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More on Finding Your Roots controversy

As some of you may be aware now, Ben Affleck released a statement about the episode with Henry Louis Gates.

However, there is more troubling news surrounding Gates. Gawker got access to the script. So it is clear Gates knew about the request from Affleck as you can see in the link of timing of the e-mails versus timing of the air date. It’s also clear that the initial plan was to include Affleck’s slave holding ancestor.

I do not know why Gates censored this through editing. I really enjoyed this show but I am left wondering, what else has been cut or altered? The best line I ever heard about genealogy: You have to take your family tree. All of it. When you start trimming branches, you leave a part of your history on the ground.

Seems strange that Henry Gates became the gardener in the history field.

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The Complexities of Families, Historic Sites, and America’s Past

As many readers are aware, it was revealed through the Sony e-mail hack that Henry Louis Gates censored the family history of Ben Affleck in an episode ofPBS show “Finding Your Roots.” Mr. Affleck requested that this be done. 

I don’t know why (or if) Affleck thought this would somehow damage him. Honestly, I thought more of him as a man who is involved with charity work. He clearly has not followed the path of his ancestor who did own someone.

I join my friend Kevin in wondering more what does this say about Gates and the show? Gates in some ways blows this off saying there were more compelling stories.  He said in part:

“Finding slave-owning ancestors is very common in our series. You can see why when you remember, for example, that 37% of the families in Georgia, where Ben’s ancestor lived, owned slaves in 1860, the year before the Civil War broke out.”

Indeed, slaveholding was common. Gates obviously knows that. While I don’t blog generally about my own family, my great-great-great grandfather was a slaveholder (my third great grandmother a free mulatto woman). Through him, an overwhelming number of the white members of my family tree owned people of African descent from the 1700s through the end of the Civil War.

Why do people have a need to be connected to what they perceive as great American moments, i.e., the American Revolution (Mr. Affleck was very happy about that) but not want to grapple with the complexities of the subjects of race and gender in the past? Furthermore, why do modern people feel the need to deify people of the past?

So often historic sites engage in this behavior too. Fortunately, our historic sites are getting better with this but some people create all sorts of narratives that often say more about our modern political thoughts or personal feelings when we (who interpret and manage these places) should be using the documents/objects/buildings/landscapes to best offer how what happened, even if that is uncomfortable (like slaveholding or historical genocides) and even if it involves people that were respected in their community, in their nation, and/or beyond (think American Presidents).

A parting thought I have is that we (Americans) often have a need to dwell on why we’re exceptional. The nation would do well to remember how woven slavery was in the colonial period and through the Civil War and how its collapse was equally woven into the nation’s history. Slavery was an awful institution but it was not exceptional to only the United States and the nation benefitted from the common-practice.  Historic sites and museums should be places to have the discussions that have for so long been pushed aside in an effort not to ruffle anyone’s feathers.

So certainly, Mr. Affleck (and anyone else) can request that these aspects of their family’s past be skipped in the final version. However, I think Henry L. Gates should have pushed for this story line to be included in order to show how pervasive the institution of slavery was.

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Entry 9: A Tale of Two Marys

edabney:

I had to direct my readers’ attention to this important post. I am often asked about Mary Lincoln and how Sally Field portrayed her. I really enjoyed Sally (I am biased) take on the role of Mrs. Lincoln.

Originally posted on Civil War Pop:

Lincoln Movie PosterLincoln. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner.

Release Date:November 16, 2012.

I decided early on that I would occasionally invite friends and fellow scholars to write entries for this blog, especially if the subject is something I’ve written about elsewhere. In the case of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, not only have I already commented on it (mainly here, but also during my 15 minutes of fame here), I also have an excellent reviewer: my friend and colleague, Stacy Pratt McDermott. As the Assistant Director for The Papers of Abraham Lincoln and the author of a recent biography of Mary Lincoln, Stacy provides a unique and informed perspective on one of the film’s less-discussed characters and I’m just as interested as anyone to read what she has to say. So, without further ado, I’ll turn things over to Stacy…

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Remembering and Interpreting the Slave Trade

There is a very good article about remembering and interpreting the trade in human beings in this country. You can read it here: http://www.citylab.com/politics/2015/02/americas-failure-to-preserve-historic-slave-markets/385367/ . Some of you may know there has been a long debate in Richmond about interpreting the slave trade in Shockoe Bottom and some of that is captured in the aforementioned article.

A friend of mine asked me this morning if preserving places where people were bought and sold would be similar to preserving a death camp. Then the important follow up question was “Would some folks be upset by it?”

My response was that certainly some folks would be. I’ve routinely seen people upset by the fact there are museums and historic sites talking about plantation and urban slavery. Yet, this is something often preserved in plain site. Honestly, we think about the urban slave markets like in Richmond, Alexandria, Charleston, and New Orleans but really courthouses and nearby taverns and hotels were often ground zero for selling men, women, and children.

