For approximately 90 years, Natchitoches, Louisiana has spent the first Saturday of just about every December hosting its annual Christmas Festival. Travelers flock to Central Louisiana to soak up the magic of an enduring Southern tradition – the small town festival.
Tourists know no better host than Natchitoches. Founded in 1714, Natchitoches has prospered for over 300 years as a unique blend of old and new. Perhaps best known as the birthplace of the classic Southern film, Steel Magnolias, the little town also boasts the 9th best public high school in the country. An interesting cultural mix.
This year, the Natchitoches Christmas Festival will be celebrated by some and boycotted by others. On the heels of the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting, Natchitoches joined a host of other Southern communities in re-evaluating its use of Confederate symbology hijacked by hate groups. As a result, the Confederate Battle Flag will no longer be part of the City sponsored Christmas Festival parade. Some folks are upset about that.
The latest controversy over the flag has sparked a larger conversation about the preservation of Southern heritage. Over 150 years after the Civil War, Southern remains a dominant cultural concept. We use it to describe everything from people to donuts. But what does it really mean to be Southern?
Sometimes symbols overshadow stories. That’s too bad. Our collective stories reveal the truth about the evolving concept of Southern. Our stories are worth preserving.
We buried my grandmother, Mamie, in Waynesboro, Georgia. That’s where she spent most of her life.
With a booming population of 5,806, Waynesboro remains the quintessential small, Southern town, steeped in Civil War history.
After seizing Atlanta on November 15, 1864, General Sherman began his infamous March to the Sea. On the way, Sherman sent Union cavalry to Waynesboro in hopes that they would threaten nearby Augusta and divert Confederate attention away from his ultimate goal of capturing Savannah.
The Rebels bit hard on the bait and battled Union forces for eight long days. While the Confederate soldiers focused on Augusta, Sherman marched past the skirmish and went on to sack Savannah. The Battle of Waynesboro ended on December 4, 1864.
As a young child, I spent two weeks each summer in Waynesboro visiting Mamie. My days were filled with climbing trees and visiting her old lady friends who had names like Ms. Mildred and Ms. Mary Pearl. The sights, sounds, and even smells of that little town remain with me today.
Mamie moved to Louisiana after she retired and we got to spend more time together. During my adolescence, her stories about our family flowed freely as we toiled away in her garden. Breaks from the sun were spent rummaging through ancient family artifacts that she kept locked away in cedar chests.
It was during our little talks that I began to understand the complexity of having deep roots in the South. I learned how the concept of Southern evolved for my family. I learned to value the evolution.
Mamie’s mother, Ida Belle Hendry, came from an old landed family in the South. An “old landed family” is a mealy-mouthed way of saying that long ago my ancestors owned slaves and were deeply entrenched in the Confederacy.
The Civil War started on April 12, 1861. On January 1, 1863 Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In between those dates, on January 21, 1862, Neal Hendry (my Great Great Great Grandfather) purchased a slave that he identified only as Turner for the sum of $1,500.00.
Mr. Hendry’s Southern hubris regarding the viability of the Confederate States of America led him to invest somewhere in the neighborhood of $45,000 by today’s standards in a slave after the Civil War had already begun. The sale of Mr. Turner’s life was memorialized in chicken scratch.
Mr. Hendry’s $45,000 gamble on the viability of the Confederacy did not pay off. On April 9, 1865, the South surrendered and the Civil War came to an end. On May 17, 1865, Neal Hendry reaffirmed his allegiance to the United States and returned home. The rest is, as they say, “history.”
About 15 years later, Mamie’s father, Joseph Winfred Harner, was born in 1880. He grew up in Virginia and studied pharmacy at Washington & Lee University. He went on to open a drug store in Waynesboro where he would come to be known simply as “Doc” Harner.
Unlike Neal Hendry, the typical Deep South dividing lines of race were less prevalent in the mind of Doc Harner. He was a Southern Rebel of a different kind. Mamie told stories of her father’s store being pelted with tomatoes because he refused to conform to certain societal norms. Doc Harner’s enlightened views on race were passed down to Mamie and racial prejudice died on the vine of our family tree.
Doc Harner was a patriotic man whose love of country rubbed off on his children. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Mamie enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and joined her younger brother, William “Bill” Harner, in the fight against the Nazis. Mamie and Bill were shipped overseas. Less than 100 years after the Civil War, they joined thousands of other Southern soldiers in a fight against genocide.
Bill Harner didn’t make it home from the war. He died aboard the infamous Rohna transport ship that was sunk in the Mediterranean. His remains were never recovered. Mamie told stories of her mother holding out hope for decades that Bill would one day wander home.
Upon returning home, Mamie settled into life. She was a single mother before it became culturally acceptable. She had terrible taste in men and left my grandfather while my mother was still a little girl. She raised her daughter and son on her own. Perhaps a more constructive example of old Neal Hendry’s rebellious Confederate genes raging against abuse and oppression.
On February 16, 1959, Mamie’s son, Joseph Edward “Jed” Harner, died a very young man. He left behind a wife and small daughter. Mamie was devastated. With the help of friends and family, she navigated her way through immense grief. Southern emotional stamina forged by generational conflict and reconstruction.
Later in life, Mamie had all the eccentricities of an old Southern woman. She had a strange obsession with plants and birds. Her conversations often circled back to compost piles and newly concocted inventions to keep the squirrels out of her bird feeders. She felt the need to bad mouth Pepsi products because a pharmacist in Georgia invented Coke. She only flew Delta.
The Confederate Battle Flag never seemed to be a part of Mamie’s Southerness. She was more of an American flag type dame. The angriest I ever saw Mamie get at one of her grandchildren was over the American flag. With the popularity of Tommy Hilfiger, trendy flag print clothing became cool. One day, my little brother innocently made the mistake of wearing some American flag boxer shorts. Mamie found out and almost beat him with a cane. The flag was not meant to be worn as clothing, certainly not boxers. We never forgot.
Mamie died on August 15, 2003 at the age of 88. We brought her back to Waynesboro to be buried with the rest of her family.
I don’t remember much about the funeral. But as the graveside service was breaking up, an older man came up to me and introduced himself. He explained that he had known my family for years and felt like he needed to be at the service. We chit chatted for a few minutes. As we were leaving, he handed me a business card and I shoved it in my pocket.
Days later I fished the card out of my clothes and this is what I found:
I couldn’t help but smile.
It was a wink from Mamie.
A final reminder to value the complexity and ongoing evolution of our family’s Southerness.
On Saturday, December 5, 2015, Natchitoches will celebrate its annual Christmas Festival. Children and grandchildren will return home from far off places to soak up the magic of an enduring Southern tradition – the small town festival. New stories of Southerness will take root over fireworks and food on a stick.
The Confederate Battle Flag will be absent from the parade. Boycotts of Natchitoches and its Christmas Festival have been threatened by some folks in the name of preserving Southern heritage. That’s too bad. Hopefully, cooler heads and warmer meat pies will prevail.
On December 4, 1864, almost exactly 151 years to-the-day before the 2015 Christmas Festival, The Battle of Waynesboro, Georgia quietly came to an end. Confederate forces, focused on defending Augusta, momentarily lost sight of the more important prize – Savannah. In the end, their failure to properly prioritize contributed to the destruction of their cause.
Augusta or Savannah?
The Flag or The Festival?
Old Southern Symbols or New Southern Stories?