Last month, I visited Philadelphia. The most memorable part of the trip was visiting Independence Hall, the original building where the Founding Fathers debated, wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The history was almost palpable as I walked through the same hall where Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin once stood. I have never claimed to be the most strident nationalist, but it’s hard not to feel patriotic in that building.
Of course, there’s nothing particularly special about the physical bricks and wood that compose the historical buildings in Independence National Historical Park. If I had walked by them without the historical markers and the park rangers, I wouldn’t have known they were anything but old, vacant buildings. They only had meaning because I spent 16 years of education learning that the Founding Fathers were the closest thing to real super heroes. I’d been trained since kindergarten to feel a sense of awe in Independence Hall.
Also this summer, I read “Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family” by Pauli Murray as summer reading for my graduate program. Murray writes about several generations of her family – one side free from the North, the other plantation slaves in Chapel Hill. Eventually, the northern branch of her family moved to Durham, what little of Durham was there at the time. Murray’s house on Carroll Street is being turned into a center for history and social justice, which I was happy to learn in my post-read Googling of the book.
I Googled the house because the book, like Philadelphia, made me think of the ways history is memorialized in our everyday landscape.
Murray’s mother’s side of the family were early trustees of the University of North Carolina, and I noticed some of the last names back then were the names of buildings I lived and had class in. Until the controversy about renaming Saunders Hall (Saunders was a KKK member), I had never given any thought to the names of the buildings that surrounded me every day.
All of these thoughts came to a head when a colleague in my graduate program said she lived down the street from Maplewood Cemetery, where Murray’s family, the Fitzgeralds, are buried. After reading the book, she went down to the cemetery to find the graves, expecting some kind of memorial for the family important for civil rights and the origins of Durham, citizens for a city to be proud of. She said she only managed to find crumbling gravestones in the shadow of a Duke family mausoleum. She was disappointed.
I decided to seek the graves out myself in preparation for writing this column in order to accurately describe them. But unlike my colleague, I was never able to spot the actual Fitzgerald burial site.
Granted, I am terrible at directions. But lost among grave markers decorated with little oval pictures of confederate soldiers, I couldn’t help but think there should be more of a sign, more of an indication of who was buried there. After all, a few weeks ago, I tossed a penny on Benjamin Franklin’s well-attended grave in a cemetery full of people for whom tour guides could give you middle names and occupations.
I know that Durham isn’t a designated national park like Philadelphia, but thinking about the things we pass by every day is an exercise worth doing. The monuments we build stand quiet but not silent, subtly prioritizing our history for us. I have lived in North Carolina nearly my whole life and Durham for years without ever knowing about Pauli Murray or that she lived in Durham. Maybe our cityscapes are telling us whose lives we really think matter.
You can reach Samantha McCormick at firstname.lastname@example.org.