Confederate Flag Controversy

“The Conquered Banner,” Library of Congress.

First, let me apologize for the lack of posts.

Secondly, let me say that the link below is the *ONLY* thing I have to say about the latest Confederate flag drama. There are many other bloggers (several of them I consider friends and/or great historians) who have long followed this. I have consciously opted to ignore it on this blog. However, it is hard to ignore these days. I know some people have asked me my opinion. I extend my thanks to my friend, Dana Shoaf, editor of the Civil War Times for asking me to share my thoughts.

My thoughts can be found here: http://www.historynet.com/embattled-banner-the-convoluted-history-of-the-confederate-flag.htm.

People are welcome to disagree but any profanity/racism/nastiness will not be approved in the comments.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Reconstruction & the National Park Service

First, let me preface this with saying while I work for the NPS I am blogging PERSONALLY. These thoughts are MY OWN and NOT reflective of any official National Park Service (NPS) policy. However, with a recent article being shared written by two historians about the NPS and Reconstruction, I could not let this moment go by. I think Greg Downs and Kate Masur’s article is well written and they make good points. Still, I thought a voice from the NPS and someone who actually works “in the field” was important and needed in this discussion.

Back in 2011 is the first year I remember hearing people say they wanted the NPS to have a park dedicated to the theme of Reconstruction. My reaction is the same as it was then: We have parks who should be interpreting Reconstruction. The first one that comes to mind is Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. In case it escaped people, Andrew Johnson is the first president after the murder of Abraham Lincoln. He’s in office 1865-1869. His head butting and very different vision of America than that of the Radical Republicans in Congress nearly cost him his job. I admit I have never been to the site; but, if you’re looking for a NPS site that seems to be a very logical one.

However, I am not opposed to Kevin Levin’s thoughts (as well as numerous people I’ve heard at conferences) about a park at Beaufort and Sea Islands in South Carolina. However, as he noted Reconstruction is complicated. Creating one park or two or three or even ten, cannot fully encapsulate this complex period.  Why?

Places where Reconstruction happened.

  • The black farmer, Abraham Brian at Gettysburg has a story about reconstruction. A literal repairing his house and farm after the destruction the Battle of Gettysburg brought to him in July 1863 and the political/societal shifts brought about through Constitutional amendments in the aftermath of the Confederate military surrenders.
  • All NPS sites with Civil War National Cemeteries. 
  • Plantations and slaveholding farms such as Hampton and Melrose.
  • Nicodemus National Historic Site, though established in 1877 (and has buildings that post-date the government’s end of Reconstruction) reflects black people who were certainly alive during Reconstruction.

Putting a Reconstruction park in a single place doesn’t reflect how far-reaching the Reconstruction period was. It could have the effect of suggesting that “You should go THERE (wherever that is) to learn about Reconstruction. Once you’ve done that you’re done with that theme.”

"Appomattox"--The Home of the Eppes Family at City Point (now Hopewell), Virginia. The site is best known as the location of Ulysses Grant's headquarters from the summer of 1864-spring of 1865. This was also the administrative and center piece of the Eppes' family's plantation from when the house was initially built in 1763 well into the late 20th century.

“Appomattox”–The Home of the Eppes Family at City Point (now Hopewell), Virginia. The site is best known as the location of Ulysses Grant’s headquarters from the summer of 1864-spring of 1865. This was also the administrative and center piece of the Eppes’ family’s plantation from when the house was initially built in 1763 well into the late 20th century.

I want to illustrate that the people who lived on what BECAME battlefields (I think we forget that these NPS sites were people’s places of work and home) had to cope with different types of Reconstruction. There was literally repairing buildings as well as political/social/financial reconstructions.  On May 23rd, 2015 from 1-4PM should anyone want to drive on down/up/across to Petersburg National Battlefield I will be doing a tour titled: “’…a perfect waste:’ Destruction and Reconstruction of the Land and People.” The tour begins at 1001 Pecan Avenue, Hopewell, Virginia.

 So this notion that we NEED a park SOLELY dedicated to Reconstruction, I’m not opposed to necessarily; but, we have parks that have these stories. If you (visitors) want to hear those stories push for them on your visit. Whether it be at a NPS site, a state park, a local museum/historic site, etc. 

Reconstruction is harder to commemorate at one place because of the various visions of America and Americans’ dreams about their lives and expectations from the different levels of government during this period. In fact, it’s perfectly ok if we have to drive great distances to understand Reconstruction.

What do you think?

9 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Entry 9: A Tale of Two Marys

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.

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…

View original post 1,508 more words

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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?

10 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized