Blacks and connecting to Civil War historic sites

First, I am sorry that there has been so little activity here lately. I got pretty busy this fall and obviously dropped off. I will try to do better as I appreciate my readership.

I am pleased to see that numerous folks have shared and commented on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article in The Atlantic. I believe that he knocked the nail on the head in recounting how the Lost Cause philosophy blurred and continue to blur many people’s understanding of the American Civil War. I also appreciate that Coates notes that for those carted to American from Africa or born in America and possessing African descent (though not considered citizens by white Americans before the Civil War) had a longer and more tortured war than just four years but rather one that began with the Middle Passage and continued forward through the Civil War (which isn’t even to get into those often disappointing years from 1865 to the present). However, Coates’ question is where are Black Americans in the study of Civil War history and participation in visiting that war’s historic sites.

For those of us, like myself, who practice public history, this is a question that often comes up. Being a Black American, I am often asked, why I participate so actively in going to the war’s historic sites and why others in my racial group do not. I appreciate that fellow friend and blogger, Kevin Levin posted on Civil War Memory, Rather than frame the challenge of how to introduce African Americans to the Civil War within a broad narrative that ends in defeat at the turn of the twentieth century, it may be helpful to look more closely at what was clearly a sustained reawakening of interest within living memory [during the Civil Rights fights of the 1950s through 70s].”

A host of historians have looked at participation of Blacks in Emancipation Day celebrations, veteran reunions, and pension requests for veterans of United States Colored Troops regiments and the Federal navy, their widows and children in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I am not going to rehash the conversations about the failures of Reconstruction and the pathetic education system that sprung up throughout the South and urban North in the era of white supremacy. I will simply direct those of you who read here to check out works published by David Blight and Barbara Gannon among others.

Those of us who practice public history know that our museums, historic sites, local, state, and National Parks have a track record of failing to be inclusive in the past. The history they practiced echoed Lost Cause and Reconciliation themes that were popular with veterans, who often were instrumental in getting these places preserved. Therefore bravery, honor, and camaraderie were areas that the veterans could agree both sides possessed. White Southerners embraced that slavery was not a cause of the Civil War, but rather that a dominant Federal government suppressing individual rights forced secession. White Northerners embraced that they were fighting to defend a glorious republic. Both were often willing to weave these things together to create a palatable version of the Civil War.

Times however have changed and already the 150th anniversary of the Civil War is not like the 100th anniversary of the war.

Historic sites have changed in the last 15 or so years. The Museum of the Confederacy’s tours of the Confederate Executive Mansion have been more inclusive of the white and black, free and enslaved people who worked there and escaped from there. In 1896, it would have been impossible for Confederate veterans, their wives, and their children to imagine that now that museum employs Black people and has partnered with the historically black North Carolina Central University.

Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park has been lucky in the last several years to see the memoir of John Washington published through the editorship of David Blight. Previously this memoir, an ex-slave’s memoir was squirreled away. Now the park’s interpretive staff has used the memoir heavily in interpreting the experience of slavery in the town of Fredericksburg versus rural life. The narrative is clever in Washington’s ingenuity in escaping in the spring of 1862 when Union troops were in Stafford County, just across from Fredericksburg.

On November 1, 2011, President Barack Obama signed an executive order making Fort Monroe a unit of the National Park Service. Fort Monroe is located on Old Point Comfort, where the Dutch ship containing the first 20 and some odd Africans temporarily stopped in Virginia. It was at Fort Monroe in 1861 that Union General Benjamin Butler decided he would not return Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory, three slaves who fled their bondage and called these fleeing people “contraband of war.” Which while still termed people as property, this was an important movement in the liberation of enslaved people in the South. Following the release of the Emancipation Proclamation, a few United States Colored Troop regiments were raised at Fort Monroe and other regiments passed through there on their way to and from Virginia and North Carolina. While there is only but one member of the staff at Fort Monroe currently, the superintendent is committed to telling the myriad of stories ranging from these issues to Virginia Indians (among other Native people), the imprisonment of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the aftermath of the Civil War, and on through the 1800s, 1900s, and up to the end of the fort as a military installation in 2011.

These are just a few examples of where the public history field is in practice and yet as Coates points out and as I have experienced, there is still a struggle in getting Black people to these places. So we’re back to the question of why?

I suggested at the Association for the Study of African-American Life & History Conference (ASALH) back in October that at some point those of us in the Black community must have a “community conversation.” In that conversation we need to ask why we do not go to historic sites and move beyond the blame the museum/historic site/local,state, and National Parks.

Part of the conversation must include a nod to the Baby Boomers who grew up in the post-World War II era up to 1964 are a large segment of the population. Those Boomers who are Black people mostly attended poorly funded, underserved schools which (often) had ratty history books that were published with the Lost Cause doctrine written throughout them. My mom was one of those students. Black and White children were politicized by their communities throughout the country as school integration was pushed forward through the actions of Black students, their parents, and the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision by the Supreme Court. These Boomers often never went to a National Park or a historical museum when they were children because they were not welcome or only welcome on certain days of the week or in certain areas of the building.

The Boomers’ children (born in the 1970s through the mid-1980s), might not have been exposed to cultural heritage sites. Their parents may have believed that there was no need for them to take their children because they had not been and that their parents and grandparents had also not gone. The most many of these children (and often Generation Z) are exposed to figures of “Black History” is for the month of February.

