The Real People of History

Their ordinary lives may never show up in a textbook, but they built this country, one day at a time

By Bill Thompson

Sometimes we think history is just something we read about in books. All of what is now history was at one time current events. For me, that becomes more evident when I look at documentaries on television about “The Fifties,” referring to the 1950s. The documentary approaches this period of time with the same relevance as the 1850s. It is hard for me to think of the two periods as having the same relevance, since the 1950s are still part of my perception of current events or, if you must, history.

All too often we think that history is just a lot of dates, recordings of wars, changes in geography with an endless array of documents that assure us those things are important. Of course, there are those famous people we read about, too: presidents and kings and queens, explorers and generals and such.

But even in the case of the 1950s we tend to look at the Korean War as the signature conflict that defined the time and the Cold War, the enduring element of the age. Some might say that other than that it was uneventful as historic decades go. Of course, this is not the case for those of us who lived then. What about the music and literature and the initial look at the civil rights movement. . . and saddle shoes and crew cuts and. . . you know, stuff like that? Personal stuff. That’s history, too. Every decade, every event is more clearly defined by the people who lived it whether or not it is recorded in a textbook that way.

I was reminded of this verity as I was looking through a stack of old photographs the other day. I came across a picture I had never seen before, but the scene looked familiar. It looked a lot like some of the pictures I had seen of rural families in the South in the early part of the 20th century. It was a picture of a man and a woman sitting on the porch steps of an old farmhouse apparently under construction or in the process of remodeling, since the wood was unpainted and a ladder was leaning against the roof of the porch. You could tell the couple were not posing for the picture. They both looked tired and were looking at the photographer only because he happened to be there.

In the foreground was a sturdy looking mule hitched to a drag (a flat, wooden sled about 5 feet long and 2 feet wide). The mule’s harness was standard working gear, no fancy leather. Chains were hooked from the harness to the singletree and attached to the drag. Plain cotton ropes (called plow lines) were the reins. On the drag were two large sacks and sitting on the sacks was a little girl who looked to be about 5 years old. She was holding the rope reins tightly in her hands, watching the mule as if he were her responsibility alone.

Standing beside the drag was a little boy maybe just a year or so older than the girl. Already he was preparing to take his place as a contributing member of the family. He was clad in bib overalls and a long-sleeved knit shirt. I couldn’t tell if he was wearing shoes because his pant legs came all the way to the ground. His stance told me he was ready for any challenge. He stood facing the camera, his legs spread slightly apart, his thumbs stuck in his pants pockets and his eyes squinted at the photographer. It was not a defiant pose but one of confidence, an admirable trait for a man of any age.

As I looked at that photograph, I thought of all the other families like that one: farm families who made their own way, who tilled the land and harvested and sold their crops, just to do it all again year after year. That was their life. And for them it was a good one. They would face hardships and struggles, but they would not only survive but prevail over those struggles to make a good life for themselves and their family.

Families like those in the photograph are the real people of history. Their names would never show up in a textbook, but their lives shaped this country as surely as any war that was ever fought or any document that was ever written. They weren’t rich but they weren’t poor, either. They helped make up that segment of this country we call “middle America.” That’s most of us.

In this modern age I’m afraid history forgets about those people like the ones in the photograph. But I won’t forget them because I know who they are. The couple sitting on the porch are my grandmother and grandfather. The little girl was my aunt. The confident little boy was my father.

History is not something you read about in books. History is people.

Bill Thompson is a regular Salt contributor. His newest novel, Chasing Jubal, is a coming of age story of two brothers set in the Blue Ridge in the 1950s, but steeped in Confederate history. Available where books are sold.

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