Is This Place History Yet?

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Four years ago, before heading to Savannah to write one of our travel columns, I sifted through the brochures sent by the city’s tourist office and noticed among the offerings a mention of a blackheritage tour. I confess that I was amazed. That was my first indication that what this Northerner considered the deepest South was starting to acknowledge and even to promote an aspect of its history that might trouble or challenge the traveler in a way tourist offices rarely seem to want to do. In Savannah I visited several of the places listed and was moved and enriched and grateful.

Other leaflets have since come our way—from states south and north. They have featured sites that shed light on the black experience in this country, ranging from archeological digs at eighteenth-century slave quarters to a walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where, the local chamber of commerce tells us, “Martin Luther King, Jr., made his valiant stand for Civil Rights.” To find out who was promoting these places and who was visiting them, we sent Michael Durham south on a week-long automobile trip. As a young reporter for Life who from 1963 to 1965 covered many of the same spots he returned to for this article, Durham could not have imagined then that twenty-seven years after the Selma-to-Montgomery march, Alabama state officials would seek to designate the once-bloody, riot-torn, fifty-mile stretch of road as a national historic trail, on a par with such other historic pathways as the Lewis and Clark, Oregon, and Santa Fe trails.

Of course, it doesn’t take an official blessing to make a place historic. The Lower East Side Marvin Gelfand gives us in his walking tour “Welcome to America” remains the same rough-and-tumble New York neighborhood the immigrant generation of a century ago walked. The pickle stores, fabric shops, and cafeterias they patronized (or worked a seven-day week in) are here, as are the spare tenements they inhabited on the first rung of their American lives. We return to the Lower East Side to browse, as Gelfand says, through a family album.

History might have sneaked up on that old city quarter, but the Little Bighorn Battlefield, where Andrew Ward traveled last June to observe an annual rite, was instantly gilded with glory. Straggling with a group of Custer enthusiasts across the hummocky high prairie that encompasses the Little Bighorn, Ward bumps up against the Custer legend and stumbles over some grittier realities.

The American past we visit in this travel issue isn’t a place furnished with onedimensional heroes and dazzling scenic effects. Rather, it is the place we all sprang from, one way or another. It speaks to the present and stands ready to shape the future.

Carla Davidson