As a part of our “community conversation” we also need to think about the phrase “We are a proud people,” which is heard in many in ethnic minority communities or even in nationalist views. However, how proud are we?

Recently, Gladys Knight received an award at the 2011 Soul Train Awards. In her thank you speech she said that she stands on the shoulders of those who went before her, which included those who survived the Middle Passage and enslavement to those like Martin Luther King, Jr. who fought for equality.  However, the audience, dominated by Black entertainers, executives, and folks of a variety of backgrounds who were lucky enough to secure tickets, sat dormant when she commented about enslaved people and roared into applause at the mere mention of King. WHAT?!

These matters are connected to the issue of where are Black people at Civil War sites and battlefields. I believe for too much of Black America, we decide that our history begins about 1950. It is during the middle of the 20th century that iconic people such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. are placed as peaceful, non-violent folks beside the vitriolic segregationists platforms and actions of those like George Wallace and Bull Connor. America largely has a problem with violence. Therefore we do not commemorate people like Malcolm X, the Deacons for Defense or the Black Panthers. Black History Month programs so often commemorate an almost scripted series of people and events: King, the Selma March, Brown v. Board of Education, the Prince Edward County, Virginia school closure; the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Act.

During Black History Month we popularly give a nod to only three people who were enslaved: Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, and Harriet Tubman. However, we really do not analyze much about them. At the ASALH conference in October, even I (who has a M.A. in History) surrounded by a room full of scholars, people with many varied degrees, and people who just have an interest in history and most of us were truly shocked at the amount of activity that Harriet Tubman was involved with in South Carolina during the Civil War. She literally got dozens upon dozens of enslaved people off their owners’ plantations toward some level of freedom. We say that Harriet Tubman was the “Moses of her people” but how many students know she was helping Union generals and naval personnel in Lowcountry South Carolina navigate in Confederate territory and simultaneously get enslaved people out of slavery?

Douglass is probably the most quoted former American slave. He was a powerful force in the abolition movement; however, everyone must do more to include voices that were not in agreement with Douglass and others who were. Even in his time, Douglass could share the stage with others.

My larger point is that as a proud group of people, we must connect ourselves to commemorating the Civil War. We can all do this across races, generations, and regional locations by reading more. We have to get out of the house and go to plantations, to cemeteries, to battlefields. There is room for everyone to demand to know more. At the ASALH conference, author Kate Clifford Larson reflected on a play she saw with some young students. One young White girl was outraged that no one had ever told her about how busy Harriet Tubman was in helping people escape to freedom. She said in front of a large audience that she was mad because she needed a heroine too!

We (and here I mean ALL of America) must look into the Civil War to understand how our country existed before, during, and after the conflict. What areas of concern for people in the Civil War era are relevant to our lives today? How do we (individuals of the present) fit into the past? Well, maybe we can start to answer these questions when we all stop thinking that historic sites have nothing there for us and go find out what took place there.



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6 responses to “Blacks and connecting to Civil War historic sites

  1. Jess in Norway

    Fantastic article, Emmanuel.

  2. I have always thought it tragic that so few African Americans seem to embrace their early history. When I worked at Drayton Hall, there was exactly ONE black person on the staff in the interpretation department (out of about twenty five!), even though I know the management was extremely interested in having more, as we put a lot of focus on slavery and the experience of slavery. There just weren’t applicants. It is something that has always bothered me about reenacting, as well. I can count the number of black reenactors I know on one finger when there should be so many more to tell the story of their participation in the Revolutionary War. I don’t know why it is, but I know it is a problem.

  3. Good ideas. Important for folks doing public history that by 2050 most Americans will be black, Latino or Asian American. If we can’t interpret the war to America’s emerging population then it will soon fade into irrelevance.

  4. Thanks to you, Jess & Pat for your comments.

    Taylor, I cannot speak totally to the reasons that there is a disconnect between modern day Black Americans and American history. However, I tried to suggest in this post that the disconnect comes from picking up a historical narrative that is familiar and generally comfortable. While racism and Jim Crow of the mid-20th century isn’t comfortable, the actions of those like Barbara Johns, MLK, Jr., and Rosa Parks are deemed valuable and uplifting.

    The American cultural standard (which transcends races) of being uncomfortable with violence therefore gives discomfort to discussions of wars and their effects. This would also make it difficult for people to remember a Civil Rights period that includes more demanding and/or aggressive leaders and organizations as I mentioned above.

    I think it is important that everyone try to open dialogues with this community. Perhaps the more successful example of this that I recently read about occurred at Cliveden in Philadelphia. You can read about that here:

  5. Discomfort with violence has not discouraged white people from an interest in the Civil War.
    My students want non-white heroes to be non-violent, while they have no problem with white leaders, like Washington, Lincoln, and FDR engaging in massive violence as long as it is for a good cause.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      I think we have to do more to suggest that sometimes violence has been the only way to solidify civil rights and equalize opportunities and that non-whites have been active in that. Whether that be resistance to Euro-American and African-American settlement in the United States by Native people or African-Americans in the United States’ Civil War Armies or Navies. By bringing those stories to the fore and contextualizing them as the good cause, hopefully folks like your students, will begin to appreciate those heroes too.

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