Sometimes America’s legacy of white supremacy is hiding in plain sight, literally. When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a hastily passed voter suppression law that many are calling the new, new Jim Crow on Thursday night, surrounded by a half-dozen white men, he did so in front of a painting of a plantation where more than 100 Black people had been enslaved.
The fitting symbolism is somehow both shocking and unsurprising. In using the antebellum image of the notorious Callaway Plantation — in a region where enslaved Black people seeking freedom were hunted with hounds — in Wilkes County, Ga., as the backdrop for signing a bill that would make it a crime to hand water to a thirsty voter waiting on Georgia’s sometimes hours-long voter lines, the GOP governor was sending a clear message about race and human rights in the American South.
The portrait of the plantation was the starkest reminder of Georgia’s history of white racism that spans slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the rebirth of the modern Ku Klux Klan, and today’s voter purges targeting Black and brown voters — but it wasn’t the only one. At the very moment that Kemp was signing the law with his all-white posse, a Black female Georgia lawmaker — Rep. Park Cannon — who’d knocked on the governor’s door in the hopes of watching the bill signing was instead dragged away and arrested by state troopers, in a scene that probably had the Deep South’s racist sheriffs of yesteryear like Bull Connor or Jim Clark smiling in whatever fiery hellhole they now inhabit.
Indeed, Twitter was on fire Thursday night with posters drawing the straight line from notorious past segregationists like George Wallace to the 2021 actions of Kemp and the GOP-led Georgia Legislature in passing — at great speed and with little debate — a lengthy bill that also limits easy-access drop boxes for ballots and places onerous voter-ID restrictions on voting by mail, and which the New York Times reports “will have an outsized effect on Black voters.”
On one level this new voter-suppression law — “voter integrity,” in the modern GOP’s Orwellian branding — is inspired by the current and possible future events of ex-President Donald Trump’s Big Lie about fraud in the 2020 election, the narrow upset wins in Georgia for President Biden and two new Democratic senators, and the threat that voting icon Stacey Abrams poses to Kemp in the 2022 election. But there’s also a powerful pull back to Georgia past. That link is made clear by the history hanging right behind Kemp on Thursday.
As Kemp’s tweet of the closed-door bill-signing ceremony was making the rounds Thursday night, I had questions about the Old South-looking scene that the governor’s office had centered in the photo. Thanks to crowd-sourcing and specifically the help of my Twitter pal Brendan McGinn (@TheSeaFarmer), I learned that the painting is called “Brickhouse Road — Callaway PLNT” (PLNT for “Plantation ... subtle, right?) by Siberian-born artist Olessia Maximenko, who now resides in the area of Wilkes County in east-central Georgia.
Today, the Callaway Plantation is a 56-acre historic site where — as the Explore Georgia website cheerily notes — tourists can get “a glimpse into the by-gone era of working plantations in the agricultural South.” The promotional sites gloss over the fact that by the time of the Civil War, the Callaway Plantation only thrived because of the back-breaking labor of at least 100 enslaved people and perhaps many more who were held in cruel human bondage.
The harsh reality of life for enslaved people in Wilkes County is captured in this oral-history “slave narrative” of Mariah Callaway, a woman who was born into slavery there in 1852. Despite the Callaway surname, the woman described life on a nearby plantation, run by the Willis family. She claims that the enslaved people working the Wilkes County fields were mostly treated well because “a slave’s life was very valuable to their owners.”
However, Mariah Callaway added: “...[T]here were some slaves who were unruly; so the master built a house off to itself and called it the Willis jail. Here he would keep those whom he had to punish. I have known some slaves to run away on other plantations and the hounds would bite plugs out of their legs.”
It’s not clear, a century and a half later, if the Callaway Plantation with its large population of enslaved people was one of those plantations unleashing the hounds. Visitors today to the Callaway Plantation say its legacy of human bondage is deliberately downplayed. One wrote on Trip Advisor that the slave cabin “is hidden in some trees and mentioned as an afterthought and something you can go to and look at yourself.”
Two modern fans of the Callaway Plantation, apparently, are Brian Kemp and his wife, Marty, who chose the plantation for its prominent spot in the governor’s office. I know this thanks to an eagle-eyed Twitter user (@rainlover503) who found the artist Maximenko’s comment on Instagram that the couple “really love” her art of the Callaway site.
In short, the Callaway Plantation is a monument to Georgia’s history of brutal white supremacy that unfortunately didn’t disappear when Mariah Callaway and the other enslaved people were emancipated in 1865. By the 1890s, Georgia’s white ruling class enacted a series of harsh Jim Crow laws to segregate all public facilities and block most Black people from voting. The state, for all of Atlanta’s “Too Busy To Hate” bluster, was a KKK hotbed in the 1960s’ civil rights era, and in the 1980s Georgia blazed a trail into the new era of mass incarceration and voter suppression, epitomized by Kemp and his purges of legitimate voters and other Jim Crow-inspired tactics.
In 2021, it’s tempting to call Kemp signing the bill in front of the plantation painting “ironic,” when in fact it’s all too fitting. Understanding the symbolism here helps us to understand what’s really important, that the voting law is the latest cruel iron link in an unbroken chain of white supremacy that extends all the way back to 1619, when the first slave ship arrived in North American soil. But familiarity shouldn’t deaden our sense of outrage.
If you grew up shocked and angered by the photos of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, of state troopers clubbing John Lewis near the Edmund Pettus Bridge or police torturing young Black marchers with fire hoses in the streets of Birmingham, whatever you would have done back then is what you are doing now to fight this new Jim Crow era today.
In Washington, it’s more imperative than even that the Senate ditch the filibuster to pass the two federal voting laws that could potentially block or roll back suppression efforts not just in Georgia but a number of other GOP-led states with bills in the hopper. As for Georgia, Major League Baseball needs to strip metro Atlanta of the 2021 All-Star Game immediately, and stronger steps — including a boycott — need to be on the table. This is an all-hands-on-deck situation to save democracy and end systemic racism. Brian Kemp has reminded us that — just like in Faulkner’s Mississippi — that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
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