Nothing, absolutely nothing is more yawn-inducing than someone else’s family genealogy and history. But I think you’ll like the pictures at the end.
Just back from a short trip to my small hometown in rural Georgia. We drove the “back way” on the return trip, and I thought my readers (those from overseas especially) might like to know that while Tara is entirely a product of Margaret Mitchell’s imagination (I’m assuming of course that you know this well-known book and even better-known film), there did exist such places, a few of which still stand:
For my part, the only plantation houses I’ve ever stepped in are the ones, say, upriver of Charleston or New Orleans, where $30 gets you through the gate, the gift shop is well stocked, and young women in hoop skirts will not let you leave until you’ve bought a souvenir or two.
That doesn’t mean, however, that I haven’t spent more time, as I’ve grown older, thinking about class and privilege. After all, for my entire childhood, I was in and out of this house (seen from a side street), where my siblings, cousins, friends and I were welcome to raid the refrigerator and pantry, loll about, make prank calls to neighbors on my grandmother’s phone, sift through the so-called “plunder” room’s many artifacts from bygone eras, race around the several yards, and generally live lives of comparative ease and comfort.
“Comparative” is not an unimportant word, of course. Here is a photograph of my two great-grandmothers (maternal and paternal, that is: I hope you are not shocked to hear that my mother and father were cousins, but not close cousins), having a chat while they’re supposed to be working to tidy up the main street in our hometown. I’m guessing the picture must be from c. 1920. No Rockefellers or Duponts here, surely.
At the same time, they’re not quite in the same boat as the subjects of photographs taken by a woman named Marion Palfi (1907-1978), who visited my hometown in the late 1940s.
According to the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, where her photographs are archived, Palfi was born in Berlin to a family just one generation removed from the aristocracy. She emigrated to New York in 1940, just before Hitler invaded the Low Countries, where she was then living.
In New York, she met the poet Langston Hughes, and he became an ardent supporter. He would say of her work, “A Palfi photograph brings us face to face with hidden realities…” Through Hughes, she established a circle of friends that included Eleanor Roosevelt. Between 1945 and 1955 Palfi was included in group and solo exhibitions at none-too-shabby places like the Museum of Modern Art. She won awards. And throughout her mature career, Palfi produced photographic essays on subjects of social concern. However unfashionable it was in the booming America of the late 1940s and 1950s, she was passionate about fairness, opportunity, and justice for all people.
In and around my hometown, in 1949, she took these photos. Let them tell a different story than the pretty photos of Shoulderbone Plantation. A different and vital story.