The Interstate system lived up to its name on I-55 and-57 as we passed through five states – Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois within 300 miles. Our destination was Coles Creek Campground located on Carlyle Lake, yet another Corp of Engineer Campground that would be home for two days (see slideshow below). This gave us one full day to ride the MetroLink into downtown St Louis where we would stand in awe of the Gateway Arch. After that, we drove north to Springfield, Illinois where we stayed for a few days in a campground a short distance from the capital city.
By 8 am, we arrived in St Louis to see the city’s recovery from the 4th of July festivities. Scattered about the streets and avenues of the central downtown area was much evidence from the night before when hundreds of people viewed the fireworks over the 630-ft tall Arch while consuming adult beverages and assorted food truck munchies. City workers were busily cleaning up the grounds and tearing down the bandstands as we walked from the 6th & Pine Metrolink station through Kiener Plaza to the Old Courthouse that stands stately yet eclipsed by very tall modern buildings. You wouldn’t know it to look at it, but this was National Park territory. Unfortunately, the courthouse was under renovation and all we could do was watch a Park Ranger enter the building.
Let me talk about that Old Courthouse for a second as it is within the Gateway Arch National Park. The Old Courthouse has historical significance that cannot be overstated. It is where court decisions were made in Missouri that eventually led up to the dreadful and what many constitutional scholars refer to as “the worse decision ever rendered by the Supreme Court”.
In 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott, both born into slavery and among several hundred other enslaved people had the courage to come to the Old Courthouse and file a petition for their freedom. After a mistrial, a win and a loss, the couple filed a suit in Federal Court that was eventually considered by the Supreme Court in 1856. On March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Roger B Taney read the opinion that the suit for freedom should be dismissed for two reasons which can be summed up as follows:
At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, African Americans were not considered to be citizens, therefore, the Scotts had no right to sue in court, and secondly, the Missouri Compromise was invalid, thus no territory has the power to pass laws that limit slavery because, get this, the right of property of a slave was guaranteed by the Constitution.
How’s that for originalism? At the risk of going off on a political tangent, I’ll move away from the ‘originalist’ concept which has reached the American conscious as of late and instead talk about one of the most profound consequences of traveling through the United States, and that is how we have come to see that one place can be tightly connected to another despite the great distance that may separate them or obvious differences in appearance. With that, I’d like to describe the Dred Scott decision and how it is connected to our perceptions gained from our visit to the Gateway Arch and later, Abraham Lincoln’s Presidential Museum in Springfield, Il.
Most people will visit the Gateway Arch to marvel at a magnificent feat of architectural design and engineering – and to take a thrill ride on the tram up one of the legs of the arch to its top. They’ll consider the exceptional precision of less than one inch required to connect the two legs at the top. They’ll ponder the “caternary curve” that is as wide on the ground as it is high. But I wonder how many give greater thought to the reason it was built in the first place. And not just as a memorial to Thomas Jefferson and to give a great bow to the city of St Louis, but for its meaning as it was envisioned by the designer, Eero Saarinen.
The Gateway Arch is a tribute to the country’s Manifest Destiny, that which inspired westward expansion. Despite it being built a century or more beyond the peak of westward expansion, the Arch was built in St Louis out of recognition of the river city that was once the capital and gateway to the new territory back in the day, like back during the Dred Scott days. Enjoy the slideshow below of my photos of the Arch.
The United States as we know it today, including all the interstate highways that connect them would not exist without the vision of Thomas Jefferson. By his ambition and leadership, the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition that embarked from St Louis, a new world opened itself to hundreds of thousands of immigrants that populated it from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. But what can’t be ignored is the fact that much of the westward expansion that came out of the Louisiana Purchase and later from the acquisition of Mexican territory was, at the very least, burdened with political controversy. In a nutshell, the south wanted westward expansion of slavery, the north wanted free states. The fight between free and slave territories and for the creation of free vs slave states to join the union went from state-level conflicts to a full blown Civil War.
Which brings us to Illinois, the Land of Lincoln. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, to be exact. Because it is Lincoln who led the Union through the Civil War and proclaimed emancipation so that African Americans could become Union soldiers and help win the war, the United States would not be 50 in number without the leadership and vision of Abraham Lincoln.
