largest possible public.”

Implicit throughout the statement is a firm belief that history is the key to understanding the problem of race. History explains how we got to this point; and the better we understand how we got here, based on evidence rather than myths and misconceptions, the better decisions we can make going forward together.

Legalized segregation came to an end over 50 years ago. But we never had a national conversation about the damage which it, slavery, and other forms of racial oppression inflicted on our national soul. That angry caller back in 2008 told us to just “get over it and move on.” But as the events of this past spring and summer have demonstrated, that clearly has not worked.

The lingering cultural effects of white supremacy are still with us. We cannot move on, we cannot heal as a country, until we find the courage as well as the empathy to address old wounds, to look the issues—and each other—squarely in the eye and have an honest reckoning with our past.

Fortunately, we seem to have turned a corner. At long last, Americans appear ready and willing to do what is necessary to truly “move on,” and to keep the promise of equality made in Philadelphia nearly 250 years ago and renewed on the battlefields of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement.

Perhaps now, with history as our guide, we will finally create together the kind of country where all people have an opportunity to prosper economically and live together in freedom and peace.