Juneteenth in Charleston: Grief, suffering and blame

The first shots of the Civil War were fired here. The stains of grief, hatred and vengeance have not been erased.

The men of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. lead a crowd in prayer after a memorial in Charleston, S.C. (Stephen B. Morton, AP )

The men of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc. lead a crowd in prayer after a memorial in Charleston, S.C. (Stephen B. Morton, AP )

The Ku Klux Klansman’s stepson was at the end of the bar, sipping Budweiser over ice. It was 99 Fahrenheit degrees outside on the highway that ran from the old plantations down toward Charleston by the sea, and the humidity was Congolese. America’s most beautiful, most haunted city was in mourning, yet again—nine searching Christian believers, all of them African-American, shot down at prayer two nights before by an addled paleface son of the beaten South.

From the outside, the roadhouse looked abandoned to the swamps, but inside there was a Confederate battle flag—the sacred Stars and Bars—on the wall above the pool tables. Hundreds of one-dollar bills had been tacked and taped to the beams and ceiling, and a menu on a whiteboard featured battered seafood and deep-fried asparagus.

“If you’re drinking to forget,” a sign advised, “please pay in advance.”

This was Richard’s Bar and Grill on Juneteenth, 2015: a copy of the local Post and Courier on the counter, its headlines announcing the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Calhoun Street downtown; a television tuned to the unrelenting all-news blame-throwing that follows each of these endemically American tragedies, and the eponymous Richard Ruth, the saloon’s 70-something-year-old owner, smoking cigarettes and sipping the King of Beers on the rocks.

“That flag is heritage!” the old barkeep was shouting. “I’m gonna deny my heritage? You can look at it derogatory. Or you can look it as history. Who won the war? Why did we have the war? Yes, a lot of people died defending slavery. The South has changed, but that’s how it was. That flag represents the rights and the wrongs. Anybody put a hand on it, gotta deal with me.”

Then, softly:

“That was a terrible thing that happened in that church. That boy’s no hero to the Rebel cause. If you don’t have compassion for different people, and love in your heart . . .”

“We just got named one of the hundred best biker bars in America,” a waitress said, trying to lift the mood.

Richard Ruth looked up from his poor-boy’s cocktail and remembered: “I saw that white suit in my step-father’s dresser drawer one day. I asked him about it and he said, ‘Son, white people’s gotta organize, too.’ ”

“The principle for which we contended,” warned Jefferson Davis, president of the vanquished Confederacy, at the end of the Civil War, 150 years ago this spring, “is bound to reassert itself, at another time, and in another form.” That conflict already was two years in the past before the last slaves—in Galveston, Tex. —were emancipated on June 19, 1867. Thus the etymology of a holiday that had been marked in black parishes ever since: Juneteenth.

In downtown Charleston on Juneteenth, 2015, Calhoun Street at the foot of the Mother Church was a charivari of satellite trucks, Teddy bears, mourners, gawkers and balloons. Everyone already knew that 21-year-old Dylann Roof, the would-be one-man-Klan from the South Carolina uplands, allegedly had assassinated nine pious mothers, sons, pastors, legislators, sisters, and grandmothers at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in the hopes of “starting a race war.” (Apparently, having some three dozen black “friends” on Facebook was not enough to stop his crusade.) Roof was locked down in an uptown cell, having been deemed indigent enough to earn a public defender, and having been taken by police without a fight.

A black woman named Kearston Farr, age 27, had brought her eight-year-old son D’Mari and her 5-year-old daughter Ta’Liyah to gaze at the wilting flowers and the schoolchildren’s drawings and the stuffed animals that were strewn beneath the police tape on the sidewalk.

“Mommy, what happened here?” the boy wondered. “A person didn’t like black people so he shot them,” Farr told D’Mari and Ta’Liyah. Farr recalled that she had attended a wedding in the Mother Church only two weeks earlier, and she said, “What if he had come in then? He might have killed 300 people.”

“I know there are people who will applaud that young man for doing this,” she said, “but I do not believe that there will be a race war in my lifetime. If anything, people will come together and fight against something like this.”

“Were you there for the funeral of Walter Scott?” the mother was asked. Scott was the unarmed 50-year-old African-American who was shot from behind in April of this year by a white constable who had stopped him for having a burned-out brake light. By coincidence, that alleged shooter, Michael Slager, now was sharing a wing of the Charleston city detention center with Dylann Roof.

“Walter was my cousin,” Farr replied. “A very gentle soul. Wouldn’t have hurt a fly.”

There were even more degrees of closeness to the litany of grief, war, murder, hate, and vengeance that had been Charleston’s stain since the days of duels of honour; since the first cannonades of the Civil War were launched from these same streets. (As recently as 2009, two young gentlemen here argued, went home to fetch their pistols, and one was left dead in the ensuing contest. The winner was charged with “killing in a duel.”)

Tywanza Sanders, the young man who died in the church?” Farr said. “His cousin was dating my little sister.”

“Are you able to understand, in any way, what Dylann Roof wanted to do?” she was asked.

“I know that South Carolina in some aspects is still a segregational state,” said Farr. “But the Confederate flag, and people like him who have such hatred in their hearts, they are really a mockery of what South Carolina has become. The last time I saw such hatred was when the World Trade Center collapsed.”

A sweating pink preacher-man from 30 miles upstate was a few steps away on the asphalt, reading aloud from Revelation:

“I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying ‘How long, o Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’

“And it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.”

“Those people who were shot, they’re with the Lord right now and they’re jumping up and down,” said the pastor, who was a 72-year-old named Barry Owens from the (almost) all-white Trinity Bible Church. (This was a sentiment parallel to Charleston’s memorial to its Confederate heroes down at the Battery, which urged the city to “Count them happy who for their faith and their courage endured a great fight.”)

“Who taught you not to hate black people?” the white Carolinian was asked.

“The Lord,” he answered. “If the Lord was a racist, he wouldn’t have died on the cross for this Gentile sinner. Animosity has its roots all the way back to the Garden of Eden,” Rev. Owens said. “When I look at Dylann Roof, I see a confused young man. I see he has been on drugs. Satan is always using drugs to do evil. I pray for him. I don’t wish that any people go to hell except Satan himself.”

Worshippers gather to pray in a hotel parking lot across the street from the scene of a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Worshippers gather to pray in a hotel parking lot across the street from the scene of a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

At the same hour, the families of the still-unburied dead of the Mother Church were looking at Dylann Roof through a courthouse camera and telling him, “God forgives you. I forgive you. Take this opportunity to repent. Change your ways.”

On Calhoun Street, in the blazing sun: “It’ll happen again,” the preacher-man prophesied.

Given the sensitivities of the moment, it was perhaps surprising to see an uptown bistro called the Five Loaves Café featuring a local delicacy called Triggerfish. Five Loaves was a few blocks north of the Mother Church, in a formerly downmarket district that recently had been “gentrified,” which is a polite Southern way of saying that the rents became too high for many African-Americans to live there.

The Five Loaves Café did not serve deep-fried asparagus. All along the streets of its neighbourhood were elegant houses whose side porches had ceilings painted in the sky-blue tinge that Charlestonians call “haint.” The word, perhaps, had come from “haunt,” as if the colour would trick evil spirits into leaving the premises and ascending to the celestial sphere. Surely, no city in the New World deserved relief from haunting like Charleston.

The general manager of Five Loaves was a pierced and tattooed woman with a university degree in political science—Anna Mathewes, age 28. Any student of Carolina history immediately would recognize her oddly-spelled surname as one of the oldest and lordliest in the Low Country. Mathewes could trace her Palmetto State pedigree back to the 1730s, an age when, of course, her forebears might have owned as property the direct ancestors of the nine men and women who had been slain on Wednesday night at Mother Emanuel.

Indeed, Ms. Mathewes said, one of her antebellum kinsmen operated a ferry (or, more likely, his slaves did) from a dock not far from the current location of Richard’s Bar and Grill. “That place is salty,” she smiled, knowingly.

How had it come to pass that Anna Mathewes was a liberal Democrat with both an upper- and lower-case D, while Richard Ruth was so attached to the Confederate battle flag that, he swore, “If they ever try to take that flag off that wall, they’ll have to shoot my raw redneck ass.”

Dylann Roof, of course, had taken The Lost Cause even further, allegedly to the point of racist massacre. “There are still people like that, upset that we lost the war,” Mathewes said. “When slavery was abolished, whenever there is forced change, there’s always going to be pushback.”

Even on Juneteenth, even after a century and a half, it seemed, the finality still had not set in. “Why aren’t you all like that, still fighting The War Between the States?” Mathewes was asked.

“My family changed as the country changed,” she replied. “What changed it for me was that when I went to school, half my classmates were black. I hope that this ends with him, but throughout history, the violence won’t stop, given easy access to guns.”

As darkness came in peals of distant thunder, and as incomparable Charleston writhed through yet another chapter in its melancholy diary, Denmark Vesey, in a suit, not shackles, stood in a copse of live oaks and Spanish moss in a park on the north side of town. Cast in bronze on a pedestal of black marble, the statue honored the ideals of another South Carolinian who tried to ignite a race war, with no more success than Dylann Roof. Yet Vesey’s cause was death to the oppressors, not a slaughter of the innocents.

Denmark Vesey, a carpenter and former slave who had purchased his own liberty after winning a lottery, was hanged in 1822 for conspiring to ignite a general revolt among the chattels of Charleston and then lead them to freedom in Haiti. Vesey believed, according to the inscription on his monument, that “slavery was such a violation of God’s law that rebellion was necessary.” He was one of the founders of the Mother Emanuel Church.

This April 2015 photo released by the Lexington County (S.C.) Detention Center shows Dylann Roof, 21.  Charleston Police identified Roof as the shooter who opened fire during a prayer meeting inside the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., Wednesday, June 17, 2015, killing several people.  (Lexington County (S.C.) Detention Center via AP)

This April 2015 photo released by the Lexington County (S.C.) Detention Center shows Dylann Roof, 21. Charleston Police identified Roof as the shooter who opened fire during a prayer meeting inside the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., Wednesday, June 17, 2015, killing several people. (Lexington County (S.C.) Detention Center via AP)

Nearby, a man named James was sitting on a bench, immobilized by the sodden heat, just as this nation had been unable to rouse itself after the hecatombs of Virginia Tech, and Newtown, the Colorado movie theatre and the Sikh temple up in Milwaukee.

Already, the right-wingers on WTMA-AM 1250—“Charleston’s Big Talker”—were saying that “this isn’t the time to talk about the gun, to talk about the flag, this is the time to mourn for the victims.”

“The governor says Roof deserves to die by lethal injection,” a wanderer mentioned.

“That’s too easy for that motherfucker,” James on the park bench replied, sweating off an awful Juneteenth. “That’s too quick. They should torture him. Make him die slowly.

“Make him suffer. Make him suffer.”

Then, softly:




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