By signing the Homestead Act during the Civil War, Lincoln added support to federal resources used to ramp up westward expansion with the intention of gaining a Union foothold west of the Mississippi River. Expansion became very much part of the Civil War as Union volunteers fought to gain free states as well as remove slavery from the southern states. Given this, I suspect Jefferson and Lincoln would approve of Gateway Arch and the fact it is a National Park employed by a union of 50 states.
Although it came at a great price to so many people, the fact that we can travel 3000 miles in our home from one coast to the other without showing a passport and visit dozens of national parks and monuments and 48 state capitals if we like while doing so, is simply an amazing thing. Red or blue, north or south, rich or poor- every state is sticker-worthy in our minds and we are fortunate to be able to travel through each of them.
One last thing, while visiting Springfield the capital of Illinois, we toured the State Capitol which was a highlight for us. See for yourself with this slideshow.
After loitering in Florida for two weeks, we made our way to Mississippi with a short stopover in Alabama. As we pulled out of our green sanctuary that is the Gunter Hill Corp of Engineers campground outside of Montgomery, we braced ourselves for a long bumpy ride. The angry Interstate highway pavement through Alabama and Mississippi shakes our home on wheels with Richter Scale strength. Safely past the worst of it (through Birmingham), we headed northwest on I-22 toward Memphis where the road became more subdued but still mustered a frequent jab or punch just to let us know it could turn mean at any time.
As always, when we cross the state line into Mississippi, we are reminded of its burden. It would be our home over the fourth of July holiday weekend, but there seemed to be sparse indication of celebration anywhere. Nestled within the lackadaisical rural area of northern Mississippi is another Corp of Engineer campground, Hernando Point on Lake Arkabutla that we became quite fond of. Two years ago, it was destroyed by an unexpected tornado in the month of February that “came outta nowhere” according to one RV’er we met there. After the cleanup, the campground received a major facelift as all sites were upgraded with full hookup.
But enough of Mississippi, we came here for Memphis, a city full of stories. Before the brutality of the heat forced us to seek refuge indoors in downtown Memphis, we took a walking tour (without blue suede shoes). It became evident as our tour guide Shannon told one story after another that Memphis is a survivor. It survived the Civil War, an earthquake or two or three and a couple bouts with yellow fever. The ancient Pyramids of Giza that have been around for some time now come to mind – after all, Memphis is named after an ancient Egyptian capitol. Founded in 1819, Memphis is not nearly as old as the pyramids, but it has survived horrible things while growing into one of the largest cities in the antebellum south once having a world market for cotton and lumber.
Memphis is not a cosmopolitan city by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, it was difficult to avoid comparisons to Nashville, where we also took a walking tour a couple years ago. Both cities have reputations built on music. While Nashville, although a bit pretentious, has a “je ne sais quoi” that generates a celebratory atmosphere, Memphis in contrast sings the blues like it has truly suffered through it. And I think much of what Memphis is today can be attributed to an event that occurred on August 13, 1878.
Back in 1878, the connection between mosquitoes and the spread of deadly viruses was largely unknown. By that time, yellow fever outbreaks were not unusual in the south. Quarantined steamboats along the Mississippi River were common when a man escaped one that was docked on the river near Memphis. Seems the man still had an appetite when he entered Kate Bionda’s restaurant for a meal. Several days later, on August 13th to be exact, Kate Bionda died of yellow fever, the first casualty of over 5000 Memphis residents to die of the fast spreading virus from Aug 13 until Oct 28 when the first frost appeared.
Within days of Bionda’s death, over 25,000 people fled Memphis. Those remaining were either too poor or infirmed to get out. Poor sanitation conditions caused the virus to spread quickly in the city that had a reputation of being sickly and filthy. The devastating epidemic received national attention (mainly because no one wanted the refugees in their cities) and various charitable groups came to Memphis to offer help. Residents that remained rallied and helped each other out. The famous Peabody Hotel stayed open to house doctors and nurses. Quarantined refugee camps were set up and Blacks were allowed to serve as policemen and firefighters. Everyone was in it together.
