Black Participation in the Civil War 150th anniversary

Where are all the black people at the Civil War 150th commemorations?!

This question has appeared in multiple formats including Natasha McPherson’s post and comments about that from Kevin Levin and Jimmy Price.

I have been a black participant in the Civil War 150th in part due to my work and in part because I’ve long been interested in the Civil War period. There are likely a multitude of reasons why participation from the African-American community has been lacking but I do not agree with Professor McPherson’s comment that the Civil War was not  “our war” (i.e., black Americans).

We have to get to some issues facing a large number of blacks in America. One issue that an acquaintance of mine, Tiya Miles brought up at the Future of the Civil War conference back in March is that historical segregation in traveling practices has inhibited some blacks from traveling.

In the 1930s-60s, it was not always clear where people of African descent could eat a hearty meal, sleep, acquire gasoline, get their car repaired, or a range of other issues when traveling on the roads. Sure there was Victor Green’s The Green Book, which was a travel guide published between 1936 and 1964 which was designed to give African American motorists information for comfortable and safe places to room and board during this period of segregation; but, there still would be vast stretches of land where you would be on two lane roads (at best), and perhaps victim to problems. As most Civil War battlefields are located in the South, this was a legitimate concern for black families. Remember, cars weren’t getting 48 miles per gallon like my Toyota Prius does now. It would also be wise for us to remember how cost prohibitive a car was for many folks (white, black, or otherwise) until fairly recently.

What this perhaps did for some folks is create a culture of not traveling. If mom and dad didn’t go anywhere and didn’t take their kids anywhere, the kids grow up and have kids who don’t take their kids anywhere or if they do it is one or two family vacations when the children are young usually to a theme park. Generations were created of folks staying near or at home.

Another issue is there was prejudiced history in the Jim Crow era. The experiences and contributions of wartime blacks in the North, South, and West were not included in history books. My mom, a product of a segregated school system, often told people in my youth and her 40s, 50s, and early 60s that it was *I* who taught her about black people during the Civil War period because it was not included in their schoolwork of the 1950s and 1960s. I don’t mean that she didn’t know about Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman but I mean about United States Colored Troops, enslaved people who escaped and those who didn’t during the antebellum and Civil War period, former slaves who go on to become legislators during Reconstruction. So let’s say the Baby Boomers weren’t told in any great detail about the varied experiences of blacks in Civil War-era America, then their children may or may not hear about it, and then the Baby Boomers grandchildren don’t, etc.

So what can I say at this point, about half-way through the Civil War 150th regarding black participation?

I can say that with the exception of one 150th event, I have seen at least one other black person in the audience. Is this a measurement of success? I don’t think so. However, as Kevin asked, what is?

I can say that our historic sites which 50 years ago would not have touched on the issues facing blacks (or immigrants, Native Americans, women, or children) are doing a better job. One of my favorite events of the 150th was an event I organized at work in 2012, it was not focused on a battle but rather on a series of enslaved families and a plantation owner’s family. Ten African-American volunteers and myself portrayed real enslaved people who lived and worked on the Eppes family’s plantation while a white female volunteer portrayed Mrs. Eppes and through a series of semi- scripted scenarios we portrayed to the audience the different emotions and feelings of people as the U.S. Navy neared the plantation in the spring of 1862. Throughout the weekend we had people from diverse backgrounds show up and interact with the volunteers and our staff in third and first-person interactions. There certainly was no “shame” in our game in giving visitors (and indeed ourselves) insight on how these people lived in 1862.

Volunteers and the author portraying enslaved people and the plantation mistress at the Petersburg National Battlefield living history program "Seeking New Shelters" in April 2012.

Volunteers and the author portraying enslaved people and the plantation mistress at the Petersburg National Battlefield living history program “Seeking New Shelters” in April 2012.

I can say that in my work and in special events for the 150th that some blacks are showing up and are engaged with questions and serious conversations. I’ve seen this personally and through photos of Civil War 150th programs that I could not attend.

The author at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gaines' Mill portraying Cornelius, an enslaved man who escaped in the summer of 1862 from the Wickham family plantation, Hickory Hill in Hanover County, Virginia.  Photo by Jason Martz, NPS.

The author at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gaines’ Mill portraying Cornelius, an enslaved man who escaped in the summer of 1862 from the Wickham family plantation, Hickory Hill in Hanover County, Virginia. Photo by Jason Martz, NPS.

Scott Manning  has issued a brief little directive we should all take, talk to your black friends and family and create a dialogue about the tough stuff of race, slavery, emancipation, and freedom. Then you can perhaps get them to come with you. Speaking as a black man, I was fortunate to be raised in family who discussed these issues with one another.  I was blessed with the capabilities to ask what it was like in the past, though not a slavery and Civil War past. I was fortunate to have been nurtured to use my love of history; however, it took INTERACTION between me, my family, and my friends. This has given me some amazing opportunities to do presentations regarding my own free mixed-race family’s Civil War experiences to enslaved body servants serving Confederate troops to United States Colored Troops during the war and a whole range of other topics from the slave trade through the Freedmen’s Bureau. But no one is simply born with historical knowledge, so foster it within your household (regardless of race) and your own networks.


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11 responses to “Black Participation in the Civil War 150th anniversary

  1. Andrea

    This was a deeply powerful post, perhaps one of your most inspiring so far (and you have written many good ones). I read this and my mind immediately made connections with Northeastern US sites near me, issues of racism/immigration and industrialization.

