The National Park Service has struggled in the past with interpreting slavery and emancipation. However, in the aftermath of the Rally on the High Ground conference in 2000, many NPS sites have been reevaluating how they discuss and visually represent the institution of slavery and its disintegration during the Civil War.
The latest site to release a physical exhibition is Appomattox Court House National Historical Park. Recently, a friend and I traveled out to the site to see the exhibition regarding slavery and emancipation.
The exhibit was installed inside a portion of the reconstructed kitchen behind the reconstructed house that Wilmer McLean owned in 1865 and whose front parlor was the location of the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. The exhibition consisted of panels with no original objects but photographs of Civil War era photographs and three-dimensional objects as well as architecture help to tell the stories of those in the area. The exhibit is successful in that it tells a story that is relevant to Appomattox County, Virginia before, during, and in about six years after Lee’s surrender.
One panel discusses the participation of United States Colored Troops (USCTs) in the little known Battle of Appomattox Court House. That morning featured six regiments of USCTs participating in giving the Confederates the realization that there was no further hope in their cause.
The panel includes a very powerful quote illustrating that black veterans understood that their struggles would not be over just because they had fought to end slavery. This exhibit includes a quote from one of those men.
Another panel features the stories of four women and two men, one of the men was born free, allowing visitors to have personal connections to slavery and emancipation in Appomattox County, including the only civilian casualty from the Battle of Appomattox Court House.
The timeline in the exhibit helps to put slavery and emancipation in international, national, and local contexts. Clearly an area that most people may not consider is that by 1861 60% “of the white households in Appomattox County owned slaves, with most owning one to five.” There is one area of confusion in the map of the village which illustrates for example that George Peers owned no slaves in 1860 but one of the people on the voices panel, Martha Stevens was a slave owned by Peers in 1865. That was perhaps the only area where I was confused in the text. Somehow the map needs to reconcile with the voices panel.
One of the panels “Uncertainty and Hope” gives visitors a way to see the changes in Appomattox County with black education and churches following the surrender. It also poses questions and states clearly that there were many unanswered questions in the summer of 1865. I only wish that more explicitly that panel included that it would take 89 years before “separate but equal” was struck down for public educational facilities in Brown v. Board (1954) and 99 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law and 100 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law. By illustrating the gap between Lee’s surrender and the more modern civil rights legislation it would become clearer to visitors that Americans of African descent continued to demand their rights after Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia laid down their arms and after the all-USCT 25th Army Corps replaced their weapons with tools of post-war labor.
There is an exhibition area showing how the McLean slaves may have lived in reconstructed slave quarters too. I’ll withhold the image of this area in hopes that y’all may make the trek out to the village!