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IRWIN: Three Chain Links
Andy Irwin
Andy Offutt Irwin
three chain links

Quick, before February is over I gotta get this out, a bit of pondering regarding Black history from the perspective of a southern white guy. And although it’s a bit of a cliché, it bears repeating: in these United States, Black history is the history of all of us.

That was easy to be reminded of last week when I found myself quietly tooling around in my old beloved college town of Milledgeville. I attended Georgia College when it was a bit smaller (before it was redundantly and eye-rollingly renamed “Georgia College & State University”). Back in those days, our sports teams were “The Colonials,” and our colors were brown and yellow. (They tried to tell us that the “yellow” was “gold,” but ...c’mom.)

My first stop: Andalusia, the farm home of Milledgeville’s favorite daughter, Flannery O’Connor. It was good to get a pre-opening walk through the new Interpretive Center (the ribbon cutting is to be on March 24th). It intrigues me to see what becomes a venerable artifact when a famous person’s house is cleaned out;  among the items on display under glass cases are a six-pack of Cokes and some unopened rolls of toilet paper.  

I must confess that when it comes to my personal relationships with institutions of higher education, like a child split between parents, my loyalty is torn between my alma mater, Georgia College, and my long-time employer, Emory University. I glow with pride that Georgia College has owned and maintained Andalusia since 2017. Meanwhile, Emory has obtained most of Miss O’Connor’s papers, so – in a manner of speaking – Emory got the kids and Georgia College got the house. 

When walking the grounds of Andalusia, it’s easy to imagine what it was like as a working farm in the first half of the twentieth century. And I began thinking about one of America’s most profound literary/agricultural coincidences; Andalusia’s dairy is where the family of writer Alice Walker bought their milk. 

Alice Walker was born and grew up in Eatonton, which, by another coincidence, is where Joel Chandler Harris was born and grew up. All three of these writers, Harris, O’Connor, and Walker in differing ways and working in different times, considered race in their writing.  

Much of the work of Joel Chandler Harris is hotly debated, of course; he’s gotten a bum rap from the movie, Song of the South (chock full of unanswered questions and cringe-worthy moments), and he’s been denigrated by Alice Walker. But he was exalted by African-American writer Ralph Ellison who said, “Aesop and Uncle Remus have taught us that comedy is a disguised form of philosophical instruction; and especially when it allows us to glimpse the animal instincts lying beneath the surface of our civilized affectations.” 

Legacy: Joel Chandler Harris was a constant and progressive advocate for Black education and suffrage. In a letter exchange with Andrew Carnegie, he wrote that he was working for “... the obliteration of prejudice against blacks, the demand for a square deal, and the uplifting of both races so that they can look justice in the face without blushing.”  

Yes, as with a lot of white men, Mr. Harris was ethnocentric and paternal, but it gladdens me to note that his West End Atlanta home, The Wren’s Nest, is now a center for African American storytelling. His journalistic writing and his correspondence with the great African American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois informs us that Mr. Harris, too, would have been gladdened to have his home utilized in this way. And all indications lead me to believe that he would have been tickled at the debate that his material has brought. 

And that’s one of the lessons, isn’t it?  Read it.  Debate it.  Read it, again.  

Then keep it around to read and debate some more. And for those who want to hide books away, here’s a warning from the savvy essayist Sue Kessler: “When you bury something… it grows.” 

But back to Milledgeville, and my next stop, Memory Hill. 

In looking for history, one of my primary sources is cemeteries. I grew up with a cemetery in my backyard, so this isn’t such a stretch. 

When I was in college, Memory Hill was a place I went for quiet and solitude. I would walk to the cemetery from my dorm down Liberty Street, so named because when the location of the campus had been a prison, the only way a lifer could obtain liberty was to die and be rolled to his grave.

Many of the dead citizens of the city that became Georgia’s cotton-rich capital in 1804 gave me enlightening reading from their verbose epitaphs. That’s where I learned from sugaring marble that a man’s first spouse is, “WIFE OF…” and his second spouse is, “CONSORT OF...”  In the northern two-thirds of those burial grounds are men of high government position and military rank and affiliation and association and religious devotion, lauded with high praises and accolades aplenty.  

But in the southern third, in the old African American section, although the city’s Black population outnumbered the white population by twenty percent at the start of The Civil War, there are very few stones. The reasons are obvious.

When I was a student,  the white section of the cemetery was perpetually cared for by the city, but the overgrowth of the black section was “managed” with an annual controlled burn. I remember terra cotta tablets strewn about,  “Ten Commandments-shaped” grave markers with a sunburst relief pattern but no actual writing, about the size of my two open hands palms-up and together – posthumous gifts to laborers of the Milledgeville Brick Works that operated from just after The Civil War until the 1940s. In the decades since I was a student, all those markers appear to be gone. 

But the most arresting markers are chain links hanging from stakes – or solid wrought iron representations – at the heads of graves. Three chain links designate one who was born, lived, and died as an enslaved person. Two links represent one who was born and lived as a slave but was made free before death. Fewer of these sepulcher markers – be they two links or three – are here now; the ones that remain are secured by concrete slabs added generations later.

I am speaking as a white Southern man who remembers the latter part of the Jim Crow South, and as one whose great-grandfather leased Black convict labor for his lumber mill and farm into the 1940s, a practice that began in Georgia in 1868. These convicts-turned-laborers were imprisoned on the very same soil on which my college would later be built, many of whom are likely buried in the paupers’ graves in the south part of Memory Hill where I took my recent walk. Men who finally made their way down Liberty Street. 

It is my simple hope that we continue to find ways to look justice in the face without blushing. 

Andy Offutt Irwin is a storyteller, singer/songwriter, and humorist who lives in Covington, GA. He can be reached at