Tag Archives: public history

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.

11 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Interpreting Slavery at Historic Sites

On April 21, I posted a video link to a C-Span recording of a session filmed at Monticello regarding interpreting slavery at historic sites. Much of this is centered on a project at Monticello to reconstruct in part or in full Mulberry Row, a series of outbuildings, plantation industrial buildings and slave quarters which sat adjacent to Jefferson’s twice-built mansion.

The author with two friends at the site of a slave cabin along Mulberry Row at Monticello in 2008.

The author (center) with two friends at the site of a slave cabin along Mulberry Row at Monticello in 2008.

Having had time to fully listen to the conversation I had a few thoughts and a few questions for y’all.

The panelists were Sara Bon-Harper, new executive director of Ashlawn-Highland, one of the homes of President James Monroe; Frank Sanchis, World Monuments Fund, United States Programs Director; Ed Chappell, Architectural research director at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; and Matthew Reeves, Director of Archaeology at James Madison’s Montpelier.

As you’ll see if you watch the video, a lot of the discussion is centered on past case studies of reconstructions of buildings at Colonial Williamsburg and Ashlawn-Highland and methods of interpreting space not reconstructed consume the conversation of Dr. Reeves and Frank Sanchis. However, there were some points made by the panelists and the audience that I think bear repeating.

Sara Bon-Harper reminds us that we often only see the plantation core such as the big house and a kitchen and perhaps a few other outbuildings when visiting historic plantations. We therefore miss the larger plantation landscape. Quite often, this is because a historic site only includes that core as previous owners only saved that core or sold the agricultural and woodlands associated with the estate years ago. Where those lands remain, visitors are either too pressed for time to explore the many acres or there is limited access to those fields provided by the site. Furthermore, unlike in the era of slaveholding, there is usually nothing in the fields now but meadow grasses or woodlands that were not there historically.

Ed Chappell brings up a good point regarding the reconstructed Peyton Randolph slave quarter/kitchen/servants’ hall and the current interpretation there. While the reconstructed spaces contribute to broadening our understanding of the Randolph family and urban slavery in Williamsburg in the eighteenth century, often now when people are cooking in the Randolph kitchen it is being done by white employees. They certainly are well intentioned but Chappell (and I) wonder what type of message does that send? Are people really understanding race relations in eighteenth century Virginia or becoming focused on the cooking demonstration?

The thought of what kind of message are we sending is echoed in Reeves’ comments about the Montpelier slave descendants coming to see Montpelier after the exterior restoration was finished. They were not impressed with the railroad ties and grass representing where the slave housing existed in the Madisons’ time. The foundation has currently installed three-dimensional timber-framed half-finished ghost structures to represent smokehouses and slave quarters. As Reeves states, these buildings juxtaposed with the mansion house create an interpretive tool.

Mr. Sanchis’ comments were centered on his passion for preserving original buildings. He recognized several times that there are few original slave quarters remaining but was generally opposed to reconstructions of missing buildings. Often times, I admit, I found myself in strong disagreement with his commentary especially regarding visitors ability to distinguish reconstructed versus restored buildings (though some of the audience discussion seemed to reaffirm his position; I still think most people can make those distinctions when told). Frank’s comments regarding the Arlington original slave quarters being so altered that he did not feel the originality was curious to me since I had just been to them. While it is true, there have been many changes to those quarters since the 1800s, I still felt the power of them in my recent visit there (which I blogged about). One of the projects Arlington is doing now is restoring one of the buildings with better attention to the details than had been done in the 1930s-1950s when they were interpreted honestly as cottages. One thing he said I agree with, however, I’m curious what you think so I will pose the question later.

One comment from an audience member who works at Colonial Williamsburg is only partly true. While there have been various Blacks affiliated in some manner with Colonial Williamsburg as an operation it is not true that Blacks have always been seen interpreting the experience of eighteenth century free blacks and enslaved people. At least by the 1950s and 1960s, Colonial Williamsburg operated on a specific day of the week for African-Americans to visit the site. Like nearly everything, Colonial Williamsburg was segregated. Recently, a new acquaintance of mine, Tiya Miles reminded folks at a conference to consider that Blacks often had no clue how they would get from their home to a vacation site during the era of segregation and racial violence. Hotels and restaurants often would not serve Blacks and stopping to get gas had the potential to get violent or at least uncomfortable.

Annette Gordon-Reed brought up a concern that reconstructed (and the few originals remaining) slave quarters are often seen as “quaint” by visitors (as was the earlier furnishing of the Arlington slave quarters in the 1940s and 50s) and she wonders how we can make this not seem the case.

Finally, I thought one of the audience members made an amazing point that I was emphasize. Slavery should be interpreted at plantation sites throughout the mansion house tour. Segregating the story to a separate tour, making slavery seem like a beneficial institution for all, or ignoring the story is not acceptable. There are artifacts of slavery in the mansion houses at these sites: who poured wines and served meals in the dining room? Who made the beds in the bedrooms? Who lit the fires throughout the house?

So on to my questions for you (and I hope to hear from y’all with some thoughts/answers/maybe more questions):

  1. In the discussion it was suggested the reconstructed buildings be placed elsewhere for interpretation. How could Monticello illustrate Mulberry Row for the masses of people who come to the site without the reconstructions being on Mulberry Row?
  2. Frank Sanchis asked if there was something to be gained by doing a living history at a plantation site. Are people really grasping what slavery was like through living history?
  3. Sara Bon-Harper’s point about the plantation core is true, so how can plantation sites represent or illustrate the totality of the plantation owner’s lands to the public who are at the mansion house?
  4. Frank Sanchis states that he finds there is little cooperation between historic sites regarding how they interpret slavery. For those of you who are museum professionals, do you find that is true?

So what do you think?

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized