Divided highways: Our kids will find the real heroes in our history

Jesse James DeConto
Jesse James DeConto

One of the problems in the United States is the refusal on the part of our young people to remember or to want to remember, or to recognize the experiences of the past as being relevant, germane, important to the present and to the future. They simply don't want anything that's painful. They want to live in a painless society where everything is pleasant, and everything is joyful.

– John Hope Franklin

I have to hold onto John Hope Franklin’s words when I consider the irony that Interstate 85 in Durham now bears his name, that of a historian foregrounding the Black Struggle, while U.S. 15, running parallel to 85 in some places, carries the Jefferson Davis Highway, named for the president who led the Confederate revolt to protect slave-holders. We have to remember the darkest hours of our history; they’re probably more important to our future than the memory of our triumphs.

Davis’ name is so ubiquitous, you might not even notice it. It could show up on your GPS as you drive 15-501 between Durham and Chapel Hill. You can’t go to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, without seeing signs for “Jeff Davis Highway.” On Sunday mornings, I drive up to Creedmoor to lead church music, traveling the Jefferson Davis Highway, so marked by a green NCDOT sign. The state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources lists four additional historical markers for Jefferson Davis across the state, the nearest in Greensboro.

The placement of the highway markers was not accidental. In the 1910s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy tried to superimpose the Davis name over a path of highways stretching from Arlington, Virginia, to San Diego. You can find JDH markers dotting the American landscape, but it’s unclear whether you could actually travel the highway in one unbroken path.

Best I can tell, the JDH in North Carolina stretches on U.S. 15 from the northern border and turns onto U.S. 1 in Sanford down to the South Carolina boundary. In Chapel Hill, there’s a bronze plaque naming Franklin Street as part of the Jefferson Davis Highway, just outside the stonewall in front of McCorkle Place, where Silent Sam guards the fragility of Southern pride. Highway 15 now skirts around downtown Chapel Hill, but the man the greybacks called “Massa Jeff” refuses to yield Ben Franklin’s thoroughfare.

I can’t speak for anyone else, much less my African-American friends whom the highway seems meant to intimidate: I for one don’t want my kids seeing the Jefferson Davis name and assuming he’s some sort of hero.

I’m almost sad to say that seems very unlikely to me. See, the kids would have to trust the government and our collective view of history in order to assume the best about our historical symbols. I don’t think we can assume that trust anymore.

It was 1997 when John Hope Franklin spoke his words about young people wanting a “painless society,” in a PBS interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I was 20 years old, the dot-com bubble was inflating, and the future seemed full of possibility.

My kids don’t see it that way. They’ve never known an America that wasn’t at war, nor one where mass shootings or terrorist attacks weren’t commonplace. They worry about the student loans that shackle peers a few years ahead of them. They see Donald Trump install a portrait of Andrew Jackson in the Oval Office, and they know it’s meant to intimidate people of color, given Jackson’s defense of slavery and his Indian Removal Act. Both Trump and I learned about Jackson as a political outsider, a populist hero; by now, we should both know that this was learning steeped in white supremacy.

My kids and their friends are being taught a much more accurate and complicated view of history than we were, not the white lies that make people display their support for “Confederate Heritage” with stickers at the State Fair. As John Hope Franklin wrote and the Jefferson Davis Highway puts on display, “The writing of history reflects the interests, predilections, and even prejudices of a given generation.

When it comes to paying attention to history, the kids are all right. Young women like my daughters know that some men have always used our physical strength, aggression and male camaraderie to set up structures of power that threaten women’s safety. But they can also see that women have gained enough power to say enough is enough. The #MeToo generation is doing what their forebears could not. Black Lives Matter activists know that the slow, patient politics of respectability didn’t take us far enough. The Standing Rock Sioux knew the oil companies would rape their land if they didn’t put their bodies in the way.

I see a generation not blinded to pain but pissed off about it, and they’re going to be voting in 2020, if not before.

Jesse James DeConto is a musician and writer in Durham. Contact him at jesse@jessejamesdeconto.com.