The subsequent loss of over 30,000 people bankrupted the city and caused the state of Tennessee to revoke its city charter. But there is a silver lining somewhere in this tragedy. The next year as another threat of yellow fever bared down on Memphis, efforts to clean up the city accelerated with the help of a national sanitary reform. This led to an innovative and perhaps revolutionary waterworks system. Designed by the same man who designed the Central Park drainage system, Memphis’s upgraded sanitation system was cutting edge and became the model for several other cities to follow suit. Consequently, Memphis regained its city status and between 1900-1950 increased its population from 100,000 to 400,000.
Which brings me to the Memphis sanitation strike that took place in 1968, another event that put Memphis on the map. Most of the workers were Black, working for a segregated city run by a mayor with ties to the KKK and a penchant for maintaining Jim Crow. Non-unionized, the sanitation employees had little opportunity to improve working conditions, which became tragically clear with the lack of response from the city when two workers were crushed to death by a garbage compactor.
Their deaths led to a massive strike. It was a bad scene all around and eventually Martin Luther King Jr came to Memphis in support of the strike. Dr King was offered a room at the “whites only” Peabody Hotel. He refused it and instead stayed at the Black-owned Lorraine Motel. During the days of segregation, Blacks traveling the USA relied on “The Green Book” (the Negro Motorist Green Book) to find lodging and restaurants. Owned and operated by Walter and Loree Bailey, the Lorraine Motel was listed in the book. It would be King’s final stop.
It is from the corner of Mulberry and Butler where the Lorraine Motel stands that we received an unexpected lesson in our Civil Rights tour of the USA. Following King’s death, it was Walter Bailey’s wish to turn the Lorraine Motel into a memorial to Dr King. A few months prior to Bailey’s death in 1988, the motel closed and plans to build a civil rights museum on site began. Unfortunately, the tenants in the Lorraine Motel were evicted, the last of them being Jacqueline Smith who did not leave without a fight and 34 years later, she is still fighting. Her protest began with these words:
“You people are making a mistake. If I can’t live at The Lorraine, I’ll camp out on the sidewalk out front.”
After several years of camping out across the street, Smith was provided by the city a small house to live in. However, this has not stopped her protests. Every day without fail, she resides over a small booth of sorts on the corner of Mulberry and Butler (check it out on Google Maps), keeping vigil and ready to spread her message to anyone that will listen. While camped at Hernando Point, I learned about Jacqueline Smith from fellow RV’ers. Vivian and I wanted to meet her.
Adorned in a colorful scarf and dark sunglasses, the diminutive Jacqueline Smith held up a tattered copy of Dr King’s “A Testament of Hope” and implored us to “read his words, not those written by white people who glorify King’s death and negativity with a multi-million dollar purchase of the rooming house from where Dr King was shot“. She spoke to us of the ill effects of gentrification, interracial marriages and wealthy Black people spending their money on things other than to help other Black people. But mostly, it was about the lack of support for the homeless and disadvantaged, healthcare and help for the old and infirm. “Those are the issues that mattered most to Dr. King and they still matter today”, says Smith. And when I asked her if she had met King, she promptly rapped my knuckles with these words, “That question is not relevant to the conversation”.
We were taken aback by Ms. Smith’s words. Walking toward Central BBQ a block away from the Lorraine, Vivian and I pondered those words and while we agree with the message about support for the disadvantaged, there were other things we could not see eye to eye. According to Ms Smith, “They wanted King to marry a white woman”. I am not sure who ‘they’ is, but we couldn’t help think, what if Dr. King fell in love with a white woman? Who are we to dictate who he, or anyone for that matter can or cannot marry? At any rate, I must thank Jacqueline Smith for her tenacity of keeping the fires stoked and for inspiring the young Black man who sat talking with her and taking notes in his copy of King’s book. I thank her for adding a fresh perspective to our Civil Rights education and making our visit to Memphis more memorable than usual.
Lastly, before we left Memphis, we had to see the 322-ft tall “Memphis Pyramid”, or what our tour guide referred to as “The Redneck Disney”. The Pyramid was built to serve as an arena as Memphis tried to lure pro teams to its city. After losing money with the opening of the Fedex Forum, it was bought out by Bass Pro Shops in 2015. Enjoy the visual delights of a Bass Pro Shop on decorative steroids.