Furthermore, the selling of people was so integrated in American culture that almost no region of the colonial or antebellum America was completely clean of it. Nor many places in other areas of the world. When people say America was built on the backs of enslaved people, some folks get upset. But the truth is, there were cities, banks, railroads, and industry that were dependent on the products produced by enslaved people and some of them were dependent on participating in buying and selling the actual people too.

Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1853. Image hosted virtually through "The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record" (http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/index.php). You can click directly on the image to go to the it URL.

Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1853. Image hosted virtually through “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record” (http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/index.php). You can click directly on the image to go to the it URL.

 

If you haven’t yet, you need to check out the Library of Virginia’s “To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade” exhibition. This exhibition is open until Saturday, May 30, 2015.

My research has turned up that sales happened in front of my county’s courthouse, built in 1851. Have you ran across advertisements for slave sales at your courthouse? Found any court records denoting the sale of people at the courthouse? Are there any places in your city where you’ve found people were bought and sold? Are you aware of any effort to preserve and interpret those places?

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John Tyler Community College events and Related Thoughts

Readers in the Richmond, Virginia region might be interested to know that John Tyler Community College (at its Chester and Midlothian Campuses) are hosting twelve programs that are open to the public (and one more for the staff, faculty, and students of the college) during the month of February to commemorate Black History Month. The topics for the public are not your typical conversations of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks (who are great people to talk about but the experience of those of African descent cannot be reduced to three people). The flyer below gives you the details of the programs, including one I am doing on United States Colored Troops during the 1864-1865 Petersburg Campaign.

I recently found a powerful letter by Sergeant Thomas B. Webster of the 43rd United States Colored Troops which was written in December 1864 while the unit was stationed on the Bermuda Hundred lines (located in Chesterfield County). When people say (not the readers of my blog I know!) “History doesn’t matter.” Or “That’s something that happened 150 years ago!” we should consider how the past and present intersect. We have seen that these past several years when we think about the events in Florida, Missouri, New York City, Ohio, and the list goes on. We also hear on-going conversation about equality in pay for work performed. And Webster’s words should make us question the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down key components of the Voting Rights Act nearly two years ago. I have placed my editorial notes in brackets “[ ].”

Sgt. Webster wrote:

“I hope that the day is not far distant, when peace and liberty shall extend over the whole of this distracted and bleeding country, and man shall be recognized as man, be he white or black.”

In his demands for equality and citizenship Webster exclaimed, “Have they [referring to black soldiers] not fought bravely at Port Hudson, Fort Pillow, Fort Pulaski [it’s unclear why he mentioned this as there were no black soldiers in the Federal army when Fort Pulaski was captured in 1862], and on the bloody fields of Virginia and Georgia, besides many other places? Yet, notwithstanding all the gallantry displayed by colored soldiers, there are a few men in our Northern cities, who do not want to give the colored man his equal rights. But these men do not rule congress. I hope that the day is not far distant, when we shall see the colored man enjoying the same rights and privileges as those of the white man of this country.”

Lastly, Sergeant Webster addressed the equal pay for equal soldiering crisis. “I recently saw an article in a newspaper, in reference to the colored soldiers in the army. Said article asserted, that the colored troops were to receive the same pay as their white companions in arms. This is one more step in the right direction.”

I am pleased to take part in this program, but, I can’t help but think that Sergeant Webster might be disappointed that there even needed to be on-going fights in the 1860s and beyond over access to quality (and truly equal) education. Why didn’t that come as a part of his military service? He may have wondered why Maggie Walker could not simply be an entrepreneur but also had to fight for women’s suffrage and be a civil rights activist in Richmond long before anyone though about Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr. Undoubtedly he would have found these Virginians courageous, but if he were an observer in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he certainly couldn’t have helped but to think when all citizens would be treated fairly under the law and with respect as human beings.

BlackHistoryMonth2015JTCC

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Visit to the Civil War Exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society

Back at the end of October, I was able to check out Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War at the Maryland Historical Society. I must be honest and say that this is not a true exhibit review as I have not any knowledge of the budget, availability of artifacts, time or other constraints imposed by the institution. Also, regrettably photos were not allowed so I don’t have any for you in this post.

The exhibit had some really interesting artifacts even though I was impatiently waiting to see the 4th United States Colored Troops’ (USCTs) American flag. Among the artifacts I found interesting were a massive albeit tranquil painting of Harper’s Ferry; a carbine and pikes associated with John Brown’s 1859 raid at Harper’s Ferry, an original sock that had been worn by a Maryland soldier, and of course the 4th USCT flag.

