American History and Me

Through these last weeks of watching the Charleston massacre and Bree Newsome’s beautiful act of courage taking down the Confederate Flag and now our nation’s annual celebration of independence on July 4th, I have been reflecting on my own family’s American history.revolution

Here is the story I have enjoyed telling since I moved to Asheville, NC, nine years ago:

My great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother took a train to these mountains from the eastern part of North Carolina in the 1860s and settled in Big Sandy Mush. My great-grandfather, Nicholas Arrington Collins, served in the Asheville Police Department and, as a young detective, gained some bit of local fame when he solved the Emma Post Office Robbery of 1901. He later became the Chief of Police for the APD. Later still, he served as the Buncombe County Tax Collector. My grandfather, Robert Cottrell Collins, followed in his footsteps as the County Tax Collector and was elected to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, becoming the Chair of the Board. Photos of both of these men hang in the public buildings where I regularly go to consult with City and County staff on affordable housing. My paternal grandmother, Evelyn White Collins, worked downtown at the National Climatic Data Center, then housed in the Grove Arcade.

Here’s the part of the story I seldom tell: the reason the family moved to the mountains was because they could not keep their plantation after the slaves were freed through the Civil War.

I am about as much of a WASP as one can find. Relatives from both my mother’s and my father’s side of the family came to these shores before the United States of America existed. Relatives from Edinburgh, Scotland settled in Charleston in the 1680s. John Collins, from England, settled in what is now Virginia even earlier than that.  I qualify to join both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the Confederacy.

It is that second qualification I’ve been pondering in recent weeks. Here’s what I knew growing up: when I was a child, my lovely, sweet, funny maternal grandmother, Clyde Lillian Fisher Caudell, told me the story of Sherman’s March and how much was taken from my family. I was too young to realize that the story she described had not actually happened to her, born in 1898, decades after the War. She told it in the first person. As if she had been there. As if she remembered. Because she did remember. That’s what Southern families do. And Civil War politics aside, Sherman’s March was horrid – the beginning of scorched earth policies, of ransacking and starving out civilian populations as an acceptable means to an end in the business of war.

But the ransacking of our family’s home and livestock at the hands of Sherman’s army is only one side of the story. My people served in the Confederate Army. Not only served in it, but led it. One ancestor used his entire wealth – which I gather was relatively large – to build a whole regiment in the army, of which he became the Captain. He did so with the blessing of the Confederate leaders and was paid for his efforts in Confederate dollars. At the end of the war those dollars became worthless and he was broke.

I do not mourn that fortune, nor the loss of the plantation that led my great-great grandparents to take up farming and teaching in these mountains. I am grateful, in fact, that we were forced to change one hundred years before I was born.

I wonder, though, what my history means for me now, in these days, in this time. I come from a long line of fighters. My people were part of the revolution that created this nation, part of the “Blasted Presbyterians” who helped start a new democracy. And my people were leaders in a war to extend that democracy even farther. But this time, on the other side.

My people were also farmers and teachers and public servants and small business owners and ministers. I was raised by parents committed to civil rights and equality, committed to public service and civic duty. My mother continues to have a bumper sticker on her fridge that reads, “I am a Yellow Dog Democrat!” My father always tried to claim the same, but my mother would remind him that, no, he voted for Ike. You can’t vote for a Republican presidential candidate and still call yourself a Yellow Dog Dem.

My Confederate past is a puzzle to me. It does not connect to my heart or mind or soul in the least. The flag that represents that fight turns my stomach every time I see it. But I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t something in me that admires the line of fighters from whom I come.

The revolutionaries willing to risk everything to start a new experiment in self-governance? For them, I can appreciate the fireworks of July 4th.

The other fighters, the Confederate ones? I am so very glad they lost the war. So. Very. Glad. But I am left to ask myself, what am I fighting for? For what am I willing to risk what little wealth I have? To what cause am I willing to put my life on the line?

I come from a line of fighters, all believing they were on the side of freedom. The freedom fighters I admire now do not wield weapons of destruction. They wield the power of love against the forces of hate; they use their bodies in the cause of equality; they use their voices to speak truth to power. Bree Newsome has said, “What better reason to risk your own freedom than to fight for the freedom of others?”

It is the 5th of July. The fireworks are over. The revolution continues. What will I fight for? What will I risk? What about you?


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2 Responses to American History and Me

  1. Steve Collins July 5, 2015 at 7:02 pm #

    Thank you for this interesting family history lesson. Some of this is new to me. I am also proud of our ancestors who risked so much for their beliefs, even if I do not share them today. The question, as you suggest: What will I risk for my beliefs? Not yet enough, I fear.

  2. David Collins September 8, 2015 at 4:44 pm #

    Laura, I read your comments with great interest as NA Collins was my great grandfather as well. I’ve done a tremendous amount of research in Asheville and the family home of Pleasant Hill where NA moved from after the war. Funny thing. I also work in supportive housing in the Asheville area. Would love to meet sometime and share notes.