    And I was also struck by the powerful practical points you have made. Ideas about cultural patterns and travel are very important and often overlooked. Especially at a point when many Americans are struggling in the current economic conditions.

    I do find myself wondering if battle reenactments are likely to be the best measure of interest and involvement. (As opposed to any other anniversary events).

    I have encountered African American groups in multiple communities near my family’s homes that have put together events to interpret and honor the 150th anniversary of different Civil War events. Many have chosen to focus on the Emancipation Proclamation instead of battle reenactments. Watching those community driven events has spoken powerfully of the community recognition of the importance of the Civil War.

    I will also note as a historian who isn’t strongly tied to either the Civil War or the reenactment community, there is a strong (often mistaken) outsider perspective (visible in “Sweet Home Alabama” amongst other movies) of reenactors as white males, largely Confederate-celebrating men steeped in “Lost Cause” nostalgia and “Save Your Dixie Cups” stereotype that this is what reenacting is about. I think that stereotype–however mistaken it may be–is another issue that can’t help.

    I was stunned by your descriptions of your mother’s experiences, and I was reminded of the conversations my mother had with me (and the exhibits I visited in grad school about immigration) on the differences in Catholic School textbooks for how “the immigrant” and the issue of “immigration” in the 1950s-1960s got depicted. The same idea that there were different focuses and different awarenesses seems to be something many of us overlook.

    I was also reminded of the recent privelige I had to visit Lambert Castle, a historic site associated with the Paterson Silk Mills and the 1913 Paterson Strikes (labor history) with a family friend who immigrated from India. She had no historical context for this strike and would not have gone to this (or many other historical sites) had it not been raining the day we went. For her, it was just an outing. She spoke about how she doesn’t know much history here so she doesn’t feel the need to go to museums as much when it’s about history. She was asking basic questions about why people worked in mills, what they would want, etc. For me, this was not only American history but “family history,” and I was struck by her conversations about industrialization happening in India, and the changes in fabric skills between generations in her family.

    I can only imagine how alienating this sort of experience could be for people who view the Civil War as a war between white people about the control over one’s life. But I do think this would change my perspective, and I think as the broad historical narrative gets more “inclusive” people will connect with it more.

    I think starting a dialogue is an important and I will be sharing this with many different friends and family members.

  2. Very thought provoking post. I do historical characters and so many of the wonderful women characters I do (Susie King Taylor, Harriet Jacobs, and Mary Elizabeth Bowser) are from the Civil War era. I Assumed that the 150th anniversary of the Civil War would create a huge opportunity to present them, but I have been disappointed by the lack of demand for their stories, This has armed me with a better sense of what I’m up against and how to work around it so that these ancestral stories can be shared and appreciated by a larger audience. Thank you – love this blog.

    • I appreciate your comments! I wouldn’t lose hope quiet yet. I saw Susie Taylor portrayed (through photos) at Fort Sumter for the Fort Wagner 150th anniversary events.

      Also, not sure where you are located but try your local/regional libraries. Summer may be winding down but there may still be some summer camps interested too.

  3. Sherri

    Very nice. Thank you for educating those of us who don’t know about the experiences of Black people in America.

  4. Henderson Anita

    Em, another excellent post! As one of those black living historians that attended Hopewell last May, I was thrilled to have that many quality, black CIVILIAN, living historians at one event. The reaction of the public was extremely positive to the scenarios we portrayed. I have been doing living history for 15 years now both as a civilian and military interpreter. Usually we are generally either 1 or 2 at an event. Last year was a great exception to that rule. This year I attended the Blue Gray Alliance 150th Gettysburg in my military interpretation and was Chief Confederate bugler and made Sgt. which is the first time I have held rank. It was a great honor and I think I made positive in roads in my interpretation and bugling as well. We had TWELVE black living historians at Gburg!!! Half were civilian, half were military and everywhere we went, I heard nothing but compliments and thank yous from my fellow reenactors who were ecstatic at a more accurate portrayal of actual history. I have heard numerous times from my white reenactor friends “we need more black reenactors” as there were thousands of blacks with both armies and civilians in the town. There are increasing numbers of black people getting into living history since I first started. I think it is happening for several reasons: 1. it takes money to do this hobby and more black people are now entering professions that can support the hobby financially and 2. younger blacks don’t have the psychic baggage of their older counterparts, no one under 40 experienced Jim Crow personally, it’s history. That makes a difference in terms of how one can deal with the subject emotionally. They haven’t experienced the difficulties of traveling that their relatives faced 50 years ago, so they don’t see it as an obstacle. I believe there will be more black living historians in the future at various events. After all it is our history as well and this seminal event that I like to term America’s Iliad, show’s the critical role that black people played in this turning point in American history.

  5. DAvid Corbett

    You sir, are a pioneer! Congratulations on your courage.

  6. Lisa

    I just finished a week long Civil War Camp for 10 -12 yr old boys. I had 11 campers, 3 of whom were African-American. One child, who is African-American, in particular was incredibly knowledgeable & enthusiastic of general CW history. He was ready to become a reenactor & seemed to have the support of his parents. I provided him with contacts for local USCT units.

    • This is exactly the kind of stuff we have to do with our youth to build the care. I think it’s also critical for younger generations to interact with their own family older generations and people they don’t know within controlled environments, i.e., community history projects.

  7. Interesting and thought provoking post. I thoroughly enjoyed this.

  8. Pingback: News and Notes, August 13, 2013 | Crossroads

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