The flag of the 4th USCT (you can see a treatment plan and images of the flag here) is one of less than 25 that still survive among banners carried by black soldiers during the Civil War. Additionally, this flag was rescued by Christian Fleetwood on September 29, 1864 in the battle of New Market Heights after a previous color bearer had been wounded. Fleetwood recalled:

It was a deadly hailstorm of bullets and it was not long before [Arthur Hilton] also went down, shot through the leg. As he fell he held up the flags and shouted, ‘Boys, save the colors!’ Before they could touch the ground, Corporal Charles Veal had seized the blue [regimental] flag, and I the American flag, which had been presented to us by the patriotic women of our home in Baltimore.

It was very evident that there was too much work cut out for our regiments. I have never been able to understand how Corporal Veal and I lived under such a hail of bullets, unless it was because we were both such little fellows.

 

After the Battle of New Market Heights, Major General Benjamin Butler commissioned silver medals by Louis Comfort Tiffany to present for bravery to 14 black soldiers including Fleetwood. The War Department eventually awarded the Medal of Honor to these same men. So as a long-time student and professional historian of the Petersburg Campaign, I was very excited to see this banner.

Overall, I think the exhibit was well done. Maryland residents had divided loyalties during the war and I believed that the text panels and objects did a good job balancing the Unionists’ sympathies and Confederate sympathizers. I also found that they did a good job in showcasing how close Maryland came to rejecting the 1864 state constitution that outlawed slavery and what the implications of that was in 1865 and beyond. It’s clear that this exhibit situates some “newer” themes of historical study such as maimed bodies and veterans issues which were not always glorious and neatly tidied up with the war’s end.

I think my only critiques were:

  1. I found the timeline of events hugging the wall to be useful; but, I was not sure when I was supposed to go toward the center of the exhibit space that was filled with women’s clothing and some soldiers’ clothing and ephemera.
  2. I wanted to know and see more related to Maryland women’s Civil War experiences. Many of the clothing items were on loan from other institutions or people (including a friend of mine). But I was not able to draw a direct line of why these items not a part of the Maryland Historical Society’s collection matter to Maryland women during the Civil War.
  3. There was a section on Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. In the text it said “Taney is best known for the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the inflammatory ruling that allowed slavery to spread into the United States territories and denied black citizens the same rights as whites.” I admit, I recoiled from the use “black citizens.” As a person of African descent, I readily admit I despise His ruling made it law that black people (including my family in nineteenth century America) were not nor intended to be citizens. I select these parts of the Chief Justice’s opinion:

 

The words “people of the United States” and “citizens” are synonymous terms, and mean the same thing. They both describe the political body who, according to our republican institutions, form the sovereignty, and who hold the power and conduct the Government through their representatives. They are what we familiarly call the “sovereign people,” and every citizen is one of this people and a constituent member of this sovereignty. The question before us is, whether the class of persons described in the plea in abatement compose a portion of this people, and are constituent members of this sovereignty? We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the government might choose to grant them.

 

He went on:

 

In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument.

It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race, which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted. But the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken.

They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, which no one thought of disputing, or supposed to be open to dispute; and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern; without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion.

 

I am very pleased that in the years since Taney died this country has changed and I (as a black person) can enjoy the rights of citizenship, but, black people during the Civil War were only residents (not citizens) of the United States due in large part to Taney and the associate justices of the Supreme Court.

  1. Lastly, I wished that the other USCT residents of Maryland who received a Medal of Honor had been mentioned somewhere near the 4th USCT flag. Of the black soldiers who received a Medal of Honor during the war, Decatur Dorsey, William Barnes, the aforementioned Christian Fleetwood, James Harris, and Alfred Hilton were all born in Maryland. Charles Veal was a resident of Maryland (though born in Virginia).

The exhibition opened in the spring of 2011 and will be up at least through spring 2015. Admission prices and hours of operation can be found here.

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Notes from the Front

I’ll soon have a new post about my recent trip to Baltimore; but, in the interim here are some news stories on a variety of issues:

The disgusting news that part of the Dachau Concentration Camp gate was stolen: http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/pat-gate-dachau-concentration-camp-stolen-26638489 .

The more pleasing news that Prince William County, Virginia has successfully moved a historic home that once belonged to former slaves. While it is always preferred that a historic house remains in its historic setting, development pressures forced the building to be moved in 2004 and now to a place for its long term preservation. See more about that: http://www.insidenova.com/headlines/special-delivery-home-of-freed-slave-moves-to-montclair/article_df4d2d9c-62a2-11e4-aa6a-d79f017cf5a5.html .

Montpelier, the estate that belonged to President James Madison, has been given $10 million by David Rubenstein. $6.5 million will go to research and refurnishing the original house of President and Dolley Madison and another $3.5 million will go toward reconstruction of slave quarters that have long since vanished but have been investigated now for years through archaeology. See more about this exciting news: http://thegrio.com/2014/11/01/james-madison-slave-quarters/ .

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