Bridges

Six years ago, I was trying to get a proposal off and my wife hooked me up with a few days of retreat time at a place called Banning Mills. It’s about an hour and half from Atlanta, but in many ways, rural Georgia has always seemed a world away.

Both of my grandfathers left small towns in the southeast — Covington, GA and Salem, AL — under a phenomenon I’ll just call “Klan duress”. Veiled and not-so veiled threats from powerful White men led them both to migrate to Atlanta before the 1920’s. So I acknowledge that I still have some biases to overcome.

Nevertheless, I was impressed by the beauty of the surrounding area. It claims a famous zip-line

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and nearby there are exquisite views of the Chattahoochee that are priceless for their serenity

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The image that remains with me to this day is a placard that I saw on entering the resort’s  main building to check in. It is of a Black man, a very distinguished gentleman, taken in the 1850’s/60’s. I was shocked by it’s very existence — that in Carrol County there was Black who then and to this day occupies a position of honor.

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The gentleman was Horace King, an Oberlin-educated architect. He built many bridges throughout the southeast, in fact a bridge connecting Alabama and Georgia. Before the war broke out he had purchased his freedom using monies from his bridge building efforts with his owner John Godwin. He is responsible for this innovative fantastic staircase in the Alabama State Capital, was conscripted into building ships and defenses for the Confederacy, and was an active figure in the rebuilding of Alabama after the Civil War.

It was no small feat. According to the census data ( the visualizations developed by the Census Department during the pre-Tableau 1860’s is in itself a feat of imagination and an exemplar of good data design ), more than 40% of Georgia was enslaved at the time.

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Though the “invisibility” of the my African slave ancestors is acknowledged, the census data paints a picture of a similarly un-empowered White population getting by on subsistence farming.

The image I left Banning Mills with was of Mr King standing with the White, Black, and Native American bridge builders near a completed project. I’ve probably imagined that image — so far I’ve not been able to locate it despite generous help from Banning Mill’s owner and founder Donna King. But I believe the impact of his life captures that impression: that he created bridges in his lifetime and today that allow us to escape the received and limited narratives that constrain our ability to connect, to see, and to grow.

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